Does character shape destiny? Is it the leader or a greater outside wider socioeconomic influence that moulds history and politics? These questions are more valid today than they have ever been and on the eve of another general election here in the UK and the Trump 2020 campaign in the United States, David Runciman examines these points, trying to draw a conclusion relevant for predicting what will happen with future world leaders.
Where Power Stops examines the making and unmaking of presidents and prime ministers from Lyndon Johnson right up to Donald Trump. Each chapter examines a different leader, originally published as independent essays over a ten-year period in the London Review of Books. Joined together by a hypothesis that the character of the leader does not change, just the circumstances of their leadership, Runicman, a professor of politics at Cambridge University and host of the popular podcast Talking Politics, argues through his essays whether it is the leader or other factors that really shape history and politics.
As a collection of essays it is a thoroughly enjoyable read, with insights into the complex and differentiating characters of six world leaders from the expert views of their biographers. Runciman tries to broadly imply that the character of some leaders also makes them ineffective in office, for example Barack Obama was by the far the most principled of all, but that this is what saw him achieve so little. Even great character traits such as Bill Clinton’s vast intelligence hindered him from tackling important issues and had him examining energy deregulation.
As a book with a greater hypothesis it falls down. He implies that the ‘low’ politics of Johnson is more efficient than the moralistic politics of Obama. Runciman is highly critical – even with their failings, all of the leaders within the book achieved a level of progress, from the Irish peace process to the legalisation of gay marriage. These were surely not arrived at by luck alone.