Politicians could learn a lesson from ancient Rome and know when to quit

One of the biggest problems facing the world is that of low-skilled, incompetent government, but it doesn't have to be that way

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May greets delegates after giving her keynote address on the fourth and final day of the Conservative Party Conference 2018 at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, central England, on October 3, 2018. May appealed on Wednesday to her divided party to unite behind her as she heads into the "toughest phase" of Brexit negotiations, as EU leaders pressure Britain to change tack. / AFP / Stefan Rousseau
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With a summit in Brussels coming up next week, Britain’s government is working towards a crunch moment in its plans to leave the European Union. Stuck in the political mire, Prime Minister Theresa May is doing what unpopular politicians often do: offering bold but vague plans.

In her case, she promises to limit the number of low-skilled migrants entering the UK. Limiting immigration may seem like a clear vote-winner, but it’s easy to promise and difficult to achieve. And while many citizens do worry about the effect of low-skilled migration on their economies, a far bigger concern is that of low-skilled government.

From Washington and London to Berlin, Madrid, Brasilia, Canberra and Caracas, governments are entangled in intractable problems, crises and scandals of their own making. In Australia, the prime minister changes so often that Madame Tussauds has given up making wax dummies of them.

US President Donald Trump has lost the respect of key people in his own staff and faces difficult midterm elections next month. Britain has the Brexit fiasco. Venezuela has been beggared by its terrible government, and its people are literally queuing up to leave. So it goes on.

In ancient Rome, a legendary figure, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, solved the problem of low-skilled and incompetent leadership. More than 2,000 years later, Americans named the Ohio city of Cincinnati after him and founded a Society of the Cincinnati to preserve the history of the American revolution.

Cincinnatus was an inspirational leader who retired to his farm until Rome was threatened. Dramatically, he returned to power, assumed dictatorial control, defeated Rome’s enemies and immediately retired to tend to his fields once more. This ancient story has inspired more recent leaders, from George Washington to Charles de Gaulle in France.

There is even a parallel with Nelson Mandela. Mandela's leadership could not be more different from the dictatorial rule of Cincinnatus, but as he worked to turn post-apartheid South Africa into the “rainbow nation”, no one questioned his absolute moral authority. Mandela took office as president in 1994 and then in 1999, with his job completed, he quit.

By stepping down, Mandela became an international icon.

On the other hand, his neighbour Robert Mugabe, who stayed in power for 37 years, became an international pariah. Like Mandela, Mr Mugabe could have been a great historical figure. He secured Zimbabwe's independence from the UK, but stubbornly clung to power, persecuted opponents and ruined the country's economy. History will judge him harshly.

There’s an adage in US politics that “the best won’t run and the worst won’t quit”. Certainly, public service doesn’t always attract the best and brightest, and power does make some leaders believe their own propaganda.

Vladimir Putin was, at first, extremely popular in Russia and regarded as a stabilising force after the chaos of Boris Yeltsin. But, again, instead of improving Russia and then moving on, he has become Russia’s permanent tsar of the 21st century. His competence is openly questioned and Russian military intelligence operations have been exposed and condemned. These include the nerve agent attack in the UK, chemical weapons use in Syria, cyber attacks in Europe, meddling in the US election and cheating in international sport. Domestically, Mr Putin’s pension reforms have also provoked considerable hostility.

Some competent democratically elected leaders, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany have also forgotten the lessons of Cincinnatus. Mrs Merkel, once apparently beyond reproach, is now often regarded as having remained in power too long.

Back in Britain, many believe both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to have outlasted their welcome in Downing Street. Today, the Conservative party has governed for eight years, but it has clearly run out of steam, out of ideas and − with Brexit − perhaps out of time.

Other mainstream parties, in Sweden, Spain, Italy, Greece, France have shown the same kind of intellectual fatigue, eclipsed by new faces with fresh ideas and upstart populist movements.

One big country, however, appears provide an environment where proficiency and stability can coexist − China. Since the time of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leadership has proved adept at finding leaders who exude practical competence, predictability and consistency.

Even if some of its policies alarm its neighbours, the Edelman Trust Barometer rates China's government highly in terms of the levels of trust it enjoys from its own people. But the Chinese political structure is unique. It is difficult to imagine any other country run competently for decades by a Communist Party that is so ruthlessly capitalist in outlook.

A key lesson from Cincinnatus is that governments and leaders need to be bold, competent and sometimes ruthless, but they also need to know when to quit.

Another may be to widen the search for competent leaders. A talented man or woman may right now be pursuing a quiet life in business, a university or even on a farm, but could be valuable if encouraged to pursue a life of public service.

The most important thing we have to learn from Cincinnatus, however, is that if you get it right, 2,500 years after your death, the world will remember your achievements. Of course if you get it badly wrong, you will be remembered too − as Mr Mugabe, not Mandela.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter