Thursday, 17 August 2017

What can we learn from Doctor Who and Adolf Hitler?

Sorry about that picture - the stuff of nightmares indeed! This kind of follows on from yesterdays post about 'heroes'. One of the things I was saying in there was that we need to be careful about 'dehumanising' politicians either as 'heroes' or villains'. This post is about those people, and politicians in particular, who carefully construct a 'persona' in order to do just that for themselves.

Let's start with Adolf Hitler - a very well known and obvious example of this. What was seen on news reels and in speeches was not 'Adolph Hitler' the man at all - it was a very, very carefully constructed persona. A deliberate image designed specifically for effect, and something he spent many hours in the mirror practising. The jerky movements, the poses, the little moustache, the hair, the voice, the costumes - all were artificially constructed, and constructed for a purpose. It was intended to make him seem just that bit 'otherworldly', as if he wasn't quite the same as any other human being, and didn't come from quite the same world as ordinary people. It didn't matter that it was at times a little bit comical - whether he knew that and intended it or not I don't know, but the point was to mark himself out as being 'not of this earth'. Something new and different. Slightly alien. If that eccentricity of character made people chuckle a little under their breath it not only worked just the same, but actually allowed a route into their minds for him to be viewed with a kind of 'affection' rather than as a threat.

So where does Doctor Who come in? Well, that character has been built with the same effect in mind. Of course in his case he is actually an alien, but the point of his quirky costumes and occasionally slightly non-human behaviour is to remind us of that. It's a dramatic ruse, and a very effective one - we may see his frailties from time to time, and he may make us laugh with some of his eccentricity, but in seeing him as 'otherworldly' it's easy for us to accept by implication that he is just that little bit 'superhuman'. Of course, such a character has to come with flaws too, and the Doctor is no exception - he can be unthinking and callous, he can lack normal human empathy, and he is capable of doing what ordinary people wouldn't in order to serve the greater good. We accept that, because we know he is slightly 'superhuman' - we expect him to not always behave as others would, and that's all part of his charm.

There are many other fictional examples - television detectives very often play on the same kind of idea. Their almost inhuman reasoning and discovery powers are easier for us to 'believe' (in the sense of theatrical 'suspension of disbelief, of course) because they come as part of an almost inhuman complete package. Take Colombo as an example, or even Gregory House. Perhaps the best known detective to employ this is the Sherlock Holmes character - always constructed in that way as written, but even more so in the recent Sherlock TV series - he is human, but not quite. He has otherworldly 'powers' and methods to see what 'ordinary people' couldn't possibly imagine from the evidence that's presented. That allows us to ignore the normal emotional effects of the character 'flaws' that have been built in to enhance that 'otherworldliness' - we wouldn't normally be cheering on a self-centred, self-serving drug addict, but in a case like his it's part of his 'heroic charm'. It's a more subtle and believable approach to drama than the simple Super Hero in his flowing cape, mysterious mask and outside-worn underwear, but the effect is much the same on the way we are drawn to view the character. They seem somehow 'above and beyond' ordinary humanity, and that is quite deliberate. It's what makes them dramatic 'heroes' as opposed to simply being 'characters'.

That's all well and good in a fictional character, but when it comes to real people it becomes a something to be concerned about. The 'constructed persona' in politics can be very effective in manipulating people to support someone as if they were almost a 'superhero' - to believe that a person has a greater understanding and insight than us 'mere mortals'. The otherworldly, almost superhuman mystique constructed as a character around a politician can allow them to rise rapidly in a way that other politicians can't, and/or to do and say things that we would normally dismiss. Adolf Hitler was able to do what he did because he drew the adoration of supporters by appearing 'otherworldly' - a 'national superhero'. Any flaws people saw in him just became part of that persona, and anything he said that they wouldn't have agreed with before became acceptable precisely because he was unconsciously assumed to have a greater understanding and vision than an ordinary person possibly could. As much as we should dismiss him as a perpetrator of evil, we have to recognise his cleverness in constructing such a character for himself in the minds of so many of the German people. We have to recognise it, and we have to understand it, so that we can spot anyone else who is trying to do the same sort of thing in future.

Of course, the superhuman persona idea in politics is not at all new. It's something that rulers, especially hereditary rulers, have been doing for a very long time. To put it bluntly, being 'God's anointed' really isn't believable if it's obvious that God is willing to anoint just anyone - they have to be 'special', and rulers have used propaganda to attribute a wide variety of 'special' attributes to themselves. There are obvious contemporary examples, too - take a look at certain troublesome dictators in the Far East, and how they constantly have their people told that they can play a round of golf in less shots than there are holes, or that they don't use the toilet like other human beings have to. From the outside it seems so obvious - it seems so silly that anyone would ever accept that, but the fact is that they do. It's a little different on the inside of a world where all media is controlled, and used to repeat the same messages to people from the day they are born. Of course, hereditary rulers have that at their disposal, but those seeking power have to be a little more subtle in order to be believable. It's the same basic approach, but toned down just enough that people can accept them as being human even though they are somehow slightly more than human. A fine line to tread, and also an approach with risks - such people can fall out of favour with all but their most irrationally fervent supporters even more quickly than they get themselves into it when their careful construct starts to fall apart. Once you see through the smoke and mirrors, you will always know that they were smoke and mirrors from the start (and you'll probably find it hard to understand how you were ever taken in by it all).

Now I'm not talking here about simple 'spin' or 'media training' - those are an inevitable part of politics, because politics requires people to be popular enough to get elected. Those at the higher levels of politics will always need to enhance their image, soften their rough edges, and handle public appearances and media interview situations well. They will have media training, and may employ image consultants, and so on. Many at the lower levels of politics will inevitably have to think along similar lines in a way, although I suspect many have less training and image consultancy than many people think. There really isn't a secret factory turning out 'politicians' as slick creatures of image perfection! That's not what I'm talking about here - the kind of stuff done by the likes of Blair and Thatcher were simple enhancements to make the public like or accept them more as human beings, rather than almost entirely false constructs to make them seem 'otherworldly' or 'superhuman'. Whether you liked them or not, and whether the spin was a little over-slick or not, you always pretty much knew what Thatcher and Blair were really about. They were trying to present themselves in the best light rather than trying to hide their real selves behind a constructed persona. It was a slight modification to attract, rather than a complete construction to distract, and those are very different things.

So let's think about how you would construct such an otherworldly persona for political purposes. You need to be 'quirky' in the way you speak, the way you act and the way you look. You need to mark yourself out as 'different', and so by implication 'special'. You need to be putting things in ways that other people wouldn't think to put them. Being slightly amusing isn't a bad thing - if your 'oddity' is a slightly amusing kind of 'oddity', then it attracts people to you all the more. It disarms their normal cynical defences. It can even distract them from what you are really doing and saying, just because it's you who is saying it, you are saying it in a strange way, and they know that 'that's just the way you are'. You need to look 'different' - you need to wear clothes that are a little away from the run of the mill current fashions (old fashioned works well, but just plain odd or ill-matching is also effective). Perhaps some kind of wild and funny hairstyle, too - something that marks you out as someone who doesn't really need to care about appearance in the way that ordinary folk inevitably would. You don't want the slick tailored suit of a Tony Blair. Quite the opposite - you want to appear memorably not quite the same as anyone else would ever dream of looking, especially if they were wanting to present themselves as worthy of election to high public office.

Is this starting to ring any bells yet? Why do you think someone like Donald Trump keeps that ludicrous trademark hairstyle of his - he knows full well that it's completely ridiculous in fashion terms, and that it should really make him a laughing stock. He's now in political office, of course, but these kind of techniques can work in the cut-throat world of top business too - they might distract others from issues like multiple bankruptcies and failed ventures, and very wealthy backgrounds that haven't actually got much wealthier through great business success despite the endless claims of business genius. He looks strange. He speaks strange. He's really not quite like anybody else on the planet. It almost feels like he's 'not of this world'. For some it's quite easy to see through, in the sense that it's clear that he's really talking simplistic nonsense, but he isn't trying to speak to those people. The simplistic and almost child-like language is very deliberately aimed at a specific target audience, and for them the fact that he is saying what others won't in a way that others don't is almost magical, when it's combined with his slightly otherworldly image. For those who aren't quite in that target demographic, it can still be slightly appealing, or at least mostly inoffensive, because 'that's just him', and he's 'a little different'. It's very clever, and it's very devious - we certainly shouldn't ever underestimate those with such a carefully constructed persona.

And what about here in the UK? Are there any politicians that come to mind who seem harmlessly eccentric but somehow not quite like other people? Any who have appealed even to natural political opponents on some level because of their apparent 'goofiness' and affable but somewhat eccentric charm, perhaps? Any who seem to get their names mentioned in contexts and at levels that you would never normally imagine someone so apparently daft or odd to reach? Any who seem to be attracting passionate support as almost messiah-like figures because they just don't seem quite like any other 'normal' politician in the way they speak, look or act? Anyone who, when you think about it, might just be 'getting away with it' despite their apparent lack of the usual kind of competence that we'd expect from our politicians? Three names spring immediately to my mind: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Have a think about those characters. A really good think. Do they seem real to you, or are they deliberate constructions? Are their apparently otherworldly eccentricities allowing them to distract attention from what they are really all about as politicians? I'll leave you to decide that for yourselves.

I must say a word here about Jeremy Corbyn, since I've mentioned the messiah-like adoration, and that certainly appears to be an issue attributable to his hardcore support. We have to be careful to distinguish between those who construct a useful false persona, and those for whom a potentially false persona is constructed by others in order to spread his message. I certainly don't think that you can say that Jeremy Corbyn pretends to be something that he isn't in the same way, or has used those techniques of creating and impression of otherworldliness to get where he is. Indeed, where he is now is something of a surprise given where he has been for most of his political career - a perpetual backbench rebel with an undeniable talent for rabble-rousing in the political rally scenario.

He's never hidden himself in that way, but there do seem to have been some attempts to raise an otherworldly mystique about him since his election to the leadership of his party. For example, almost as soon as he was elected there were a string of social media posts about how he never claimed expenses while other MPS claimed hundreds of thousands. Whoever created these must have known that they weren't true - the figures came from IPSA, but didn't compare like with like. The other MP's figures were drawn from the total, including office and staff costs, second home allowances, and so on. His were his personal claims only, and it was never explained that he wasn't eligible for the same level as many other MPs because his constituency is in London, as stone's throw from parliament, and the smallest geographically in the country. Of course, an MP effectively runs a 'branch office' of parliament in their constituency, but all of the office costs (including the salaries of the support staff an MP needs to do their job) as described as 'expenses' it creates a false impression, and certainly there were those who sought to exploit that for the purposes of creating a saintly mystique around Jeremy Corbyn. That should be noted as something beyond normal political spin, and something to be wary about, but as far as I can see it didn't come directly from him, and it was certainly not the same issue that this post is discussing - it's not what he's built his political career upon (and it is something that careers have to be built on from day one - you can't invent a new persona that you haven't used all along and maintain the kind of public credibility that you need for it in order to be able to pull it off).

It happens that the names I have mentioned here have come from the Right Wing of politics, but we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that they are the only ones capable of doing it. Remember that not all dictators and rulers come from that side of the political spectrum, and it's entirely possible that some of the more famous leaders of communist countries, for example, have used similar ideas. Indeed, where I have been using 'otherworldly', you could also perhaps use the term 'larger than life', and all sides of politics have had such characters. It's not necessarily always easy to tell the genuinely slightly eccentric from the constructs, of course, especially when you are around in the world that they may be trying to manipulate with their persona. With hindsight, though, we could perhaps consider cases like Cyril Smith - how much of his apparently 'larger than life' persona was constructed to distract people from some of the activities that we didn't really learn about until after his death? Likewise we can consider the likes of Jimmy Savile, of course - another slightly 'otherworldly' character who manipulated many people into believing that he was something he was not, and who used it to distract attention away from what he really was. A slightly different manifestation from the political arena, of course, but the technique of deliberate persona construction is really pretty similar.

