6.3.6 Temporary Political Legitimacy Conferred by a Threat

It is widely agreed that a prime duty of government is to protect people (2.1).  When a leader tells people that they are threatened by an invader their immediate reaction is to support that leader in repelling the threat.  A threat which is genuine and unavoidable gives the population an incentive to pull together and it can overshadow a government’s failings in other respects; it becomes difficult for other politicians to oppose the government, for fear of being seen as unpatriotic.  This is a temporary form of political legitimacy, which is not created by a government’s virtues but by a reaction to outside forces.  Several types of threat can have such an effect:

  • People rally to support their leaders in a country which is at war or is under the threat of war. Winston Churchill, for example, was immensely popular as a wartime leader.
  • When Argentina captured Britain’s Falkland Islands, Margaret Thatcher decided to recover them, claiming it as a ‘just war’ ( to protect the islanders. History.com described How the Falklands War Cemented Margaret Thatcher’s Reputation as the ‘Iron Lady’.  It turned round her political fortunes: she became very popular (but General Galtieri, whom she defeated, was ousted – as noted below).
  • Coercive economic sanctions against Zimbabwe enabled Robert Mugabe to deflect criticism of his mismanagement of the economy ( They gave him some political legitimacy and he was able to rule for 37 years.

Such legitimacy is swiftly lost, though, if the public is dissatisfied with the war’s progress or when the threat is removed:

  • “Winston Churchill was probably the most popular British prime minister of all time”, but lost the election after the Second World War when people wanted a different kind of government for the reconstruction – as the BBC argued when explaining Why Churchill Lost in 1945.
  • It is particularly difficult to maintain public support for an overseas war, particularly if it continues for longer than expected or if it appears to be going badly. A well-known example was the eventual unpopularity of the Vietnam War: illustrated by the BBC report, Thousands join anti-war movement.
  • The Economist obituary, Leopoldo Galtieri, described how General Galtieri’s government was experiencing protests when “Argentina was going through one of its regular periods of high inflation and poor growth.” His invasion of the Falkland Islands was initially popular: “The protests were largely forgotten when he announced that Argentina was to seize the Falklands”, but he was dismissed when the invasion was defeated.

It is almost always the case that the legitimacy conferred by external threats is temporary.  Politicians may crave for the united support which they receive in wartime, but it is usually not in the people’s interests to go to war – because, as discussed later, military force is of limited utility (7.4.1) so it is a highly risky political strategy to lead a country into a war of choice.

An analogous phenomenon occurs when the leader of an ethnic or nationalist group is able to identify a defined enemy.  The solidarity of the group is strengthened by having such an enemy, and this is one reason why politicians choose to ‘play the race card’ to stir up ethnic divisions ( which are never in the people’s best interests.


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