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A good leader must start local and work upwards ...
A good leader must start local and work upwards

I was musing over the death of former US president Ronald Reagan the other day, and remembered that his successful bid for the Republican nomination was based on his record as a conservative governor of California.

This started a train of thought. President George W Bush was governor of Texas. In a traditionally Democrat state, he won two terms as governor by extending the appeal of the Republican Party to new groups in a rapidly changing society. Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. It was here - not in the New Hampshire primary - where he first proved himself the Comeback Kid. Defeated at the end of his first two-year term, he won again two years later and went on to serve a further 10 years as chief executive of one of the US's poorest states.

The same journey from state house or city hall to national office characterises the careers of many European leaders. In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder served as prime minister of Lower Saxony before becoming chancellor of the federal republic.

His predecessor, Helmut Kohl, honed his formidable governing skills as prime minister of Rhineland Palatinate. Willy Brandt developed the insights that became Ostpolitik as the hugely popular mayor of West Berlin. Even in a country as centralised as France, a record of local prominence is a potent ingredient in a successful political career. President Jacques Chirac survived frequent reverses on the national stage because he could fall back on the prestige and profile that were due to him as mayor of Paris.

What is a predictable pattern in other advanced democracies is unheard of in Britain. No prime minister since the war has had a significant career running a county or a city. It is just conceivable that a career which first attracted national attention when the red flag flew over Sheffield town hall may end with home secretary David Blunkett in No 10. No doubt his comrade-in-arms, London mayor Ken Livingstone, hopes Msr Chirac's trajectory might be his o wn. But the odds are against them.

The British emphasis on a career in Parliament means our leaders exaggerate the importance of legislation as a way of making sure things are done. They win the big jobs because of their performance at the despatch box and in the television studio. They have no experience of running a large organisation, of delivering improvement and driving through reform. Prime minister Tony Blair's first term was largely a missed opportunity because he did not realise that press releases and laws change nothing on the ground. Until we start to recruit our leaders from the crop of people who have run county and city halls, we will continue to suffer from a government that preaches more effectively than it performs.

Nicholas Boles

Director, Policy Exchange and Localis

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