Since the earliest days of organised human society, people have recognised the value of a leader who does little. One of Aesop’s Fables dating from the sixth century BC, has advice for a populace who think a strong leader is the answer to their problems. In The Frogs Who Demanded a King, a group of frogs irritated at their disorganised manner of life, ask Zeus to provide them with a king. In response, Zeus throws a lump of wood into the frog’s swamp. The noise scares the frogs, who hide beneath the mud. Eventually realising the lump of wood is not actually doing anything, they emerge from their hiding places, sit on their king and complain to Zeus. This time Zeus sends a water dragon as the frog king, who proceeds to eat all his subjects.
Many leaders, particularly in Britain, have tried to be a lump of wood rather than a water dragon. Queen Elizabeth I, one of the country’s best-known monarchs, was famous for doing as little as she could get away with, particularly with regard to warfare. Later in history, this policy of calm inaction would become the guiding philosophy of the British monarchy. Queen Victoria was the first officially non-active constitutional monarch. Her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, tutored her in this policy; and Melbourne himself – as Dorothy Marshall has written – “had the capacity to do absolutely nothing unless driven, and then do as little as possible.” Melbourne worked in a tradition set by Robert Walpole, the man often seen as Britain’s first Prime Minister, who with his “calculatedly uneventful administration,” dominated Parliament for twenty years through the 1720s and 1730s.
In the subsequent history of British prime ministers, there are many examples of wise attempts to do as little as possible. Henry Addington, prime minister 1801 – 1803, provides one telling example. After peace negotiations with France failed in May 1803, Addington followed the safe but unspectacular course of doing nothing. Napoleon’s army was sitting in France ready to invade, but if it tried to do so, the Royal Navy was waiting for them. If only Britain could continue to do nothing, then Napoleon’s army sitting around on the French coast would be defeated either by disease and indiscipline; or by lunging over the Channel in frustration, straight into the waiting guns of British ships. Waiting made perfect sense, but was not popular. Addington’s term did not last the year.
Perhaps Addington made a mistake in failing to combine his non-action with fighting words. However, even fighting-talk prime ministers are not as active as they seem once you get passed all the words. Winston Churchill might appear to provide definitive active leadership, with his blood curdling speeches of resistance in 1940. In reality, he wisely left most of the actual running of things to others. The occasions when he interfered did not tend to go well. It was fortunate, for example, that Air Chief Marshall, Hugh Dowding, talked Churchill out of sending the RAF to its destruction in the Battle for France. Only because of Dowding’s actions did Britain have the aircraft to allow Churchill to make his famous speeches during the Battle of Britain.
Wisdom coming down to us from the sixth century BC is more relevant than ever. Political leadership is often at its best in providing a calm centre as King or Queen Log, rather than contributing to the chaos as King or Queen Water Dragon. The frogs should be careful what they wish for.