If you’ve heard an interview with any Conservative politician during the current election campaign, you’ve probably heard the phrase “strong and stable leadership”. Theresa May used the phrase three times in seven minutes on the day she announced the vote.
It was clearly a key slogan – and therefore a key aspect of the campaign – right from the start. Since then, Buzzfeed has tracked May’s use of the phrase (giving up at 57 times in ten days). It even featured in the political cartoon for the first edition of the London Evening Standard under its new editor.
— Lord Ashcroft (@LordAshcroft) May 2, 2017
It would be easy to dismiss this as just one of those irritating political hooks that are part and parcel of any election. Political history is littered with some far worse campaign slogans (remember the Conservatives’ 2005 “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” – an obscure slogan, to which the public’s answer was a clear “no”). But everything we know about leadership tells us that language is central, so we have to take this careful repetition seriously. What does Theresa May mean by “strong and stable leadership” – and why is it important?
Constructing a reality?
Linda Smircich and Gareth Morgan, two of the world’s most prominent and insightful analysts of organisation, argued in the early 1980s that “successful” leadership (that is, persuading someone to do something they wouldn’t normally do) depended on a leader persuading people of a specific reality. This process of social construction happens mostly through language. That makes language central to politics, as a means of persuasion as much as a means of communicating ideas or policies.
“Strong and stable” tells us that the Conservative party strategists want us to think of all other options as weak and unstable. Social theorists have been telling us for a long time that the meaning we derive from language is relational. The idea of “strong” is therefore understood in relation to an implicit idea of “weak”. Conservative-sponsored adverts in this election and the last in 2015 are keen to tell us the parties and leaders who are weak and unstable.
There’s usually a hierarchy in this way of constructing meaning. The implication here is that strong is better than weak. This is especially true of the idea of leadership. We are bombarded daily with implicit and explicit messages that strong leadership is the ideal. You don’t have to be a believer in “servant leadership” to doubt the idea of strong leadership. There’s plenty of evidence of the damage that strong leaders, in politics and in workplaces, can do.
The strong man?
There’s another factor at play here, too. The repetition of “strong and stable” is becoming important because it carries a series of assumptions with it. Who do you think of when someone talks about strong leadership? Someone tall, able-bodied, probably white, speaking in a deep pitch – and probably male. This ideal is reinforced by corporate commissioned leader portraits and by the representation of leaders in popular culture.
The promotion of this leaderly ideal by a Conservative party led by a woman at the moment isn’t especially surprising. We’re in the midst of a significant fourth wave of feminist activism and theory and political representation is one of the key areas of activity. British politics, with the honourable exception of the Labour party, is notoriously resistant to structural change through positive discrimination schemes such as quotas. In representing their woman leader in this way, the Conservatives emphasise their contribution to that wider social movement, but without really questioning it.
This election campaign will see a lot of discussion about whether we can trust political party leaders. Laying claim to being “strong and stable” shouldn’t mean unthinking followership. When any of us hear a politician, or someone with leadership responsibility in a workplace, tell us what kind of leadership they think we need – ask why they need to use language in this persuasive way, what they’re not saying, and what associations the linguistic images bring with them. Then maybe we can avoid following leaders without thinking. That can only end badly.