Whilst listening to the radio on the way home from work yesterday, I turned to Radio 4 and was enjoying the “Moral Maze”, and they were debating the differences between public and private life and if public figures should live with total transparency and that someone who has made bad decisions in their personal life could not lead effectively in their public life. I got thinking that if this were true, then we should have undoubtedly lost at Trafalgar and that someones poor decisions in their personal life did not necessarily mean they were not a great leader. If this were true, then Nelson, who had an affair and a bastard child with Emma Hamilton, would today have been lynched and vilified in the press and would therefore never have lead us at Trafalgar, and in that case we would have lost the Napoleonic wars…… We can look at Alexander III king of Macedon, conquered untold lands and his military tactics are still taught today, he had his name applied to over twenty cities, and his influence in the Hellenic society was felt into the 15th century; yet today his private life, and sexual orientation would have been bigger news…. after all he was married twice and had a close relationship with Hephaestion, no different to the insinuation about some cabinet ministers who have left office in disgrace in the past.
We could perhaps conclude from this that the media, and their ideology of exposition and public do-goodery is more of a hindrance than a help. After all, can one say with complete honesty that the fact a man is unfaithful to his wife means he will not be some great military leader, or hold the key to curing the NHS of it’s ills? Albeit we may well draw some inference from the fact that if he is not honest to the ones they love, can he be honest to the public at large? Well would we not rather a sinner who has confessed his sins than one whose sins are as yet not found?
It is of course a severe moral point, rather than an historical one, but a point I thought that as historians we can perhaps shed some light on, for they discuss whether or not a true leader can lead or rule without total transparency. All I could think of this was that all the leaders who have lead the longest over the largest empires have been ones who have ruled with total opacity, rather than transparency. They all had a cult of personality, and covered much up, which I believe helped cement them as rulers, and leaders. Those who failed at this opacity were the ones who failed to last long, for instance take the fact that King James VII attempted to sell the United Kingdom out to the French and the Catholic church, when this was discovered he was deposed in the Glorious revolution of 1688, and William and Mary took his place, this “transparency” (it need not be a voluntary transparency), caused his downfall. So perhaps we can conclude that whilst transparency can be a good thing, that perhaps it needs to be tempered with civility from the press and to resist whipping up a storm in a teacup over things that really mean little to public life?