I should say here that not every use of an apparent bit of eccentricity is being used for quite such evil means as some of the examples above, though it may still be considered somewhat devious. I will cite an example of someone I knew not through or in politics (and had great respect for) who used it, to an extent, as a technique in meetings. He would go into meetings having determined what it was he wanted to achieve, or what subject he particularly wanted to avoid discussing. During the meeting, he would use the fact that he was genuinely, naturally affable but apparently slightly 'bumbling' in manner (despite actually being very bright and sharp) to just direct the discussions slightly. If he wanted to avoid a particular topic, he would pick on another unrelated point coming up before it and hammer away at it seemingly endlessly, even though it would seem irrelevant to everyone else, and he would seem to be misunderstanding some aspect of it slightly. To put it simply, he would irritate people so that they'd want to shut him up, and so that they'd avoid raising the other subject lest it 'set him off again' and they be stuck listening to him all day. It could be very frustrating for people, I'm sure, but was actually a master-class in meeting manipulation. A little underhand, perhaps, but never aimed at anything more getting things done in the way he wanted them done (and with hindsight he was very often correct). Not so much creating a false persona as it was emphasising slightly aspects of his natural character to gain momentary advantage over those who didn't quite spot what he was doing at the time.

We obviously mustn't fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who is slightly eccentric, or who sometimes uses their own eccentricity to gain a little advantage, is somehow an 'evil genius' or 'wannabe dictator'. There are those who go way beyond that kind of thing, though. Those who deliberately construct a persona to achieve their ends. Some of those achieve their ends that way before anybody has really realised exactly what they are up to.

I'll finish by answering the question I began with, 'what can we learn from Doctor Who and Adolf Hitler'? We can learn to watch out for the apparently slightly otherwordly - those who seem not quite 'of this world' in some way, in case that is something they are putting forward quite deliberately as an artificially constructed persona. In fiction it's a very useful dramatic device. In the real world it is something altogether different. Such people are, by definition, not quite what they would have you believe, but they can become very popular very quickly, and they can appear to transcend normal politics to achieve personal ends through distraction and manipulation. And they can do it while many people aren't really looking. That makes them very, very dangerous.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A few of my political 'heroes'.

This is a bit of an odd post for me, which is why the title says 'heroes' rather than just heroes. I'm not normally given to 'hero worship' at all - I tend to see people as people, with all of their complications and mix of admirable and less admirable traits. That goes for the famous as much as for everyone else, and while I might find some points interesting or inspirational in some way I don't find that they erase the negative for me to the point where I see them as 'heroes' in the sense some people seem to use. That's just me - I've never gone in for that kind of adoration stuff, as many people seem to.

That said, there are people I think of in a sense as having been inspirational on the political stage in some way (as indeed there are musicians, actors, and so on, but this post isn't about them). None of them are 'heroes' to me in the sense of me putting them on any kind of pedestal, having their posters on my wall, or invoking their spirit as I try to do my bit politically. In fact, they are mostly pretty complicated characters, and some have made some pretty huge mistakes in their lives and careers. They certainly aren't all people I agree with politically by any means either - they might have done things I admire in ways I can appreciate, but that doesn't mean I fully agree even with those things let alone with their wider political views.

That's how I think things should be, though - I'm not one for blanket dismissal or vague dehumanisation of opposition politicians, and I do think we can disagree respectfully on politics with people we regard as friends, or as fine people who seem (to us) misguided in their views. I don't tend to do the 'bloody this' or 'bloody that' type of politics. There are opposition people I regard less highly, of course - people that I believe to be primarily self-interested, and/or that I don't believe to be genuinely standing up for what they believe to be right at all, for example. I have little time for that kind of political person, but I don't think that is restricted to any particular kind of political view.

