Putin – is just a weak but dangerous ‘willy waver’

Hilary Clinton asked a key question when the financial smash hit markets in 2007. “What if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters?”

Unusually and for the first time ever I will be joining two discussions in International Women’s Day about the dangers that men cause to women. That has made me think more than I ever have before (I am ashamed to say) about the dynamics of the relationships between men and women and the way that men display certain characteristics to make them become ‘top dog’ in any situation.

This has brought about a certain level of introspection because I want to be sure that I too am not displaying those characteristics in the way that I do my work within the Council, ward and in other arenas where I work. I know that there is always a sense in which full Council meetings are ‘theatre’ with aggression and arm waving. That has massively decreased since Joe Anderson left the chamber, but I have to admit that I can to a bit of arm waving myself.

I’ve been thinking about some of these unfortunate willy waving characteristics whilst considering the situation in the Ukraine. Did anyone here Putin’s incoherent rambling on Monday. I could only watch it for a while. What I saw was a person who saw being top dog achievable only by power, fear and aggression. To do that they must convince first themselves then the people around them there is an enemy out there whose very existence threatens themselves and their state.

That was certainly true on Monday night. No-one within NATO wants to invade Russia or even threaten it. Even if we did World War II tells us that it would be impossible as was the original Russian Invasion of Afghanistan in the 70s and 80s. No one seriously thinks that Ukraine wants to take military action against Russia. All they want to do is secure their own borders by possibility exercising their right as a sovereign nation to enter into an alliance which by the terms of its Charter can only be defensive.

Putin isn’t the only one though. There are a lot of weak men out there who have masqueraded as strong men.

Donald Trump has, unusually, sought to subvert the processes of democracy in his own Country to bolster his own position. He has invented a plethora of enemies from the communists like Biden to the army of drug smuggling paedophiles that were seeking to enter the Country and who needed a 1,500-mile wall building to prevent them.

The President of North Korea thinks that the whole world is against South Korea. He even had his own Uncle killed by having an anti-tank missile fired at him.

Bolsanaro in Brazil has allowed hundreds of thousands of his people to die as he raged against a Corona Virus which he claimed was no more than a flu as people suffered and dies and sports grounds were taken over as mortuaries.

The President of Uganda has allowed journalists, opposition politicians and LGBTQ people to be attacked and vilified so he can cling to power.

Of course, we have our own mini-Trump here in the UK. Johnson is a man who casts immigrants as the Devil’s spawn and sows mistrust and hatred against people of colour because of that anti-immigration rhetoric. Perhaps, given the number of kids he seems to have he has been taking the ‘willy waving’ idea too far and too personally!!

I could go on as there are plenty more!!

What have these people got in common, apart from the obvious fact that they are men? These are people who exhibit in what they do and say not strength and coherence but weakness and incoherence. It seems absolutely clear to me that it’s not their nation that they are defending but their own position. They like all bowing down before them. They like living off the fat of the land whilst their people cannot eat and merely subsist. They look outwards rather than inwards because they have no answers to the problems that they face within their own borders so seek to find an external excuse for those problems.

In about 2007 as the financial problems of the international banking system became apparent Hilary Clinton asked a very interesting question, “What if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters”. Here was a USA company whose leaders exhibited the same characteristics as the tin pot dictators of Brazil and Russia. All powerful, bullying, scheming and lying to keep them as top dogs.

My belief is that the World would be a better place if there were more women leaders. Can anyone give me a name of a woman political leader, with the obvious exception of some American Republicans, who want to increase the arms race and expresses her virility in the way that male leaders do?

What’s stopping women from developing a more calm and inclusive community locally, nationally and globally? Men!! We have constructed and entrench a system in with the male characteristics are the ones that can predominate. We stuff the Boards of companies and the leadership of political parties with men. We create fora in which leadership is defined by aggression and high-level risk taking.

In such an atmosphere the voice of diplomacy, partnership building and reason that is the natural position of most women gets squashed. Many women just drop out of races in which they really dislike the race itself. Others feel that they have to take on men by becoming imitation men and using male behaviours.

Am I the last generation of men to go through and being successful because I am a man? I hope that I am, but I fear that I am not.

I have had this really great response to this Blog from Daniel Ralston. He has challenged me to take some of my ideas further. I will do so in coming weeks.

On the danger posed by men, toward women:  

I imagine every single person reading your post would note the statistics of violence and controlling behaviours directed against women, by men, and agree with your central point.  

However, I would perhaps draw your attention to one thing that is missing from your analysis. It assumes that violent and controlling behaviours are the result of learnt behaviour.  

This point, highlighted by your own feelings of introspection on the issue, is very much at the heart of our national discourse, leaning heavily as it does on modern feminist theory. But, it is worth noting that violence and control is not uniquely directed toward women, or by men.  

Having attended a boys only secondary school, studied as virtually the only man on my university course, and subsequently worked in settings dominated by men and by women and in settings with a much more even split, there are clear characteristics to male and female dominated societies which indicate that masculine and feminine behaviours are innate when applied to the collective setting.  

Men, outwith female influence naturally settle into a deeply hierarchical structure which is immobile and fixed for the most part. Brutal as this culture is, it is not uniquely so. Female dominated societies are much less hierarchical but arguably just as capable of bullying and power play as male societies.  

I 100% agree that diverse working and social environments are infinitely more enriching, and that men and women typically regulate one another’s behaviours in deeply beneficial ways.  

Where we seem to encounter problems most keenly is in settings, such as the home, or in small working groups, where individual dynamics of power develop.  Is it not the case that the best regulator of untrammelled power is the regulation of societal norms of behaviour and the natural policing of these that comes from a lively community. After all, is not violence and anti-social behaviour most deeply engraned in places where community has partially broken down, be these areas of deprivation, war zones or areas where a single power is dominant?

On the nature of Vladimir Putin:  

My late-mother once confided that she thought Vladimir Putin was “quite sexy,” an observation that was, at the time, utterly lost on me. Was it the naked torso and alpha male outdoorsiness of his heavily cultivated image? Was it the gunslinger gate of his walk? She couldn’t tell me. He had, she said, “an aura.”  

Of course, my mother was a baby-boomer and images of masculinity, from her childhood and formative years, tended to be powerful, silent, tortured types. Think of the matinee idols around when she was little, Bogart, Gary Cooper or Jack Hawkins. Think of the heroes of her own generation, Eastwood, Newman, Dean and McQueen. Or the enigmatic brooding masculinity of Che Guevara.  

The thing, is, Putin did not simply wake up one morning and decide that he would act the way he does. He is a product of a yearning, deep in the collective psyche of the Russian people.  

Russia is, in many ways much as you describe Putin. It acts strong, spends such a large portion of its GDP on arms precisely because it has not come to terms with it’s reduced status after the cold war. Moreover, Russia faces a long-term demographic problem, based on a rapidly declining population in the world’s largest land mass. Russia’s long-term threat, is not, as you point out the west. It is China, a country on it’s border with a much larger population which is hungry for its natural resources.  

Perhaps it is small wonder that Putin has retained a popularity with his people, presenting them with an uncorrupted image of pure masculine virility. It is precisely the quality they crave most in their lives, precisely the embodiment of what they want to see from their homeland.  

Of course, any objective assessment of Putin will cast up his ridiculousness. As liberals we want to believe that our rational selves will see through Putin and understand that the path he has taken his country makes us all poorer by sacrificing the diplomatic norms that have secured our peace and relative prosperity. But people don’t follow leaders on that basis. They follow their hearts.  

On the various other examples of hyper-masculine male leaders:  

You cite other examples of hyper-masculine leaders, Trump, Kim, Museveni and Bolsonaro, and plug our own prime minister into that list. Clearly Duterte, Orban, Duda, Erdogan and others could effortlessly join that list, to say nothing of the older tranche of hypermasculine villains from history.  

Couple of points here.  

The first is that hypermasculinity or its associated characteristics is not confined to autocrats. They can and do exist in democracies and are not all villains. William Gladstone was the very symbol of masculinity for his time, with his exploits as a prodigious woodcutter, on his estate in Hawarden. His apparent virility was contrasted at the time with Disraeli’s sickliness. My old office in Manchester was situated in the Old Manchester Reform Club and I can tell you that few things are more emasculating that walking pass the glowering judgement of an 11 ft statue of the great statesman.  

I raise Gladstone because here was a man who pre-empted the Wilsonian principles of the 14 points that gave us our Liberal International institutions by 40 years.  

Lyndon Baynes Johnson too, was, a bully, a course bruiser of a politician, who could never match JFK’s elan or poster-boy status as the hope for a better future. Yet it was Johnson, not Kennedy who succeeded in ending Jim Crowe and enacting Civil Rights legislation.  

Both Gladstone and Johnson were weak men in many ways, Gladstone for all his high Anglican moral zeal, consorted repeatedly with prostitutes while Johnson by any measure was an unpleasant, if not odious bully.  

My central point here is that politics is simply not always about blue skies thinking. Sometimes it takes a leader who understands the pork-barrel to rise above the squaller of feeding time.  

The alternative is the admirable ineffectiveness of Obama.  

My second point is that it is by no means clear that women leaders are so much less brutal than male leaders. 

Both of Britain’s female Prime Ministers have made much of their femininity in political settings. Thatcher is famed as being flirtatious around male colleagues and May is alleged to have a similarly flirtatious sense of humour. Both made much of their status as strong women and used fashion accessories to hyper feminise their power.  

Yet, both were ruthless when necessary. Think of May’s treatment of George Osborne and her largely invisible fence sitting when it came to the Brexit referendum.

Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I of England, Sheikh Hazina in modern Bangladesh, and of course, Ang Sang Su Kye in Burma, have all proven to be ruthless in the pursuit, consolidation and execution of power. None would be described as anything other than characteristically feminine.  

This is not to deny the existence of hyper-masculinity in power. Rather it is to make the point that genuine diversity calls for a genuine variety of personalities. To suppose that one type of leader is appropriate in all settings, whether that is to condemn men or promote women, is to argue against diversity.  

On the false enemies required by Autocrats:  

Here again, I agree. Clearly, what the current autocrats use in their playbook is a narrative of an all-powerful and at the same time un-virile and weak enemy. And the enemy is always the same old suspects. Anti-Semitism is rarely far away. So too the bankers and the sexually transgressive. The amateur Freudian in us can have fun with these ridiculous men and their ridiculous vanities.  

But again, we should not merely condemn but seek to understand the appeal of men as transparently insecure and vein as Trump or as viciously Macho as Duterte.  

They have all sought to consolidate power in undemocratic ways but all came to power through democratic means, as did Hitler. The key point here is that when these leaders are given power it is because they speak to us. And none of the Twentieth and twenty first Century autocrats came to power from male only mandates. Women are very frequently both the enablers and greatest supporters of hyper masculine leaders.  


Could it be that hatred, either self-directed or outwardly directed is common to both genders? After, all, hatred comes from powerlessness, and when we look at the vanities and insecurities of a Trump or a Putin, we are doing so, aspirationally. 

It was said of Alfred Hitchcock, that when he wanted to portray his real self, he cast Jimmy Stewart. When he wanted to portray who he wanted to be, he cast Cary Grant. I’d content electorates are no different.  They cast the person who best represents their inner Cary Grant. And this is as true of women as it is of men in the ballot box. 

On the impact of hyper-masculinity on the 2008 Financial Crash:  

This is probably the only area I struggle to agree. The problem with this analysis is that it ascribes a complex economic occurrence to a simple trope of gender stereotype.  

Yes, there is a well-documented lack of risk aversion among the alpha-male commodities traders in the world’s stock markets. And we can all picture the callous, venal, brutish young Londoner gambling our savings on a coke fuelled binge of machismo.  

But that is a good way of picturing what happened when Nick Leason collapsed Barings Bank in 1995. It is a stinking way of characterising the 2008 banking crisis which arose due to systematic practices in the trading of US mortgage stock.  Had 2008 been the result of male commodoties traders acting badly, it would not have escalated as it did. 

The core of your argument is that had women been in charge of the banking sector, the more risk averse culture that this would have engendered would have saved us all from the colossal bubble that ensured. For this argument to make sense it would require us to believe that a feminine culture is inherently risk averse, and that a risk averse culture never makes mistakes.  

Supposing we accept the first premise. In this scenario, growth in the financial markets would have been slower than it was between the 1992 and 2008 period of economic growth. Governments and individuals would have found borrowing harder and more expensive as a consequence with the result that demand for borrowing would have been higher. 

Politicians such as Gordon Brown would still have been able to congratulate themselves on having ended boom and bust. However, people would still have wanted mortgages. That demand would have been constant. Indeed, because debt would have been more expensive, it would have been higher. Governments would have been under more pressure to have found mechanisms for democratising the housing market placing greater pressure on the stock markets to liberalise and ignore the regulatory constraints of Glass Stegall.  

In other words, the problem of sub-prime mortgages was the result of pressures in demand in a growing society. If a society grows slower that pressure increases placing greater pressure on regulation. The problem here is not one gender or the other. It is that societies need to operate within a complex world.  

Where I have sympathy, is when arguments turn to greater diversity. But simply substituting a female MBA for a male MBA is not diversity. Neither is a multi-coloured board room full of MBA’s. And of course, neither is a room full of different nationalities, genders, races and creeds who all hold MBA’s.  

Genuine diversity breaks down the hierarchical nature of businesses. An oft cited example is Germany which makes normal the presence of Trades Union representatives on Boards. The price paid in Germany however is a largely provincial outlook on the part of many businesses. When I worked in Saudi Arabia, German manufacturing frequently formed the basis of design specifications for high end buildings. Yet it was often not the German company which won the supply contract as they were unable to compete with Chinese or well-funded local suppliers who would successfully offer similar products based on a less high specked solution.  

Diversity therefore should be seen as part of an overall prescription. The rule should be, that if we all agree that it is a good thing, fine. But if we all agree it is THE solution, We are probably guilty of Group Think.  

On more women in powerful positions and the factors preventing them from standing:  

All that stated, I don’t think anyone will argue with greater representation by women in positions of power. However, here again, we need to be careful about generalisations such as assuming that women are put off from standing solely because of a perception of a masculine culture.  

It reminds me of Clement Atlee’s line on the great Socialist thinker Harold Laskey, who had made the transition into front line politics and struggled. “Rum thing about Harold. He never really got it.”  

Plenty of people are well suited to contributing to the solution but ill suited to the process of exisiting within political parties, fighting elections, facing the bruutal verdict of the ballot box. 

The point is that (and I believe I have heard you make a very similar point, in the past), some people enter politics without ever realising that they are doing so. They are simply working for and within their community. Others enter for less noble and more self-aware reasons. Politics must find a place for people like you who want to lead and believe you can be effective if given the chance. But it must also find a place for those who perhaps take a less carnivorous attitude to the political cut and thrust.  

And while I might be prepared to believe that more women suffer from self doubt than men, as an endemic delf-doubter, my own view is that it has nothing whatsoever todo with femininity or masculinity. Contemplative souls of both genders will struggle in the democratic process. They want to be noticed and to be recognised, not to fight for attention. 

I would here make a perhaps controversial analogy to the House of Lords. If there is a justification for an appointed upper house it is that in a real sense it can encourage diversity, bringing together seasoned campaigners and thick skinned political operatives, professionals from other speres and people who have developed expertise in specific areas of political life without themselves ever aspiring too or believing themselves capable of prospering in representative democracy.  

I would count myself in this category, proving I think that it is not merely women who are put off by politics and the prospect of being shouted at or thought stupid.  

Indeed, I’d go further. The world, I would suggest has huge numbers of both men and women who are deeply passionate about their communities but do not see themselves as politicians. Do I think I am somehow feminine because I doubt I have the capabilities to thrive in the political forum? No. That the self-doubt you ascribe exclusively to women exists is undeniable, however, if I suffer from it, it must belong to men as well..    

and if men have self-doubt as debilitating as that suffered by women it can only mean either that:

  1. in the case of men it is good judgement but in the case of women it is nuroces, or 
  2. Both menand women have something tocontribute to politics but democracy as currently formulated does not bring inclucivity into its heart by developing forums where all can participate. 

I think you’ll agree with me that the second is more likely.

Perhaps, on some level, we need to look beyond the trope that men will ask for a pay rise and back themselves for a promotion and look instead at the systems of our democracy, both local and national. For if men such as Joe Anderson can emerge from a democratic system and Liverpool City Council can retain a safe labour majority despite endemic corruption, anti-Semitism, inefficiency and a central government takeover, clearly the system in place is flawed far beyond the mere preponderance of little Hitlers among its male members.  

I would start with public forums with recommendatory powers. This would bring together elected, unelected, male and female, from all sectors of the city and with varied experience ensured from local experts. This would supercharge diversity by removing the barriers caused by the Democratic Darwinism of natural electoral selection.  Moreover, it would allow people for whom the idea of standing in election is anathema, to contribute to the wellbeing of our city. 


About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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