AFTER the funeral, I was talking to a former parishioner. She
has married into politics - her husband is close to the heart of
New Labour. He commuted daily to Downing Street when they held
power. But tonight she was breaking ranks and going to hear Boris
Johnson. "I shouldn't really," she said, excitedly, "but, well,
you've got to like him." Is this what they call charisma?
A recent documentary suggested that Hitler had great personal
charisma. It is not immediately obvious across the years; you had
to be there, apparently. On the face of it, this brutalised child
and failed artist rose to power solely through his ability to
speak. He did not like policy discussions, and was unable either to
listen or relate, but he could hold an audience. He was not an
interesting speaker, but he was effective because his hate made a
confusing world more simple and reassuring.
Charisma does not exist on its own, but in relationship to an
audience that is being told what it wants to hear; and the essence
of Hitler's charisma was his hatred for the "unworthy life forms"
that Germany was supporting. All else, including the power of his
oratory, sprang from the force of this destructive psychology. And
Germany in the 1930s loved him.
Meanwhile, in a very different climate, David Cameron is
apparently looking over his shoulder nervously at Johnson. Why?
Because Boris, as we call him, is the closest we get in England to
a "charisma" politician.
This is privileged status, granting the individual the goodwill
of everyone, and possibly their vote, even if they do not like his
or her policies. Although many say he has done a great deal for
himself as Mayor of London, Londoners may be struggling to say what
he has done for them. Both the Olympics and the "Boris bikes"
emerged on the watch of the city's previous mayor, Ken
There is a hint of attention-seeking in the air, a craving for
visibility and applause, but who cares about these things when he
is such an entertaining speaker? "You've got to like him," as my
friend said, a commitment to the man which most politicians can
only dream about.
Charisma used to be a holy word, denoting a divinely conferred
gift or talent, but times have changed. Removed from the moorings
of grace and favour bestowed by another, it has become a passing
thing, defined by the insecure moment. Henry VIII, John F. Kennedy,
and Tony Blair all exuded the charm and magnetism we today call
charisma. But the passage of time shows something less to do with
grace and divine blessing, and more to do with personal need; an
energy arising from something unresolved within that needs others
to calm, feed, applaud, and love it.
Simon Parke is the author of Pippa's Progress: A
pilgrim's journey to heaven (DLT, 2012).