Aura – a breath of golden hue around a special person. We can all feel it at a particular place or in unusual circumstances, when the intensity of the lived moment thrills one almost into a momentary state of extasy close to fainting. The mind blanks out for a fraction of time, enough to impress that moment on one’s memory forever.
Talking of handshakes and eye contact, some professionally excel in this capacity. They market ‘bonhomie’ to their own advantage. Tony Blair maintained his grip on voters’ loyalty by that special handshake and the look straight into one’s eyes so that, for a fleeting few seconds, it is yours, but the glance must linger to become yours forever and the grasp be firm enough to recognise one’s own presence. Then this famous person has engaged you, for a fleeting second, into his or her charmed circle.
Some have it, others don’t. A friend who met Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, told me that Boris always bestowed a moment of his attention on everyone he met. A charm campaign. Like Tony Blair and, so I’m told, Bill Clinton. It is a clever way of scattering the golden value of an aura, if you have one to disperse.
Wise as one might feel bolstered by history, without the power of personality it can fail to resonate. Power is theatre as well as policymaking. Remember Mussolini in those news clips of him proclaiming from the tiny balcony overlooking the vast Piazza Venezia, spacious enough for the crowd he was expecting. Hitler’s declamatory eloquence could fill even larger stadiums. Now the vaster hordes of potential internet spectators can indulge their leaders’ machinations or ignore them at whim, and that is what underpins the strength of powerful backroom manipulators, like Dominic Cummings behind Boris Johnson. These figures create the political context as puppeteers of the aura surrounding figures of note. They linger behind their successful creations pulling tactical political strings. These figures are the red corpuscles running through the veins of the body politic. According to your political persuasion, they are malign or benign, but they can’t be denied. Historic examples abound. Mussolini started his political career as a socialist and so did Hitler. Who was behind their change of political direction to harness the flow of public opinion? Rhetoric appeals more than subtle argument – and the rest is history.
Seen on black and white film, the rantings of Mussolini and Hitler appear ridiculous. Times have moved on. History never repeats itself, but it can inspire – or repel.
When does the slippery slope into absolute power start? Italians tell me that their parents or grandparents were often out of work in the 1930s because to work in the state sector one had to become a member of the Fascist party. Has Sajid Javid’s abrupt resignation scuppered the ominous scheme (attributed to the backroom machinations of Dominic Cummings) of obliging the Chancellor of the Exchequer to use the same advisers as the Prime Minister, and consequently to sack his own? The prime minister lives at 10 Downing Street and the one who holds the nation’s purse strings, the chancellor of the exchequer, is next door at number 11. It might, just, make economic sense, but does that mean that it makes political sense as well? What about the so-called democratic ‘checks and balances’? Or should we heed Michael Gove’s words when was a contender to become prime minister in 2016, the year of the fateful referendum – ‘Don’t trust the elite!’.