British educator and contemporary historian Sir Anthony Seldon joined the Politics Certificate and Diploma students to give a lecture on leadership in times of crisis.
Initially, Sir Anthony spoke about the different types of crisis and how no prime minister wants to deal with a crisis. He explained that there are two main types of crisis: exogenous and internal. Exogenous can be broken down further into an external crisis that has originated in a foreign country, e.g. COVID-19, and secondly, an external crisis that originated within our country, e.g. foot and mouth crisis. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham explained that while external crises are out of the control of the government, the Internal crises are created by the government, e.g. the Brexit referendum and Scottish independence referendum.
Sir Anthony then went on to explain the different ways that leaders react to crisis. Successful Prime Ministers are those who are seen to own the crisis and are visible to the public. An example that was used was the differences between leadership in WW1 and WW2. Asquith was hardly seen during the first months of WW1, whereas his successor, Lloyd George, was seen regularly by the public and was viewed as being a successful Prime Minister. Similar comparisons can be drawn between the leadership in WW2 through Chamberlin and Winston Churchill. A more recent example is in Theresa May’s response to the Grenfell Tower crisis. Sir Anthony pointed out that May lacked the innate ability to recognise that she was needed at Grenfell Tower and when she finally went to support the victims and families that lived there it was too late and no one remembers it.
Finally, Sir Anthony discussed that preparation for a crisis is key in having a prompt and appropriate response. The government were prepared and expecting a flu epidemic, however, they were not prepared for the current pandemic as a coronavirus was identified as low risk; they simply did not see it coming.
After Sir Anthony had finished speaking, the floor was open to questions. Sixth Form student Ellie asked a particularly interesting question about whether female Prime Ministers were better in their handling of crisis, e.g. Jacinda Ardern’s response to COVID-19 in New Zealand. In response, Sir Anthony pointed out that different leaders are better in responding to different crisis. For example, Boris Johnson might be better at dealing with the Brexit crisis, however, Theresa May might be better at handling the coronavirus pandemic. Other interesting questions that were asked included the benefits of having a national government at this time, the importance of special advisors to Prime Ministers and whether there have been any moments where a Prime Minister’s actions have been undervalued by the press and public.