At a time of civil and financial unrest, some are calling on political leaders to cut their holidays short. Should they?
Every summer the terrifying question arises: if you go on holiday, will everything fall to pieces?
And nobody knows the answer. Following riots in London, Theresa May immediately cut short her summer break. But Boris Johnson delayed before bowing to pressure and doing the same. Whose instincts were right? (Speaking for myself, I wish our self-styled leaders would go away all the time.) People blame the media for putting pressure on politicians to return. But on Twitter, everybody is doing it. Andrew Sims, of the New Economics Foundation, tweeted thus: “If it’s OK for the coalition to govern during crises by phone-in from abroad, what is personal responsibility? Taking the moral low ground.”
There’s something odd about this idea that people need to be physically present. The truth is that our London-based national government operates remotely even when it’s at home — as anybody who lives outside the capital could tell you. The prime minister can’t be everywhere.
And as Sims hinted, our politicians and police chiefs aren’t really on holiday at all: they’re following Twitter, and rolling news, and probably taking endless e-mails and conference calls on Skype.
My friend Martin has an important job in a key government department. He does take holidays, but after having fun with the kids during the day he spends several hours working in the evenings and throughout the night. This is not a holiday: it’s a seasonal experiment in telecommuting.
The last time I remember a proper holiday was about 20 years ago, when virtually nobody had a mobile phone, and there was no TV on our Greek island. Now, being self-employed, I hardly ever take holidays, and usually accept work even when I’m “off”. That’s how it is for suppliers in every industry. But nobody demands my physical presence for the sake of it.
Ten years ago, after 9/11, a friend was working for a glossy magazine when the editor was stuck in New York after all flights were cancelled. At the time, the magazine’s deputy editor was enjoying a well-earned holiday. The publisher asked my friend where the deputy was, and she admitted to having his mobile number. So the poor chap was summoned back to his desk. He was furious with my friend for years afterwards. Today, of course, everybody would know his number, and could probably tweet him too.
As that story suggests, this is largely about power: you’re not supposed to bother your superiors when they’re on holiday, but they won’t think twice about bothering you. The deputy editor didn’t blame the publisher (his boss) but my friend, for supplying the phone number.
Like corporate executives, politicians enjoy power, but the difference is that politicians are answerable to the masses, and the masses want to see them in times of trouble.
The best analogy is with a funeral: you can’t just send a message promising that you are thinking of everybody. You have to be there.
Tony Blair refused to abandon his Christmas holiday in Egypt when the Boxing Day Tsunami hit South-East Asia in December 2004. Despite calls by backbenchers for him to return, Jack Straw and the Opposition leader, Michael Howard, agreed that the then Prime Minister was “entitled to some rest”. Mr Blair praised the British public for their “absolutely extraordinary” generosity — before heading back to the pool.
Hurricane Katrina may have ruined half of Louisiana when it struck in 2006, but at least it did not ruin George W. Bush’s holiday in Texas. Rather than rush to the scene, he took a leisurely couple of days to return to Washington DC, flying over the destruction in Air Force One and commenting: “It’s devastating — it’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”
Peter Mandelson, Harriet Harman, Alan Haworth and a bevy of other young left-wing politicos fled the country in 1981, deliberately choosing to schedule their holiday for the July weekend of the Prince of Wales’s wedding to Diana Spencer. While David Cameron was supposedly camping out on The Mall, Mandelson and co were on a yacht in France.
Fyodor Kulakov, a senior Soviet statesman, was seen as a likely successor to Leonid Brezhnev as premier of the USSR, but many were shocked that Brezhnev and his allies in the Politburo did not interrupt their holidays when news broke of Kulakov’s death in 1978. It is believed they may have feared a conspiracy by Yuri Andropov and felt it wiser to stay away.
More than 100 of his countrymen may have been stranded beyond help at the bottom of the Barents Sea in the stricken Kursk submarine, but Vladimir Putin was happy to stay on the shores of the altogether more hospitable Black Sea as the disaster unfolded in 2000. He later admitted his regret over the incident in the most appropriate possible arena — an interview with Larry King.
BACK IN FIVE
Practically no one in France works during August, and if the onion sellers, accordion players and other inaccurate stereotypes all get a month off, you can bet the politicians do too. But Nicolas Sarkozy and his colleagues interrupted their holidays last summer for a crisis meeting on the economy, gathering round a bottle or two of Merlot to write a deficit reduction plan.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson was never far away when crisis struck, holidaying on the Isles of Scilly every year. In 1965, he chose to interrupt his break to steady the ship amid reports of a plummeting pound, strikes in the car industry and chaos in Malaysia, catching the first (and probably only) helicopter flight back to Whitehall.
Everyone needs to get away from the kids for a bit during a holiday, but Tony Blair and his wife Cherie left their children in Sharm El-Sheikh during a holiday in 2003 to fly to Jordan to meet King Abdullah II, hoping to win his support for the invasion of Iraq over a private dinner in Aqaba — something most parents just don’t get time for on a camping trip to Cornwall.
Silvio Berlusconi felt compelled to cancel his holiday last August when two ministers and a senior Treasury official caught up in corruption cases resigned. The Italian President stayed in Rome to “reorganise” his People of Liberty party after the scandal, despite his star turn in a government commercial in which he recommended that his fellow Italians spend their holidays in “magic Italy”.
Barack Obama may be the leader of the free world but he doesn’t get much chance to visit it, since he has been forced to cancel two weekend holidays in recent months. In April he abandoned his trip Williamsburg, Virginia, in order to agree a budget to keep the federal government working, and in July he cancelled his weekend jaunt to Whitefish, Montana, to hammer out a compromise with the Republicans over the US debt ceiling. Which sounds much more fun than a holiday.
1177 words. First published 9 August 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.