Here is a thought that may intimidate Britain’s new government on this post-electoral weekend: gaining power is the easy part. Now comes the more difficult task of how to construct and project it. To make it endure. To create a legacy. The hustings are just the amuse-gueules of the political process. The true sign of leadership is the obsession with being a leader that matters. To become someone who is recognised as having made a difference.
This, it barely needs saying, has been pursued in a wide variety of ways throughout our troubled history. On Monday week the second tranche of the splendid BBC Radio 4-British Museum project, A History of the World in 100 Objects, begins transmission, and it fortuitously deals with these very themes. Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, unpicks the way that leaders have used cultural artefacts to promote their own image. Yes, they were all at it. There was spin and strategy long before Alastair Campbell. And some of it was devastatingly effective.
Look closely, says MacGregor, when you are changing American currency into Chinese. You are handling pieces of paper that bear the images of George Washington and Mao Zedong, two leaders who became the mythologists of their own polities. In truth, both of them are largely irrelevant to their respective countries today. Washington could not lie. He would have admitted to inhaling, having had sex “with that woman” and bombing Cambodia, with disastrous electoral consequences. Chairman Mao is even more removed from current Chinese developments. The hard-line communist tyrant has been manipulated into giving his blessing to the most bombastic transition towards capitalism yet recorded.
Yet, like Washington, he is a father to his nation, responsible for bringing it unity and prestige. He has become the most improbable of icons. Today’s super-rich pay millions to buy portraits by Andy Warhol of the drab dictator, their historical heft given much-prized “wall power” by their cartoon-bright colours. Try untangling that little web of ironies.
But untangling is what MacGregor does best. As he eloquently observes, culture plays a vital role in the successful projection of leadership. He begins his investigation with a small coin depicting Alexander the Great in a handsome profile. The coin dates from after the king’s death: a blatant attempt by his successors to cash in, literally, on his image. The reputations of the dead, notes MacGregor drily, tend to be more stable than those of the living.
Alexander was a military genius. But there are other ways of imposing leadership. A sandstone pillar engraved with an inscription of the Indian king Ashoka is testament to a great monarch who proved that high ideals could survive the realities of political power.
A Chinese Han dynasty lacquer cup, “the size of a mango” (there is an ever-present air of mischievous bathos in these programmes), was the product of a political system that used gifts to cement its authority. The cup is inscribed with the names of six craftsmen and seven product inspectors: bureaucracy acting, not as an unwieldy obstruction, but as the guarantor of beauty. China still uses the bestowal of unique gifts to further political ends: what else is so-called “panda diplomacy”?
The creation and promotion of image is a much less straightforward business for leaders today. The multiplicity of visual images, and the ease with which they are created, put them at the mercy, in free societies, of satirists and malcontents. I once talked to the British photographer Martin Parr about his collection of memorabilia relating to Margaret Thatcher, the most charismatic of Britain’s recent leaders. Of course there were the commemorative plates, the porcelain mugs – but what he was really looking out for, he said, was a roll of toilet paper embossed with her photograph.
Politicians, obsessed with working the media, give scant regard to more subtle forms of cultural projection. Indeed, as this past campaign has reminded us, they show little evidence of engaging with any form of culture at all. Perhaps they are right. Free-flowing art forms care little for the exercise of good government. There is no artistic masterpiece that celebrates the National Health Service, or the privatisation of energy supply. Art treats with disdain the nuance and detail required of successful politics.
Culture, in liberal societies at least, is happiest when it pits itself against power, not when it is railroaded into its glorification. We are the children of Aristophanic comedy as well as Alexandrian self-promotion. That is our good fortune. We can put posters of Mao on our walls; but we can take him or leave him.
‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ returns to BBC Radio 4 on May 17
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden