Politics & Government Archives - The School Of Life

Most countries know deep in their bones that life is – for the most part – a painful and unsatisfactory business: misery is the norm, one is born to suffer, the rewards may come, if at all, in another life. To suggest that happiness might be a right and to inscribe this ambition explicitly in one’s founding document is one part, and perhaps the most significant, of what has from the outset rendered the United States an exception among nations.

No visitor will fail to note the expressions of this constitutional hedonism. The greetings are effusive, the smiles acute. Gigantic billboards express the national catechism along the highways, the radio voices are frenziedly jubilant. Everyone is on an upwards path. Jerusalem is not a mythic city in the next world: it is to be built right here, with these hands, on this hill.

Artists of the American republic have never found it hard to create an ironic effect simply by placing, and exploring, the lives of real people against the backdrop of this self-proclaimed earthly Jerusalem. Here is a ‘regular’ upstanding family man at Disneyland’s Enchanted Castle, texting his lover and plotting his escape. Here is a fractious couple moving towards divorce at the Paradise Resort in Malibu. Here is the ostracised prom queen, weeping by her stretched limousine. And here is an enthusiastic RV salesman, who will in a few hours shoot himself with a 45 in the parking lot of the Sunshine Motel. In far more accomplished ways, in half a dozen art forms, we’ve been here many, many times before.

What is being mocked is how hard the surrounding culture has made it for people to reconcile themselves to their own reality. Self-acceptance can feel impossible when perfection was meant to be the norm. What chances does one have to cry without shame in Happy, Texas (‘the town without a frown’)? Grief is left to be viewed as a damning personal deficiency rather than what it might otherwise and more consolingly be known as: an inevitable outcome of existence in a disenchanted venal world.

The American misery that does exist is quickly medicalised and, if possible, expunged chemically. Or else, when someone can be blamed for it, there may be a lawsuit. But what is intolerable is that sorrow should be interpreted as a general rule which might not be immediately cured or neatly pinned to a personal failing. America is a very difficult place to admit to melancholy. The feeling isn’t merely evidence of an individual loss of spirit; it’s an affront to national destiny.

Psychology teaches us that manic happiness is frequently a symptom of a pain that cannot be faced. A smile has to become permanent in order that an underlying sorrow can never be felt. By extension, America may be smiling very hard not because it is genuinely carefree but because there are a few things it simply cannot bear to mourn.

It is telling that there are two groups within the United States who have never found it hard to own up to sadness. At the centre of Native American history is the Trail of Tears, a memory of the forcible mass removal of the Cherokees – against the explicit promises of earlier leaders in Washington – from their lands east of the Mississippi to what is now Oklahoma. There are, unsurprisingly, few happy faces staring back at us from 19th century Native American portraits. In many communities, Thanksgiving is plainly known as the National Day of Mourning.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Brown Stephens (1903), a Cherokee Indian who walked the Trail of Tears in 1838

African Americans have passed through a comparably bleak experience of the republic. Not for nothing has one of their major cultural contributions to the history of music been known quite simply as the ‘blues’. And no wonder the smiles in the dominant culture have often had to be so bright to cover up so many tears.

The Trail of Tears memorial monument, New Echota, Georgia, which honors the 4,000 Cherokees who died on the Trail of Tears.

All countries have their horrors and all peoples their sources of guilt. There can be no purity and no unalloyed pride. But the more a nation is able to accept how much it has, across its history, been involved in pain, the more it can come to a natural and mature relationship to darkness. It won’t need to smile so perfectly and so avidly – like someone who is in flight from something they cannot mourn; it can learn more easily to walk and take ownership of its own trail of tears.

We are used to recognising signs of emotional immaturity in our fellow adults (and nudging them kindly and appropriately where we can), but we are generally not as practiced at spotting an analogous but in many ways far more perilous issue in nations: a political immaturity that leads electorates and their leaderships to confront problems with some of the restraint and thoughtfulness of a furious infant – and in the process to destroy a civilisation accrued over centuries in the space of a few red-faced months.

Here is a small selection of politically immature thoughts that may take hold in human minds and become the heralds of catastrophe:

– Radical impatience. A feeling that ‘this’ (whatever ill one chooses) has to stop at once, whatever the cost. The bigger and more complicated the problem at hand, the more it can and must be treated with a gigantic total solution. 

– One has, through the superiority of one’s mind and the bravery of one’s ideas, come into possession of The Truth that will fix the nation. There can be no debate or dialogue any more. Indeed, it is dialogue that has got us to this point. Enough talking, time now for introducing others to the truth, if necessary with a bludgeon.

– A lot of people won’t agree with the Truth, but only because they are slow, self-serving and reactionary. Their opposition must be treated with the total contempt it deserves and eventually eliminated altogether. There are no such things as ‘competing truths.’ Politeness and civility are the tools of cowards.

– It is all the fault of some very particular, and particularly venal, group in society: the rich or the poor, the educated or the uneducated, the foreign or the native born, the men or the women…. They have had it good for too long. Time at last to clean out the stables. The suffering one will inflict is moral and high-minded; it will appease the wounds of the nation.

– Paradise is at hand – and no amount of pain, and no amount of upset, will be too much to reach it.

Long before we give these ideas the titles you find in the histories of massacres and political catastrophes, they are casts of mind, they are emotional dispositions, into which whatever lunacy is at hand at any given point gets poured. The problem with studying the wrong-headed political ideas of the past is that it doesn’t sharpen us to spot the ones that will come along in the future, which we should learn to recognise by their emotional atmosphere, rather than by this or that title or manifesto. It doesn’t matter so much what the idea is, it’s the manner in which it’s held and the response to those who don’t agree with it and who must be sacrificed in its name that tells us the degree of danger we’re up against.

What then might political maturity look like? Here are some of its tenets:

– Large, complex problems require large complex solutions. The more immediate and total a solution being proposed, the more likely it is to be false. 

– Rock solid certainty is the sure sign of rock solid idiocy. The cleverer the person, the more they are haunted by the sense they may be wrong.

– Because we are all invariably foolish and blind, politeness, gentleness, slowness and forgiveness are key political virtues. 

– One can never be both right and cruel. 

– Nothing can be made perfect; nothing will ever be totally pure. Compromise is the cleanest word there is.

– And then a handy rule of thumb: beware of ideas that appeal too strongly to either end of the age range. Political solutions that overwhelmingly seduce people under 25 should attract particular scrutiny – likewise the over 65s. Old age and youth are typically the harbingers of intolerant utopianism on the one hand, and intolerant nihilism on the other. In praise of the politics of middle age (understood metaphorically).

To correct the unfortunate course of a nation, the challenge isn’t merely to come in with a raft of new ideas, the urgency lies elsewhere: to help an electorate to mature to political adulthood.

It is has become hard to say anything, especially on social media, that won’t upset someone somewhere rather a lot. There’s a myriad of things people can get deeply offended by: perceived slights around economics, nationality, social group, sexual tastes, commitments.

This is the result of something extremely positive: democracy. Democracy makes us – and this is a lovely word – gloriously, disputatious. We’re no longer serf-like submissive people who just bow to authority. We’re brought up to speak up for ourselves and respect our rights.

The problem is that this can, on a bad day, tilt over into a settled, unquestioning kind of self-righteousness. It’s an attitude that quickly assumes that we know what someone else means when they say something about our areas of concern. And that they are trying deliberately to cause offence. And therefore that we must respond at once with anger and pride.

Taking offence can be a gloriously solipsistic emotion, where we’re always readier to pull up the drawbridge and fire rather than work towards achieving an understanding another person. One takes comforts in why one is right, rather than attempting that much more daring and interesting exercise: trying to imagine why the other person feels the way they do.

There’s something else: we’ve forgotten the art of civility: the art of trying to work through to an agreement. The art of not necessarily saying when  you don’t agree. These may be slightly old-fashioned traits, but they’re virtues too – especially in a small world, where we can’t all shout at the same time, and we sometimes have to learn to live with disagreement rather than always hope we can resolve it.

Furthermore, we should bear in mind that almost all offence is caused inadvertently. But the person who takes offence ready treats everything as deliberate.It’s a fatal misunderstanding of others’ intentions. 

Then there’s the issue of perspective. We live in a world of larger or smaller offences. There are some properly big offences in the world. The things really to be offended by are that parts of Africa are in chaos, that certain countries have a proclivity for bombing as a solution, that it’s so hard to make a living – especially doing something that’s tolerable. Sometimes, focus on micro offences gets in the way of seeing the big offences.

We are emerging from thousands of years of history when only a tiny group in society was allowed to get offended. The rest of us did the ploughing quietly. So we’re letting off steam… But on a bad day: it can look like everyone is wailing and insulting, cursing and cussing. No one is looking to empathise or find agreement.

Being offended is a choice, it’s a way of allowing what someone says to get deep into you and it’s a way of imagining people’s motives as very negative. Perhaps – sometimes – we should just look the other way and not let it get to us. Sometimes not getting offended should be the truly great and prestigious choice.

Among most intelligent people, feeling proud of one’s country is a deeply suspect emotion, perilously close to jingoism and racism. It has – for several generations – been a mark of sophistication to disavow any nationalistic emotion.

The problem is that ignoring nationalism does not make it go away; it leaves it unguided and undeveloped, ready for exploitation by the worst voices in a society. In truth, for understandable reasons, we aren’t capable of doing without nationalism. So the challenge is to find our way to the better kinds. The desire to feel proud of one’s community is a natural and noble impulse. We just need sophisticated ways of directing our urge for pride.

Collective pride is so important because there is never enough to be proud of in a single life. Nationalism takes the pressure off all of us. It lightens the oppressive responsibility we’d otherwise feel to ensure that our own lives could always be stellar and heroic; that’s why patriotism invariably proves especially appealing to those who have the narrowest opportunities in a society, a fact that elites have not treated with the requisite compassion.

With well-focused nationalism, we don’t have to do it all ourselves. We can find happiness in something in which we have a small stake, but that goes far beyond us.

If our longing for collective pride were taken more seriously, we’d learn to invest more money and energy in things that were owned by everyone, because we’d recognise that this would include us. It may be gratifying to own a luxurious car, but there is something properly stirring about being a part owner, along with 300 million others, of a collection of next-generation high speed trains that cross the land at close to the speed of sound.

What are the ideal targets for national pride? The ancient Spartans directed their pride towards their military strength. Their neighbours, the Athenians felt proud of the beauty of the Parthenon, the quality of their playwrights and the wisdom of their philosophers. A really fine society is not one that has outgrown collective pride; it is one where people are proud of genuinely great and admirable things.

As a philosophical thought experiment, let’s imagine the citizens of a future utopian society being asked to list some of the things that they were collectively proudest of in their society:

  1. The elegance of the cities

It’s not just that there are a few standout famous buildings. Citizens are proud of the diffuse, general beauty of their urban environments. In this utopia, it’s normal for a very ordinary street to look exceptionally charming. There’s a lot of censorship over public advertising and signage.

  1. Low divorce rate

It’s entirely straightforward to get divorced. But people tend not to – because of the collective investment in the stages leading up to marriage and because of the sophisticated support provided by the state when things get tricky. The Ministry of Human Relationships (MHR) has a powerful voice at the cabinet table. No government would ever contemplate cutting back its budget.

  1. The honours system

Public honours are taken very seriously, but what’s really notable is what they’re given for: the encouragement of maturity, the display of wisdom, the promotion of beauty and the alignment of profit with the meeting of higher needs.

  1. Celebrity culture

It’s a country obsessed with celebrities. One of the top celebrities is a part-time waiter in a cafe and is widely regarded as the most well-balanced person in the country. His attitude to shoes, travel (he loves going camping near the lakes) and relationships have been highly influential. Another public hero is a primary school teacher. She is deeply admired for her free-style dancing and her attempts to deal with her bad temper.

  1. The cloud festival

An annual event which takes place early in the evening on 2nd October. Everyone takes time (usually around fifteen minutes) to contemplate the sky. There’s quite a bit of build up; celebrities discuss their favourite kinds of clouds and why these mean so much to them and what they are hoping to see this year. The elderly reminisce about the spectacular 2010 cumulonimbus.

  1. The world’s highest per-capita consumption of elderflower cordial

It’s not illegal, or even particularly frowned upon, to drink alcohol. But they drink so much elderflower (and other cordials) because on the whole they are very keen on keeping cheerful and focused.

  1. People often forget the name of the Prime Minister or President

Good government is not dependent upon which particular elected representative is in charge. Mostly, the issues which affect everyone’s life are linked to policies which are developed and applied over many years. Elections tend not to be about the personality of party leaders, but more about tweaks to the direction in which the state is travelling.

  1. Other things people might be proud of:

– the richest person in the country is a psychoanalyst

– the country has the world’s most beautiful network of public swimming pools

– on average the heads of primary schools earn more than financiers

– there is a national reputation for being tactful

– health insurance plans cover treatment for addiction to internet pornography

[Please send us your additions to the list]



We’ve been too sensitive about what can go wrong around various kinds of collective pride. The rallies in Nuremberg evoke a constant fear of collective aggression and insanity.

Pride in genuinely good things creates a powerful – and hugely welcome – sense of belonging. It assuages loneliness and provides benign motivation. In a secular, complex and specialised world, we need to feel that we are not just stray individuals dependent for our esteem on our own achievements, but also that we are members of a wider entity for which we are prepared to work and make wise sacrifices – a nation which, to put it romantically, we feel ready to love.

We live in societies in which it is hard to count as a good and intelligent adult without seeming to take a deep and fairly constant interest in politics. We have to hand, at minimal cost, a stream of reliable and penetrating bulletins about the latest events in parliament, law courts, bureaucracies, battlefields and markets. It is not really a viable option to fail to know, or to care, ‘what is happening’.

And yet, in the privacy of our hearts, some of us don’t quite. Or not as much as we should. We may follow the constant political fights closely enough. We understand the characters, we have some feelings about the key players, we know the tussles between left and right – and yet, for a great part of the time at least, it may all feel rather remote and far from anything we’d authentically recognise as meaningful. We suppose (perhaps a touch guiltily) that, for whatever reason, the political gene has passed us by.

This may be an extremely unfair conclusion. Almost all of us are intensely political, we often just don’t recognise ourselves as such, because we have been equipped with the wrong definition of politics. We’ve been taught that ‘being political’ means having a position on the left-right axis and a daily fascination for those events defined as political by the news industry. But this captures only a very small part of what truly constitutes the political, properly understood.

Being political doesn’t only or principally mean caring what party wins the next election; to be political is to care about the happiness of strangers. Of course, supporters of a given party or economic doctrine will count as political under this title (they want to win or to push forward tax changes for the good of others, though this motive can get lost in the noise), but there are plenty of other ways in which one may be intimately involved in the task of promoting the happiness of strangers – and therefore immersed in politics as the field should be properly understood.

At a sombre moment in the Peloponnesian war, the ancient Athenian statesman Pericles made a speech (known as the Funeral Oration) in which he attempted to define what made Athenian society so admirable and so worth fighting and dying for. He covered territory that might sound very unfamiliar today. He praised his fellow citizens for their attitudes to beauty, for the way they approached exercise, for the manner in which they entertained each other at  home, for their sensitivity to their natural surroundings and for the open, polite manner they had in public places. In Pericles’s eyes, all of these were profoundly political topics because they helped define the character of collective life: a political cause might not sound political to us and yet still be hugely worthy of the name.  

With a more Periclean definition of politics in mind, we can see that it could be possible to count as a deeply political person while principally interested in woodland flowers, psychotherapy, street lamp design, correct punctuation, dental hygiene, hiking, architecture, meditation, birdsong, cycle helmets, local history and a good many topic besides. We should not let politics be kidnapped by people with an impoverished sense of what the collective good might be.

Part of the reason why being interested in politics has traditionally had high prestige is that it seems a selfless act, a noble prioritising of communal over personal interests. But this too may be a rather unhelpful starting point, because it privileges a sacrificial impulse which few of us reliably experience. In reality, being political need have nothing to do with self-renunciation. Making strangers happy is deeply enjoyable, and indeed a great deal easier than trying to make oneself or one’s immediate loved ones content.

Living in our own minds, we have a constant experience of impotence and failure. Much the same may hold true of our relationships with those close to us. We know how often our initiatives have gone nowhere, our plans have been rebuffed, our intentions ground down. Politics is a refuge from the problems of trying to make oneself and one’s direct loved ones smile. It is the best possible kind of selfishness.

Acting politically, we can bring our most competent, purposeful selves to bear on a relatively limited set of issues in the lives of strangers – and therefore have a chance of succeeding. Blessedly, we’re not trying to solve all the problems of others (as we are with ourselves and our loved ones). We’re merely working on one or two targeted areas and are granted a precious encounter with ourselves as people with the will, imagination and intelligence to get things done. We’re taken out of the morass of our own minds. We have the joy of trying to change the world, rather than wrestling always with the far thornier task of wondering how to be happy.

We are used to thinking very highly of democracy – and by extension, of Ancient Athens, the civilisation that gave rise to it. The Parthenon has become almost a byword for democratic values, which is why so many leaders of democracies like to be photographed among its ruins.

It’s therefore very striking to discover that one of Ancient Greece’s great achievements, Philosophy, was highly suspicious of its other achievement, Democracy.

In the dialogues of Plato, the founding father of Greek Philosophy – Socrates – is portrayed as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy. In Book Six of The Republic, Plato describes Socrates falling into conversation with a character called Adeimantus and trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. If you were heading out on a journey by sea, asks Socrates, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country?

Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.

Socrates was to have first hand, catastrophic experience of the foolishness of voters. In 399 BC, the philosopher was put on trial on trumped up charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. A jury of 500 Athenians was invited to weigh up the case and decided by a narrow margin that the philosopher was guilty. He was put to death by hemlock in a process which is, for thinking people, every bit as tragic as Jesus’s condemnation has been for Christians.

Crucially, Socrates was not elitist in the normal sense. He didn’t believe that a narrow few should only ever vote. He did, however, insist that only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote.

We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom. And Socrates knew exactly where that would lead: to a system the Greeks feared above all, demagoguery.

dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading

Ancient Athens had painful experience of demagogues, for example, the louche figure of Alcibiades, a rich, charismatic, smooth-talking wealthy man who eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. Socrates knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers. He asked us to imagine an election debate between two candidates, one who was like a doctor and the other who was like a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner would say of his rival:

Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will.

Socrates asks us to consider the audience response:

Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – ‘I cause you trouble, and go against you desires in order to help you’ would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think?

We have forgotten all about Socrates’s salient warnings against democracy. We have preferred to think of democracy as an unambiguous good – rather than a process that is only ever as effective as the education system that surrounds it. As a result, we have elected many sweet shop owners, and very few doctors.

It is an enormous and very rare privilege to live in the days of good government. Across nations and centuries, few people have ever done so. By a rare bit of luck, certain groups in a few corners of the globe may taste decades of this remarkable, anomalous blessing. They may even, foolishly (especially if they travel little, seldom read history books or have a very high estimation of their own populations) start to assume it is a natural or god-given norm. Yet the default state of a majority of nations is quite other, it contains strong elements of authoritarianism, bullying, demagoguery, corruption, monopoly, racial segregation and aggression. Civilisation is always an unlikely concept.

Those who are afraid of political chaos are typically reassured by optimism: all will, eventually, be well, the kindly tell them. But we may benefit from stiffer and darker counsel. We should explore not what may ideally happen (which leaves us oscillating painfully between hope and despair), but what will happen if the worst comes to pass. In the life of nations as much as of individuals, we need to make ourselves entirely at home with catastrophe, looking it squarely in the eye – so as not to keep catching glimpses of it here and there and so taking fright anew every time. We stand to see that whatever comes to pass will still be survivable. Nothing is ever properly unbearable, not least because we always retain access to an escape route. The Stoic philosophers of Ancient Rome, those pour souls agitated beyond compare by the the antics of their hysterical, thin-skinned murderous Emperors, were known to calm themselves down by holding up their veins to the light and calling out ‘Freedom!’ – knowing it could, if it came to that, all be over in minutes.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the human animal: very sweet at points from close up, usually generous to small children and the elderly, hard-working,  but highly prone to delusion, tribal, offended by strangers, uninclined to rational analysis and with a fondness for slaughter and reckless messianic plans. 

There’s a natural longing to fix nations quickly and angrily. There’s an equal longing to give up and hide, the counsel of quietism. Neither feels right; neither endurance nor explosion. The only true avenue is to commit ourselves to years of careful, adroit plotting to bring about a renewal of an always implausible dream: a land governed by a spirit, as fragile as crystal, of wisdom and toleration.

We’re used to dividing how people vote in elections according to the categories of right-wing and left-wing. But there might be another way of labelling an electorate that taps into something broader and deeper in human personality. We might apportion people into the camps of Romantic and Classical voters. Which might you be? Here is some of what separates these two fundamental electoral types:

1. Revolution vs. Evolution

The Romantic believes that a far better world could be just around the corner, if only bold and swift action could be taken: if we entered an agreement or scrapped an agreement, started a war or ended a war. The Romantic considers a degree of impatience to be a vital resource in governing a nation. They may not think too badly of anger either, so long as it’s handled correctly. You can be too forgiving, after all. The Romantic is excited by how things might ideally be, and always judges what currently exists in the world by the standard of a better imagined alternative. Most of the time, the current state of things arouses them to intense disappointment as they consider the injustices, prevarications, compromises, and timidity of almost everyone in government.


For their part, the Classical voter is highly distrustful of sudden gestures and actions. They pay special attention to what can go wrong. They are very concerned to mitigate the downside. They are aware that most things could be a lot worse. Before condemning a policy, they consider the standard of policy across history and may regard a current arrangement as bearable, under the circumstances… Their view of people is fundamentally rather dark. They believe that everyone is probably slightly worse than they seem. They feel humans have deeply dangerous impulses, lusts and drives, and believe the task of politics is to try to contain them – rather than liberate genius, strength, beauty or benevolence. High ideals make them nervous: they are led by a desire not to make anything worse. Insofar as they hope for improvement, it is in a cautious, modest way. They dare to suppose that the world may be a marginally better place – in 300 years time.

2. Blame vs. Responsibility

Romantics see a lot that is wrong with the world and feel confident about analysing who might be to blame for it: perhaps this particular social group or that class… A problem can’t just be no one’s fault – and therefore the task of politics is to identify the wrongdoers and respond appropriately. Romantics feel a basic trust in their own capacity for purity: they are sure they would be unable to be as shabby as their enemies – whom they can therefore attack with a relatively clean conscience.

Classical voters also notice what is wrong, but are highly aware of their own capacity for sinfulness and error which makes them hesitant about apportioning blame. They recognise how easily they might have been active wrongdoers if circumstances had been different and suppose that no one has a monopoly on righteousness. They would suggest that evil is pretty proportionately distributed across all groups and classes – and that a priority is therefore for us to tolerantly cut each other slack at every turn.

3. Individuals vs. Institutions

Romantic voters believe that everything great in history is the result of talented individuals taking destiny into their hands and struggling against the inertia and conservatism of the mass and, most importantly, of institutions.


Classical voters are deeply worried by the possibility of lone actors taking matters into their hands and, through natural weaknesses which all of us – even the most intelligent – are afflicted by, creating disaster. They are therefore on the side of legally grounded, extremely slow-moving institutions that are designed to restrain individual power and contain the capacity of any one person to shift the direction of the group too quickly.

4. Rightness vs. Scepticism

Romantic voters believe it is possible to understand a situation or issue so clearly, one can be sure of complete justice and rightness. Therefore, those who don’t agree don’t have to be listened to politely. They are evidently wrong – and can be silenced or sidelined as required.


Classical voters are extremely alert to the possibility of error in their own and others’ analyses of policy. They are therefore committed to hearing and tolerating dissenting views – in which they suspect a portion of the truth may always be lodged.

5. Strength vs. Modesty

Romantic voters feel that the best way for a nation to be safe in the world is for it to seem prominently ‘strong’.

Classical voters feel that the best way to be safe in the world is to be thought well of; and will therefore avoid actions that could upset, alarm or confuse neighbours. They’re aware of how easily strength arouses the desire of others to be equally strong back. They suspect the best way to proceed might be to train in private for the worst – but extend a hand of friendship at every public turn.



Both Romantic and Classical political orientations have important truths to impart. Neither is wholly right or wrong. They need to be balanced. And none of us are in any case ever simply one or the other. But because a good political landscape requires a judicious balance of both, at this point in history, in many countries, it might be the Classical electoral attitude whose distinctive claims and wisdom we need to listen to most intently and which is most ripe for rediscovery.

The 6th of March 1957 was set to be one of the most joyous and memorable days in the history of modern Africa; this was the date on which Britain finally agreed to give Ghana, the richest and best administered of all African colonies, its independence. Britain was the first European power to realise that colonialism was practically and morally unsustainable – and, with good will on both sides, it was peacefully letting Ghana go.

The new country, under its intelligent and charismatic 47 year old leader Kwame Nkrumah, pulled out all the stops. There were six days of celebration, with garden parties, dance displays and a Miss Ghana competition. Dignitaries from almost every nation flew in; US Vice President Richard Nixon came and the British Queen was represented by her aunt, the Duchess of Kent. At precisely midnight, the Union Jack was lowered and replaced with a new flag of Ghana; three horizontal stripes of red, gold and green with a black five pointed star in the middle. Nkrumah told cheering crowds: ‘We can prove to the world that when the African is given a chance, he can show the world that he is somebody! …We have awakened. We will not sleep anymore.’

The Duchess of Kent, seated center on dais, reads a message from the Queen of England in the Parliament House at Accra, Ghana, on March 6, 1957, Independence day.
The Duchess of Kent dancing with the Ghanaian Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, at the Ghana independence ceremonies. Accra, Ghana. March 1957 

In the next three decades, forty seven African countries would become independent – some very peacefully, others only after the most desperate and bloody conflicts with reluctant colonial regimes. Whereas in 1930, only one African country – Ethiopia – had been independent, by the end of the century, every single nation had gained its freedom.


47 countries gain independence between 1957 and 1990

Independence Date
Ghana, Republic ofMarch 6, 1957Britain
Guinea, Republic ofOct. 2, 1958France
Cameroon, Republic ofJan. 1 1960France
Senegal, Republic ofApril 4, 1960France
Togo, Republic ofApril 27, 1960France
Mali, Republic ofSept. 22, 1960France
Madagascar, Democratic Republic ofJune 26, 1960France
Congo (Kinshasa), Democratic Republic of theJune 30, 1960Belgium
Somalia, Democratic Republic ofJuly 1, 1960Britain
Benin, Republic ofAug. 1, 1960France
Niger, Republic ofAug. 3, 1960France
Burkina Faso, Popular Democratic Republic ofAug. 5, 1960France
Côte d’Ivoire, Republic of (Ivory Coast)Aug. 7, 1960France
Chad, Republic ofAug. 11, 1960France
Central African RepublicAug. 13, 1960France
Congo (Brazzaville), Republic of theAug. 15, 1960France
Gabon, Republic ofAug. 16, 1960France
Nigeria, Federal Republic ofOct. 1, 1960Britain
Mauritania, Islamic Republic ofNov. 28, 1960France
Sierra Leone, Republic ofApr. 27, 1961Britain
Nigeria (British Cameroon North)June 1, 1961Britain
Cameroon(British Cameroon South)Oct. 1, 1961Britain
Tanzania, United Republic ofDec. 9, 1961Britain
Burundi, Republic ofJuly 1, 1962Belgium
Rwanda, Republic ofJuly 1, 1962Belgium
Algeria, Democratic and Popular Republic ofJuly 3, 1962France
Uganda, Republic ofOct. 9, 1962Britain
Kenya, Republic ofDec. 12, 1963Britain
Malawi, Republic ofJuly 6, 1964Britain
Zambia, Republic ofOct. 24, 1964Britain
Gambia, Republic of TheFeb. 18, 1965Britain
Botswana, Republic ofSept. 30, 1966Britain
Lesotho, Kingdom ofOct. 4, 1966Britain
Mauritius, State ofMarch 12, 1968Britain
Swaziland, Kingdom ofSept. 6, 1968Britain
Equatorial Guinea, Republic ofOct. 12, 1968Spain
Guinea-Bissau, Republic ofSept. 24, 1973(alt. Sept. 10, 1974)Portugal
Mozambique, Republic ofJune 25. 1975Portugal
Cape Verde, Republic ofJuly 5, 1975Portugal
Comoros, Federal Islamic Republic of theJuly 6, 1975France
São Tomé and Principe, Democratic Republic ofJuly 12, 1975Portugal
Angola, People’s Republic ofNov. 11, 1975Portugal
Western SaharaFeb. 28, 1976Spain
Seychelles, Republic ofJune 29, 1976Britain
Djibouti, Republic ofJune 27, 1977France
Zimbabwe, Republic ofApril 18, 1980Britain
Namibia, Republic ofMarch 21, 1990South Africa

There were to be many more independence days, celebrations, national anthems and hopeful speeches. But despite the optimism, the early dreams of independence were, in nearly all cases, to be violently and gravely frustrated. New nations that had begun with great ambitions became mired in corruption, warfare, plunder, disease, maladministration, and – in many cases – genocide. Nkrumah ended up ruining the economy of Ghana, enriching his cronies, imprisoning his enemies and was finally deposed in 1966 by a military coup while on a trip to Beijing. By the start of the 21st century, Africa was the poorest continent, its countries at the bottom of all indexes for development, health, welfare and freedom. Per capita income had either stagnated or in some cases had fallen over decades. Half of the continent’s population lived on less than a dollar a day; between 1981 and 2002, the number of its people in poverty doubled; its food production fell by ten percent. 

How had things turned so sour? Why were the dreams of independence so systematically dashed? It might seem mysterious, but looked at more soberly, the problems were in many ways to be anticipated from the start; they were in large part the legacy of colonialism. African nations ran into so many difficulties because they had been dealt some truly appalling cards long before a single independence flag was ever raised. 

We can identify a range factors that explain Africa’s painful post-independence history:

1. Countries with Straight Lines

The single greatest problem was that most countries we know in Africa today were invented out of thin air by colonial powers. There was, before the arrival of Europeans, no such territory as ‘Nigeria’ or ‘Mali’, ‘Namibia’ or ‘Gabon’; these were arbitrarily made up places designed to suit European priorities. These nations pushed together ethnic groups that had over centuries usually had nothing to do with one another, spoke different languages, worshipped different religions and had long histories of rivalry and suspicion: it was as if someone had, for example, decided to create a new country out of a bit of Greece, a slice of Germany and a swathe of Finland – and then wondered why things didn’t work out too well.

Up until 1870, the European presence in Africa had been limited to a few coastal ports and their surrounding regions. Then, over the next forty years, in a vicious process euphemistically known as ‘the Scramble for Africa’, Europe decided to lay claim to the whole continent, attracted by the idea of stripping it of all its mineral wealth while using it as a market to dump its excess goods. The carving up began in earnest at a conference held in Berlin in 1884. In the Reich Chancellery, a gigantic map was put up on the wall, showing all of Africa’s natural features, but leaving out all place names, let alone references to ethnic groups, religions or languages. Over three months, delegates from the main European powers haggled and bartered over gold mines and plantations, copper deposits and forests set in what they cynically assumed to be a more or less unowned landscape. They took out their rulers and drew straight lines over territory, seventy percent of which no European had ever set foot in. Not a single African was invited to the meeting.

The new countries that emerged from this delusional process destroyed any possibility of Africans’ easily developing a sense of true belonging or patriotism. For example, the borders of modern Burkina Faso divide up territory that traditionally belonged to twenty-one different cultural and linguistic groups. The Ewe people, who have a five hundred year history were split between Ghana and Togo. In the horn of Africa, the Europeans split the Somali people into French Somaliland, British Somalia, Italian Somalia, Ethiopian Somalia, and the Somali region of northern Kenya. The Afar people of Ethiopia were partitioned into Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti and the Anyuaa and Nuer were split between Ethiopia and South Sudan. The result has been constant tribal conflict within countries and across borders as divided peoples attempt to regain their lost unity. 

A simple rule of thumb when trying to determine the difficulties an African country will face is to take a look at how straight its borders happen to be. The straighter they are, the more likely it is that the Europeans drew a line through existing tribes or kingdoms – and the result will be chaos and civil war; the more wiggly they are, the more likely it is that an old tribal arrangement has been respected and therefore, that a country will be a little more internally stable and cohesive. Take Botswana, the richest, least corrupt and most democratic country in Africa. Note that it has wiggly borders on three of its four sides and that it is home to just one ethnic group, the Tswanas, who had lived within the modern nation’s borders for many centuries. Compare this fortunate country with Equatorial Guinea, which is all straight lines and has a majority ethnic group, the Fangs, who are divided up between neighbouring Cameroon and Gabon. As a result, Equatorial Guinea has been continually unstable (despite being blessed with oil), is at or near the bottom of all development tables and has an infant mortality rate of 25% (it’s probably about 2% where you’re reading this).

We can conclude that it is never a good idea to make up a country with a ruler and map. Countries are like families. We put up with a lot when they are our own – and we almost never push things too far. Groups of strangers owe each other no such loyalty. European colonialists made many errors, but none was quite so great as forgetting that Africa already had countries and didn’t require a group of foreigners to erase most of them and make up a whole new set for them.

2. The Government is the Enemy

Because of the way that African nations had originated, once they achieved independence, their peoples generally felt a very low sense of allegiance to the central government, which was tainted with memories of the old regime. It was hard to feel much love for a ‘nation’ that had been spirited into being by one’s oppressors.

For example, the nation we know as the Democratic Republic of the Congo occupies territory that had been stolen from a variety of ethnic tribes by Belgium in the 19th century. The colonialists behaved with particular brutality in the country they called the Belgian Congo, killing hundreds of thousands of people on plantations and chopping off arms and legs of those suspected of not working with sufficient energy to enrich the Belgian monarchy.

Once the Belgians left, the country – now flying a new flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – was quickly overrun by a variety of strongmen, mercenaries and army leaders. Any time an ordinary citizen came close to an institution of central government, their impulse was either to destroy or evade it. One didn’t in the process feel disloyal to something good and community-minded; one was taking revenge on a source of evil.

To a lesser extent, this was the impulse in almost all the new nations of Africa. The government was not seen as a benevolent organ that existed in order to enhance everyone’s welfare: it was the enemy that needed to be escaped from and cheated. The goal was to avoid paying taxes, obeying laws or serving in the military, let alone having to lay down one’s life for the nation. 

3. Leaders Who Didn’t Love their Countries.

It wasn’t just the people who hated the government; rulers seemed to show equal disdain for their people. 

The rulers of post-colonial Africa numbered some exceptionally corrupt and monstrous figures: there was Jean-Bédel Bokassa, president, and self-proclaimed emperor, of the Central African Republic between 1966 and 1979. His country was blessed with huge natural advantages, uranium, oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt – as well as ideal land for agriculture. And yet it remains one of the poorest places in the world, ranking 188th out of 189 countries in terms of its human development. A lot of the responsibility lies with Bokassa who for decades plundered his country, with the cynical connivance of France, its former colonial ruler, because it badly needed his uranium to run its nuclear power stations. Bokassa’s most infamous moment was his coronation as emperor, a display which went on for two days, cost 25 million dollars (a quarter of the country’’s annual budget) and featured Bokassa sitting on an eagle-shaped solid gold throne.

Bokassa’s time eventually ran out when schoolchildren started spontaneously rioting because he had ordered them to wear expensive uniforms with his image on them made in a factory run by one of his relatives. He had the children arrested and sent into the cellars in his palace. There his guards beat 100 of them to death; Bokassa was reported to have come down and done some killing himself, striking the youngsters with his ivory cane. Such was the outrage, Bokassa fled into exile.

If only he had been a one off. There was Gnassingbé Eyadéma, President of Togo between 1967 and his death in 2005. An egomaniac, he had to be constantly surrounded by a 1,000 women who had to dance in praise of him. Every shop in the country had to have his picture on the wall. He tortured his enemies, neglected all education and infrastructure, and was said to have made off with a billion dollars of his nation’s wealth. Then there was Omar Bongo, President of Gabon between 1967 and 2009, a ruler who owned 39 houses around the world  and had US$130 million of his nation’s wealth in his personal bank account. There was Francisco Nguema who ruled Equatorial New Guinea between 1968 and 1979, during which time a third of the population fled or was exiled. He developed a paranoia against anyone who seemed educated; wearing glasses or having a book in the house could have you killed as an ‘intellectual’. He kept half of his nation’s wealth under his bed in a hut in his ancestral village. There was General Sani Abacha of Nigeria (1993 to 1998) who stole $4.3 billion from the government. There was Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1965-1997) who created a one party state based on his worship and made off with $5 billion dollars from the central bank. He built a palace for himself costing a hundred million dollars in his ancestral village of Gbadolite, 700 miles north east of the capital Kinshasa. It was 15,000 square meters in size, made out of Carrara marble from Italy and there Mobutu hosted the Pope, the French president and the Director of the CIA. Mobutu loved shopping and regularly charted Air France’s Concorde to take him and his wives and aides to Paris. He had a 3200m long runway especially built to take the supersonic jet. The nearby village lacked electricity or paved roads, let alone a school or a doctor.

A chartered Air France Concorde during its layover in Gbadolite, DRC.
Concorde needs a runway at least 3,000 metres long. Mobutu cleared the jungle to accommodate the jet.

In 1985 a famous French chef, Gaston Lenôtre, flew into the country on Concorde with a birthday cake – chocolate, cream, noisette paste and strawberries – that he had especially made for Mobutu. Half the population of the country couldn’t feed themselves properly.

It isn’t as if all corrupt African leaders stay in power forever. Eventually, the citizens and the army get fed up – and a coup is launched. In 48 independent, sub saharan African nations, between 1956 and 2001, a 46 year period, there have been 80 successful coups d’etat and a 108 failed ones. The problem is that almost no good government ever emerges from a coup. One terrible leader simply gives way to another. The new leader doesn’t have better motives for their country, they just think it’s their turn to go shopping.

4. A Lack of Trust

One way to capture the difficulties of Africa is to say that in many of its countries, there is a crisis of trust. What is the point of investing in a new factory, if a ruler might suddenly throw you in prison for no good reason? What is the point of working hard for a degree, if the job will go to someone else? Why pay taxes if one knows they’re simply going to pay for a birthday cake for a tyrant?

Corruption runs right through the system. If you’re stopped at the traffic lights by the police, they’re likely to ask you for a bribe; a doctor won’t see you until you’ve paid a bit extra to the receptionist. Your exam results aren’t going to be great until you’ve been able to find some money to pay off the teacher. Everything becomes exhausting and extremely dispiriting.

Those who want to help African often miss where the problem starts. They look at a village and notice that the pump is broken and the road isn’t paved – and so, very nicely, they’ll fix these things for the village. But the issue started somewhere else. The government had the money to help the village, it’s just that the money was spent on a private jet or a dance party. Arguably, by coming in and paying for the village, foreign aid workers are unwittingly helping corrupt rulers not to have to face the legitimate anger of their own people.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 55% of the budget disappears in corruption every year, that’s USD15 billion. This isn’t a poor place, the value of the DRC’s unexploited minerals is estimated at USD24,000 billion; it’s just a desperately badly administered and corrupt place. A country that could easily afford health care, an education system, a fire brigade, and government-run ambulance service has none of these. So pervasive is the corruption, the people have developed a special set of terms for it: 

madesu ya bana (‘ beans for children’)

sucré or bière (soda or beer)

sehemu yangu (‘ my part’, that is, your share of any deal)

To show the eventual connection between poverty and corruption, we need only look at a map of the world’s most corrupt countries; they are almost all also the poorest countries. Honesty isn’t only morally good; it is what makes you and your country very rich.

5. The Clan Comes First

But there is one thing to add on the issue of corruption. Many people who behave in what we call a corrupt way in Africa don’t see it that way. They think they are doing the right thing; they believe they are being good. 

It is the custom in many nations, as soon as you come into a powerful job or get some money, that you will immediately dispense favours to your family. If you’re the chief of police, of course you should give jobs to all your relatives. If you’re the head of the central bank, naturally you have to give some ‘presents’ to everyone in your clan. People will constantly give jobs and favours to members of their own group as opposed to those who might be most technically proficient or deserving. You should always ask your uncle who has barely finished secondary school to run the hydroelectric dam over a trained engineer you don’t know.

We are so used to calling this corrupt that we are liable to miss a nuance. In Africa, what is truly corrupt and frowned upon is not to reward your family when you come into power. It would be as sinful in some sub-Saharan countries to reward strangers as, in many northern countries, it is problematic to promote your own family.

We may well call Africa inefficient, but we should be careful when we use a word like corrupt. What can seem like corruption to us may, in other eyes, just be common decency in looking after your family’s needs. It’s a pity that this nevertheless has such appalling results for the whole country.

Western countries have grown rich on the back of a very odd and counter-intuitive idea: the idea of not giving favours to your family and letting the best person win, not the one you’re related to. It might sound cruel, in fact, it helps every family in the country to prosper.


It can look as if the poverty of Africa is somehow natural and inevitable. It is anything but. This should be one of the richest continents in the world, the resourcefulness of its people and the richness of its natural assets is unparalleled – if only USD148 billion wasn’t lost to corruption every year.

The problem of Africa lies in the hollowness of its institutions; in the way that the police and law courts don’t function, contracts can’t be honoured, investment isn’t safe, and qualifications aren’t reliable.

Medicines and food may be needed in certain parts, but even more urgently required is the good governance that could over the long-term ensure that medicines and food would always be available.

But we also know where the problem started: corruption is a consequence, created by colonialism, of countries that in too many cases aren’t sufficiently loved by their own people or rulers; the family or clan come first, the nation can be cheated.

Africa will be sure to reach its true potential when its governments trust its peoples and its peoples trust (and deserve to trust) its governments.