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7 Political Leaders You Need To Know

Written by Celeste Arenas, IPA Campus Coordinator — Sydney University

1. Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967)


“The art of politics consists in knowing precisely when it is necessary to hit an opponent slightly below the belt”

 Konrad Adenauer

Konrad Adenauer rebuilt a broken Germany following the Second World War into a free, open and democratic society. His life and legacy would be repairing the damage caused by Nazi totalitarianism and proving that there could be optimism in the political future of West Germany.

Born into a Roman Catholic family, Konrad Adenauer was brought up with the values of religious observance, parsimony and fulfilment of duty. Before he followed in father’s footsteps as a civil servant, he was known to be “hardworking rather than brilliant” in his studies. With similar dedication he began to work for an influential Cologne lawyer and was steadfastly promoted to Oberbürgermeister or Lord Mayor of Cologne in 1917.

In his tenure as mayor he dealt with many crises, including quelling the thirst for revolution after the First World War and advocating for the interests of Rhineland against the central government in Berlin. No crisis, however, would match the destruction that came with growth of Nazi fascism. Adenauer firmly opposed extremist policies of any nature and refused to carry out some of their orders. Hitler’s officials reacted with a slander campaign against him. He lost his position, had his bank account frozen, and was eventually arrested by the Gestapo in 1944.

After the war, American authorities were eager to restore his position as mayor of Cologne, given his reputation as a competent leader untainted by Nazism. He was instrumental in reviving the Christian Democratic Union as a major centre-right German party. Although he was strongly backed by the Catholic Church and influential businessmen, Adenauer worked towards building coalitions with all faiths that supported democratic institutions. Significantly, he established an independent political structure for Germany that did not have to be “propped up” by the Allied powers. Therefore not only was his vision for West Germany open and democratic, it was also largely independent from foreign influence.

As leader of the Christian Democratic Party, he was elected Chancellor three times over the post-war period. Given his thorough experience with authoritarian government, Adenauer strived towards a restoration of economic and civil liberties for all West Germans. Having opposed extremist policies of the right, he was also opposed to extremist policies on the left and had a natural aversion to all forms of socialism. His firm commitment was to intervene in the economy as little as possible. Adenauer’s vision of a free Germany significantly contributed to what is now referred to as the Wirtschaftswunder, the West German economic miracle of unprecedented growth. This came hand in hand with his vision of a peaceful Europe as Adenauer worked tirelessly towards building a harmonious European community and repairing relations with neighbouring countries like France.

To this day, he is remembered as “the most popular German,” coming to embody the spirit of a nation that came to terms with its past by rebuilding the present in order to make the most for the future.

2. Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)


“There is a lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries”

-American diplomat Henry Kissinger on Lee Kuan Yew

Lee proved that size does not matter, transforming a poor island colony into one of the most important and thriving economies of the modern day. Although a ‘soft authoritarian’ on civil liberties, Lee was one of the most competent administrators in Asia of the 20th century. He dramatically changed Singapore for the better.

Lee was born into a wealthy and educated Chinese family though his first language was English, an inheritance of British colonial rule. He graduated from law at Cambridge in 1949 and was admitted to the English bar. Nevertheless, Lee decided to return back to Singapore, as well as learn Chinese, Tamil and Malay. In these days Lee leaned towards the socialist side of politics, supporting the rights of workers and struggling against colonialism. His first post, a legal advisor to the Postal Union who negotiated for higher wages for workers, suited his political views.

In the early 1950s, Singapore’s ruling elite was largely dominated by wealthy Chinese businessmen who were appointed rather than elected to their posts. Lee strove for constitutional reform and built a coalition with other disaffected Singaporeans. Nevertheless, his determination to enact a more radical agenda led to his founding of the People’s Action Party in 1955.

The People’s Action Party faced many hurdles. It struggled to negotiate self-rule from British authority, members were incarcerated by the British authorities, and it faced power struggles against rivalling Singaporean factions. Determined to lead his nation, Lee successfully negotiated a self-governing state with free elections by 1958. He nominated himself for leadership and was convincingly elected by the majority of Singaporeans on an anti-colonialist and anti-communist platform.

With Singapore’s considerably small size and potentially hostile neighbours, including China and Indonesia, Lee strove to unite Singapore with Malaysia. However, tensions between the ethnic Malay and Singaporean Chinese meant Singapore was forced to secede from the planned federation of the two nations. Lee responded to the vulnerable geopolitical position by embarking on reforms to ensure Singapore could survive and succeed independently.

