On greatness: looking back and forward

A mere decade behind the times, I recently finished watching the BBC’s brilliant 2003 TV drama about the ‘Cambridge Spies’. It tells the story of four bright young men – Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean – who met at Cambridge in the 1930s, became committed Communists and, against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Europe, were recruited as Soviet spies. They went on to infiltrate the highest echelons of the wartime and post-war British establishment, before two of them – Burgess and Maclean – were forced to defect to the USSR in 1951 as they were about to be exposed.


The final scene of the mini-series is unexpectedly moving. Blunt, aware that his two friends have left for Russia for good, returns to Cambridge, where it all began. As he wanders round his old college he’s accosted by one of the porters who recognises him. The porter asks whether his lot – Burgess, Maclean, Philby – have gone on to great things?

“I don’t know,” Blunt replies. 

“Lost touch?”

“Yes, lost touch. All gone.”

Blunt turns to walk away, but then, apparently thinking better of it, turns back and says proudly:

“Great things. Yes. Yes. They all went on to great things.”

The poignancy of this scene, it seems to me, has to do with more than just the sad demise of the friendship between the four spies that is at the heart of the BBC’s sympathetic telling of this story. What makes it more wrenching is the misguidedness of Blunt’s final statement.

Truthfully, his friends had not gone on to great things. They had dedicated themselves to what they believed was a great cause, but even if one leaves aside the shortcomings of the Soviet version of Communism that would eventually become painfully obvious to all,[1] they had not, as weighed against the scale of sacrifices they had to endure, achieved much of note. They had not advanced the cause of human equality and happiness one iota, nor even had they greatly enhanced the fortunes of the Soviet Union. Their efforts had been in vain.[2]

There’s also something toughingly naïve about the Cambridge spies’ belief in the greatness of the cause to which they dedicated their lives. It’s hard to imagine their modern day equivalents devoting themselves so faithfully to anything except their own individual pursuit of money, sex and happiness.


2013 has been a vintage year for nostalgic reminiscing about great leaders achieving great things. Most recently of course the death of the indisputably great Nelson Mandela this week has triggered an outpouring of tributes from around the world. Last month we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK – a man whose place in history as the representative of a generation probably owes more to style than substance and more to his untimely death than to his achievements as President. In August, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I have a dream” speech. And in April, another defining political figure of the last generation (admittedly a rather more controversial one than Mandela) passed away: Margaret Thatcher.


So, all in all, it seems a good time to reflect on what constitutes greatness and to wonder who the great leaders of the next generation might be.

You need a certain messianic swagger to be a great leader.

To start with the obvious, great leaders need great causes, which normally means overcoming great evil. Who would Mandela have been without apartheid? Luther King without Jim Crow would have been just another charismatic Southern preacher with a penchant for the ladies. Churchill without Hitler would have been nothing but an erratic dilettante.

Then they need great aspirations – a desire to bring about profound long-term changes to society. Luther King’s dream wouldn’t have been so powerful if he’d focused on something more prosaic like jobs or wages or voting rights, instead of a society where men and women were judged ‘not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’

Finally, they need style and charisma. Even when, as in Thatcher’s case, the greatness of the cause is debatable, it’s possible for the leader to be great. Much as it pains me to say it, what cements Thatcher’s place in the pantheon of great leaders of recent times is her own unswerving belief in the greatness of her cause and her ability to persuade so many of her followers that she was right. The lesson here is that you need a certain messianic swagger to be a great leader.


In their own very different ways, both Mandela and Thatcher transformed their nations and started movements that would ultimately impact the lives of people all over the world. When we look back from the perspective of 2063, who, I wonder, will be the equivalent figures of the next generation?

One thing is for sure: it seems highly unlikely that they will be either British or South African.[3]

I for one though find it very hard to project myself forward to 2063 and envisage who the great leaders of my generation will have been. That may sound like a stupid thing to say – of course it’s difficult to imagine yourself 50 years into the future. But I think there’s a more fundamental reason why it’s hard to do in this case.

It feels like the world today is full of good causes, but there’s a dearth of great causes. In many cases it seems our sights have been lowered, the scale of our ambition pared back. To give one rather trivial example, can you imagine any political leader today having the chutzpah to call their domestic policy agenda the ‘Great Society’ as Lyndon Johnson did in the 1960s?

But now, the dream of collectivism has died and the individualists have won.

