Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

Those who opposed the war must not allow themselves to hope that things go wrong

Those who opposed the war must not allow themselves to hope that things go wrong

In human governance, men matter as much as measures. If this is true for us in Europe, why should it be any less true for the occupying powers in Iraq? The governors whom America and Britain install there are not just ciphers or functionaries; their character, demeanour and local reputation will matter very much, and matter more as the smoke of war clears.

We British, whose experience of wielding imperial power is very recent, should know this perhaps better than our American counterparts in Iraq. Colonial history proves time and again that the difference between a good governor and a bad one may amount to the difference between peaceful administration and a riot. That a governor has not been chosen democratically may not make him answerable to the people in the obvious way, but it does not relieve him of the necessity to make himself admired, respected or at least feared. In some ways an imposed governor’s personal standing is made more critical by the fact that he has been imposed: when people do not like their elected leaders they can blame their own choice and reflect that the solution lies in their hands. An occupied people is conscious of no such safety valve. Paradoxically, a governor – and especially a modern governor in an age which is uncertain of the legitimacy of the very role – needs to be a bit of a populist.

In very recent British history, two men have proved themselves conspicuously able as governors to balance diktat and populism. Both were politicians before they were governors. Both had experience not only of running things while keeping their fingers to the wind of public opinion, but also of handling fractious political groupings. Chris Patten in Hong Kong, and now Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia, have understood how to combine authority with a popular touch.

I doubt Chris Patten is available to be headhunted for a new governorship, and I am sorry.

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