Lee’s key objective became Singapore’s economic growth and the welfare of Singaporeans. He abandoned his socialist leanings of the past, but not his vision for a better country. He believed it was better to question the method rather than the end goal. By observing the experiences of other countries he concluded that the prosperity and vibrancy of Singapore would depend on having an open and free economy, led by an efficient administration.

In his long term tenure as Prime Minister (1959-1990), Lee became famous worldwide for establishing a political structure with little corruption, liberalising the economy to become a major exporter of finished goods and encouraging large sums of overseas private investment.

Within 30 years, Singapore’s economy became so successful that its GNP is now higher than its first colonizer, Britain. Singapore is consistently on the list of top 10 nations of the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom list and is recognised as one of the best places in the world to do business. The steadfast leadership and vision of the man who “founded” Singapore enabled this amazing success story.

3. Sir Seretse Khama (1921-1980)


“Here we will have to learn how to share aspirations and hopes as one people, united by a common belief in the unity of the human race. Here rests our past, our present, and, most importantly of all, our future” – Seretse Khama

As the first president of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama was instrumental in reshaping a poverty stricken war torn nation into a peaceful and prosperous state. He established a political model rivalled by few African states, setting up an inspirational example for the next generation of Botswanan leaders.

Born into the Botswanan royal family, Khama succeeded his father’s crown at the age of four. Whilst his first name ‘Seretse’ means the ‘clay that binds’ in reference to repairing relations between his father and grandfather, it also came to embody his leadership style over Botswana later on in life. This was particularly important given the context of British colonialism, whereby his grandfather Khama III secured an alliance with the British to thwart Cecil Rhodes’ imperial ambitions and Boer incursions.

Under thinly veiled British protection, Khama pursued education in Oxford University where he married an Englishwoman Ruth Williams in 1948. Much of what is known about Khama in the Anglosphere today is due to the controversy this marriage created. His regent uncle commanded the marriage be annulled but the Botswanan people sided with Khama for refusing to do so. The neighbouring Afrikaners saw the marriage as a political affront to their segregation policies and demanded that the British remove Khama from power. The British government appeased South Africa, forcing Khama and his wife to exile in 1951. The outrage in Western media over this would not be quelled until Britain allowed Khama and his wife to return home as private citizens in 1956.

Despite deteriorating health, Khama re-emerged from the Botswanan political shadows establishing the Bechuanaland Democratic Party. With a classical liberal platform, Khama was more popular than the existing Pan-Africanist and socialist party, winning a landslide victory in the first universal franchise election of 1965.

Whilst inheriting one of the poorest and vulnerable countries in Africa as Prime Minister, he envisioned a prosperous independent Botswana free from colonial rule, which he achieved in his lifetime. A majority of the Botswanan population were still living below the global poverty line and the nation was crippled by foreign debt. Khama understood that resolving these matters would require building institutions that gave the average Botswanan opportunities to create their own wealth. Khama set out not only secure independence from Britain in 1966, but also to build coalitions with various ethnic groups that supported democracy. He liberalized Botswana’s closed economy, opening its natural resources for foreign investment, overseas exports and trade. The nation became one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with an emerging middle class of wealthy Botswanan entrepreneurs.

To this day, Botswana benefits from the institutions and growth-oriented policies that Sir Seretse Khama laid out. Unlike many other countries in Africa, Botswana was able to take advantage of its natural resources and harness the individual creativity and business acumen of its people. Whilst Khama is most notably remembered in the Western world for a controversial marriage of love, he should also be remembered for his monumental service to Botswana over a tenure of 15 years.

4. Menachem Begin (1913-1992)


“In peace, the Middle East, the ancient cradle of civilization, will become invigorated and transformed. Throughout its lands there will be freedom of movement of people, of ideas, of goods” – Menachem Begin

Menachem Begin, the founder of Likud, Israel’s first centre right political party, provided a conservative vision for Israel that championed national sovereignty and small government. Begin challenged the dominant Labor or Socialist Zionism paradigm through the development and practice of revisionist Zionism.

Begin grew up during the First World War in Poland, under the shadow of rising anti-Semitism perpetrated by both German and Russian armies. While he was at university in Warsaw, Begin organised self-defence classes for Jewish students to counter ongoing anti-Semitic attacks on campus, foreshadowing his role as an influential Zionist.

Foreshadowing his role as an influential Zionist, Begin came to lead Betar, an Eastern European Zionist resistance group founded by Israel’s conservative founding father, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The organisation became increasingly important in the wake of Nazi and Soviet terror, secretively helping Polish Jewry escape to Palestine and prepare them for the agricultural way of life.

Begin had long planned to escape Warsaw, however he gave his first visa to a friend he believed needed it more than him and continued his underground activities. He was eventually discovered by Stalin’s authorities, imprisoned and tortured in a Siberian gulag. After release, he served within the Polish Free Army in Palestine in the battle for a Jewish state. Begin became a formidable Zionist leader during the Second World War, simultaneously aiding the British against their common Nazi enemy, while also leading the Irgun military force against British authority to secure an independent Israel.

Labour Zionism came to dominate Israeli politics following independence in 1949, relegating Begin to a backseat role despite his influence as an Israeli military figure. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, emphasised international negotiations and democratic socialism, both of which Begin opposed. Begin believed Israel, under constant warfare from her Arab neighbours, could not negotiate without national sovereignty and a strong military capability. Moreover, he championed limited government and encouraged the growth of private enterprise to deliver prosperity for average Israelis. Begin led the uninfluential opposition party, Israeli Herut or Freedom Party. It was not until he established Likud, which emerged victorious at the 1977 election, that Begin became Israel’s first conservative prime minister.

Begin, from a position of military strength, secured a peace treaty with Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat. This was a substantial international achievement. Under this treaty Egypt became the first Arab nation in history to recognise Israel as a state, paving the grounds for improved relations in the Middle East and strengthening Israel’s legitimacy in the international community.

Begin’s free market economic reforms addressed Israel’s inflation and debt crisis, restoring economic stability and growth. These reforms were instrumental in opening up the doors of wealth and opportunity for Sephardic Jews, who had long enough suffered from unmeritocratic socialist policies that favoured the Ashkenazi Jews of European descent.

Menachem Begin played an astounding role in forming the Israeli state. He was never deterred by the governance of the left, instead relying on democratic success to realise a strong future for Israel.

5. Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013)


“Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides” – Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher was one of the longest serving prime ministers in British History, significantly impacting the course of British political history with her vision of Britain. Her ground breaking reforms and policy victories gave her legendary recognition as the “Iron Lady”. She persistently defended and defined the British ideal of liberty and conservatism.

Born into a working class family, Thatcher was the ‘grocer’s daughter’ who would become Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Her father, whom she later described as the most influential person in her life, leaned towards small government conservatism and was active in local politics. Persuading her never to follow the tide, Thatcher took this to heart from an early age with a unique academic diligence that was uncommon for young women of the time.

After winning a scholarship to study chemistry at Oxford University, Thatcher became thoroughly involved within campus politics. She was quickly disenchanted with liberal minded academia, turning her attention to the Oxford University Conservative Association and eventually serving as its President. After graduating, Thatcher had a short-lived but successful career as a research chemist before deciding to return to university to pursue a law degree specialising in tax law. During this time, juggling marriage, motherhood, and a successful career, she decided to run for political office.

Thatcher was initially only selected to run in a strong Labour seat. Unsurprisingly she was not successful, however she did make extraordinary gains, increasing the Conservative vote by 50 per cent. Thatcher came to enter Parliament in 1959 as the Member for Finchley. She became a trailblazer within the Party, bringing conviction, competence and efficiency to every post she held. From entering the ministry as Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1970, to becoming Leader of the Opposition in 1975, Thatcher did not allow for compromise or watered down solutions.

Thatcher became Prime Minister following the Conservative Party victory at the 1979 election. She inherited a Britain that was undergoing economic and political disaster. The country was nearing bankruptcy, facing extraordinarily high unemployment and inflation, rising corruption, and debilitating trade union power. These difficulties motivated Thatcher to lead Britain away from socialist policies.

She carried out sweeping privatisation reforms that threw the government-dependent culture out from under the rug. She opened Britain for business by curbing union power and cutting corporate and personal tax rates. Her reforms faced significant opposition, from the Labour Party, the unions and even from her own Party, but she refused to alter her approach. She carried her convictions to the international sphere as well, defending British sovereignty against Argentinian attack in the Falklands, and taking a strong stand against the Soviet Union.

Thatcher’s role in British politics was legendary. Many have chosen to highlight that Thatcher was Britain’s first female Prime Minister, however she would not. Thatcher believed in achievements based on merit alone. Her achievements, as well as her steadfast determination, conviction and leadership won the hearts and minds of the British people.

6. Ronald Reagan (1911-2004)



“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help” – Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan, the legendary Cold War American leader, was the original man who wanted to ‘Make America Great Again’. He pursued a vision of smaller government, and greater individual freedom that restored security and opportunity to the American people.

Reagan came from humble beginnings, growing up in a small apartment with his family that lacked indoor running water. He thrived in school, where he was successful in sport and student leadership. Reagan saved 77 lives when he worked as a lifeguard over 7 years, this helped him cultivate the image of a hero from an early age.

Reagan’s family could not afford to send him to college. Nevertheless, he was able to attend university on a part scholarship with a job on campus. He was the first in his family to take on higher education and gladly took the opportunity.

After graduation, his first occupation was as a radio announcer at a time when a quarter of the American population was unemployed. His skill and talent as a communicator was noticed by Warner Bros, who offered him a 7-year contract in Hollywood in 1937. Reagan starred in 52 movies, becoming a well-known figure to American cinema goers.

Although Reagan grew up supporting the Democrats and socialist-leaning economic policies, his views developed over time through his experiences and new found ideas. During his time at General Electric, where his job saw him speak to employees across the country, he came to see the destructiveness of an overbearing government that stifled wealth and individual freedom. He also came to see the destructive impact of the union movement.

Reagan, motivated by his newfound conviction, starred in a televised appeal for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Despite losing the election, Republican voters were inspired by Reagan’s moving oratory and hope that American could once again be the bastion of liberty. He not only decried erosion of economic freedom but also the increasing militancy of the Soviet Union, advocating for America to defend itself and the free world from hostile forces.

This speech propelled his political career. With the encouragement of his wife, Nancy, he made the decision to run for the Governor of California. His campaign, which provided a refreshing Republican message, resulted in a decisive victory. He served as Governor from 1967 till 1975, and, following another successful campaign, as President from 1981 to 1989.

During his term as President Reagan implemented wide scale reforms, cut taxes, reduced spending and privatised various industries. Under his leadership America’s economy boomed. In foreign affairs, Reagan played a vital role in stopping Soviet aggression and then forging a diplomatic relationship with Russia when the Soviet threat subsided. He was a master of reading the times and seized on the opportunity to create peace when it was given. He famously gave the speech to tear down the Berlin Wall, challenging the forces of communism with words that were just as powerful as the weapons that could accompany them.

7. Narasimha Rao (1921-2004)


“Time itself is the solution to all problems” – Narasimha Rao

Narasimha Rao,  the ‘Father of Indian economic reforms’, was a trailblazer in the campaign to modernise India. His reforms provided unprecedented opportunities for millions of Indians, raising India from a relative back to a major player in the global economy.

Brought up in an agricultural household, Rao turned to scholarly pursuits from a young age. He learnt many languages while studying his Law degree, and learnt many more throughout his lifetime. He spoke eight different Indian languages, as well English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic and Persian. These many academic interests served Rao well, as he was able to use his profound knowledge to solve complex world problems and establish essential relationships later on in life.

He first entered the political sphere as a freedom fighter in the Independence movement. After surviving the war and risking his life several times, Rao would officially serve in many different roles within government. He was an avid supporter of the Ghandi family, who served many terms in government. Under Indira Ghandi, he took on several different portfolios like the Minister of Law and Information and well as Minister for Health and Medicine, which continued through Rajiv Ghandi’s administration.

Whilst opting for retirement after a long and successful career, the tragedy of Rajiv Ghandi’s assassination ultimately changed his plans. Rao was asked to take on the role of Prime Minister and after a striking electoral victory, he became prime minister in 1991.

He inherited an India that was on the cusp of bankruptcy and resolved to do everything possible to restore its position to accelerate economic growth. Instead of appointing friends and allies, Rao sought to make appointments based on their merit for the role. He appointed Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister and Subramanyan Swami as Cabinet Minister for International Trade. By building competent and decisive leadership around him, Rao was able to implement spectacular reforms despite only holding a minority government.

His economic policies would be to open up foreign investment, deregulate many nationalised industries and lead India towards an export-oriented economy. The License Raj, which set up elaborate rules, regulation and red tape for anyone setting up a business in India was dismantled under Rao. At a time when Indians had to wait three years before purchasing and operating a computer, Rao’s led major economic and innovation reforms which has allowed India to become a global leader in technology development and production.

As a strong believer of India’s growing potential, Rao strived to build long lasting relationships with other nations. He paved the way for stronger collaboration with Europe, the US, China and Israel, signing agreements with all these nations to increase trade and exports and establish political ties.

His other major achievements would be in handling the domestic crises of the times. On various occasions, Rao could keep the peace without giving in to the demands of home grown terrorism. He was likewise able to quell the increasing violence that accompanied the separatist movements.

Narasimha Rao was an essential figure in opening India to the world, bringing immeasurable economic, social and political benefits to his people.


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