This absence of great causes to latch onto perhaps has something to do with what the sociologist Daniel Bell rather prematurely in 1960 called ‘the end of ideology’, or what Francis Fukuyama no less bombastically called ‘the end of history’ three decades later. Could it be that Fukuyama was at least partially right and what I am experiencing is some form of post-Cold War withdrawal symptoms (even though the Cold War was essentially over by the time I was born)? The end of the great ideological struggle between communism and capitalism has left us bereft of grand political ideas and causes. It’s like we’re floating on a wide ocean with no magnetic poles by which to orientate our compass, rendering the map we brought with us useless (a rather tenuous analogy I grant you).

Perhaps there’s also something in the nature of the victory that precipitated the ‘end of history’ that makes it that much harder for us today to imagine what it’s like to be willing to die for a political cause. What made so many of the causes of yesteryear great was that they were collectivist to the core. Even the individualists were collectivist in the sense of having a vision for the whole of society. But now, the dream of collectivism has died and the individualists have won. And in living increasingly individualistic lives our ability even to dream of a better future for society as a whole has been eroded.

The nature of the challenges that our generation faces is also different to those faced by previous generations in one key respect. The great evils in the world today – poverty, famine, inequality, global warming – are generally no longer personified by a specific regime as fascism and apartheid were; they’re more abstract and intangible. That makes it harder to mobilise great armies against them. Despite the efforts of the Bob Geldofs and Al Gores of this world to anoint themselves leader of the crusade against these monstrous evils, our response is generally more fragmented and lukewarm.

So, where does all this leave us?

Has the era of greatness ended? Will there ever be individual leaders who transform our way of life in the way that Mandela and Thatcher did again? Are we capable of rising to the challenges of the next 50 years of human development as the evils we’re fighting against become faceless but no less menacing? Can we win the war against poverty and climate change when we lack the dedication to the cause that inspired the Cambridge spies, like so many others of their generation, to sacrifice everything in pursuit of a single goal? Would our faith in the possibility of a more just society endure the 27 years in prison that Mandela’s did?

Needless to say I don’t have the answers to these questions, but what’s clear as the political heavyweights of the late 20th century bow out is that we have a pretty tough act to follow.

[1] It’s worth noting that in 1951, relatively little was known in Britain about the dark side of Stalinism – the purges, the gulags, the brutal oppression etc. It was only in 1956 when the Soviets moved into Hungary with tanks to mercilessly crush popular revolt against the government that the full horror of what the Soviets were capable of became widely known in the West. That year saw the membership of the British Communist Party plummet as ‘scales fell from the eyes’ of many who had up to that point shared the youthful idealism of the likes of Blunt and co.

[2] I’m reminded of John Le Carré’s searingly bleak masterpiece, The Spy who Came in from the Cold, which beautifully portrays the sad futility of Cold War espionage (regardless of which side you were on) and the way it swallowed up the lives of so many of the ‘best men’ of the post-war generation.

[3] For more on this, see The next Enlightenment.

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5 Responses to On greatness: looking back and forward

  1. Mike Booth says:

    I thought this post was unusually thoughtful till I got to the paragraph where you portray Mandela and Thatcher as similar history changers. Please…

    • Mike, the point isn’t that they are comparable in terms of the moral value of the changes they wrought, merely that they are comparable in terms of the scale of their impact on the way the world is today. I think I make it quite clear that I’m no Thatcherite.

  2. On one hand, I wonder if you really thought through the nostalgic tone of this piece. We have the capacity to eradicate life on earth by tomorrow before breakfast. Is it really so bad we don’t have grand ideological struggles with passionate, committed people who are willing to sacrifice a few million here or there to advance their glorious causes?

    On the other hand, I think you should consider the possibility that the great leaders of the future are coming, they’re just not going the same shape or size you’re used to. We’ve got at least one huge, transformative upheaval that, in its scope, will absolutely dwarf the Mandelas and Thatchers of the world.

    China is getting rich. China is getting educated. China is authoritarian. If you look at the analogues in East Asia (South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan) you can almost guarauntee China is going to have a revolution. When it does, it’s going to shake the entire world. Whoever ends up leading that revolution, or whoever crushes that revolution is going to be an FDR-sized.

    We’re also likely to have what I refer to as the “screw my traditions” movement in the West. We don’t have many kids now. This means we’re getting older and weaker. If we want to compete, we’re eventually going to end up importing the multitudinous third world poor. This will make fireworks when the forces of cultural preservation meet the forces of national power. There will be heroes and villains in this as well.

  3. Pingback: In defence of champagne socialism | Musings of a young Londoner

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