Over the years it has become a standard part of political commentary to castigate politicians for caring too much about their legacy. The argument goes that being so self-obsessed as to worry excessively about how history will judge them leads political leaders to make selfish, mistaken or vainglorious decisions in the here and now. If only they were less focused on themselves and thought less about their future image the world would apparently be a much better and safer place.
If you doubt this is true just trying Googling “Tony Blair obsessed legacy”. Somewhere near the top of the pile will be media coverage of Clare Short telling the Iraq inquiry that Gordon Brown believed Mr Blair went to war in Iraq because he was “obsessed with his legacy”. Later on the Daily Mail claimed that the former PM’s fixation on his legacy led him to “cut and run”, leaving the job in Iraq (in its view) half-completed. The Catholic Herald argued he was “self-obsessed”, whilst his successor reportedly spent time dumping on his legacy once he took up the reins of power. All in all, Mr Blair’s concern about how history would judge him has been reported as A Very Bad Thing Indeed.
Other politicians have also faced criticism on exactly the same grounds. For example, it is claimed that David Cameron’s desire to have as his legacy an end to Conservative infighting over Europe led to the Brexit referendum and everything after. Margaret Thatcher’s worries about her legacy may have led her to hang around for too long when she should have packed up and gone. In fact, name almost any major politician and you will find someone, somewhere, who has criticised them for thinking too much about how the students of the future will write them up.
But those people who have claimed the same about Donald Trump are massively missing the point. In fact, it seems to me that the real danger with someone like Trump is that he doesn’t care enough about how history will judge him. As yesterday’s events reveal, he is prepared to be remembered as a man who incited violence, undermined democracy, and ultimately weakened his own country. If he was at all interested in how he would be written up 50 years from now he would surely have behaved in a very different way in the past couple of months and for the past four years.
This is why being ‘legacy obsessed’ actually matters. No matter what constitutional checks and balances exist, if a leader is prepared to ignore, belittle, damage and destroy institutions around them they are likely to be able to do so, at least to an extent. History will not judge them favourably for it but if they don’t care it doesn’t matter. So worrying about your legacy should be regarded as a vital part of the way democracies operate. It is what keeps everyone playing by the same rules of the game. And we should never mock our leaders for having the vanity to want to be remembered as great, because otherwise they won’t try.