Indeed, I don't think any particular kind of political view is immune from having such people among those parties who advocate their views either. It is a sad fact that 'power', of whatever kind and at whatever level, will always attract some who see it as a means to a personal end. There will always be the personally ambitious, the primarily selfish and the simply arrogant in politics - it's a fact of life that all of us involve ourselves in politics should be aware of and remind ourselves about from time to time. While we should all (in all parties) be calling out such people when we find them, I think it should be noted that it certainly isn't the case that 'all politicians are the same', or indeed that a majority (in any party) go into 'politics' with such motives in their minds. Some may be seduced later on, of course, but I think most people in politics (elected and otherwise) genuinely get involved because they believe they can make the world a better place in some way (though they don't all agree what way that is, obviously!), and most do stay like that throughout their lives and/or political careers. I don't think the low reputation that all 'politicians' have in some quarters is justified at all, though I think there are example for that reputation and worse is thoroughly deserved. All the more so because of the disrepute that their actions bring down on all of 'politics', and the damage they therefore do to democracy and to their country. I won't name names, though!

So onwards to some of my 'heroes', for want of a better term.

I really have to start at what was the beginning for my own politics, with David Steel (Baron Steel of Aikwood, as he is now officially known). I grew up watching the news through the period of the catastrophic end of the Callaghan government (hence, like many my age and older, I always know exactly where to find the candles in my house!), the subsequent Thatcher government, and the rise of a kind of 'radicalism' in British politics on both sides. The political news was dominated by what might be called 'ranters' of one kind or another, each utterly dismissing 'the other side' as something apparently akin to pure evil, and each seemingly determined on a course of 'no dialogue' and 'no quarter' (a kind of politics we are sadly seeing again in the UK today). On the one hand you had the likes of Thatcher and Tebbit, and on the other Foot and Scargill - perhaps the ultimate expression of this was the strike that was so destructive to the country, and to so many communities in my part of the world. I've mentioned that, and David Steel, in a previous post: Orgreave, Coal and Steel (David!).

Throughout that period there was always what seemed to me to be the quiet voice of reason, and that was the voice of David Steel. The very embodiment of 'when all around are losing their heads...', it seemed to me even at a very young age. That experience was, I must conclude looking back, a very important part of what forged my own political views. It seems to me now that there are some who forget just what an important voice he was in the history of our party and our Liberal movement, leading as he did throughout that difficult period, through the period of the 'Alliance', and right up until the foundation of the new party. Indeed, it saddens me rather that our more recent improvements in party membership card, with pictures of prominent Liberal and Lib Dem party figures, does not include the option of Lord Steel. Perhaps too many people see the past through the prism of the character assassination by satire that was perpetrated by 'Spitting Image' - I don't know, but I do think it's a shame.

That is not to say that he was, or is, any more perfect than anyone else, of course - he's a human being, he made mistakes, and he did and said things that I don't necessarily agree with (I don't necessarily agree with every word said by any politician or party - I fear that anyone who does isn't adequately thinking for themselves!). However, to lead a third party in that period in the dignified, sensible and pragmatic way that he did took, I think, great courage and fortitude - sometimes it's easy to forget that history remembers those who shout loudest and those who win big, but they certainly aren't the whole story, and those who contributed in other ways should perhaps get the recognition they deserve. At a time when the Liberal centre of politics is again getting heavily squeezed between 'radicals', we should remember those without whom we may not still be here at all as an independent political force, and David Steel is without doubt among the most important of those from that particular period. On a more personal note, he was certainly the single most important figure in the early formation of my own political views., and in my very humble opinion the greatest Prime Minister that Britain never had.

OK, so this must be the single most predictable 'political hero' selection someone in the UK could present, Winston Churchill. In my part of the UK, though, it's a pretty controversial choice - that goes to illustrate what I said about seeing people 'in the round', mistakes and misdeeds and all. In a sense, that's actually partly why I include him here - my opinion about him is not based what you might call 'the usual flag waving' stuff about being a great leader during a time of war. He probably was that, though even there I'd say he wasn't exactly perfect, and made many mistakes (including 'back of a fag packet' deals with Stalin to split Europe).

He was certainly a very complicated character in many ways. Slightly obsessed with his own sense of 'destiny', but at the same time prone to bouts of deep depression (and that's without mentioning his possibly excessive alcohol consumption). I guess you could say that he did what he did while fighting his own demons, and that in itself is an achievement. What he wasn't particularly prone to was party loyalty, of course - he was a fiercely independent thinker, and that is something I personally find admirable (though inevitable I disagree with many of the thoughts he had during his long career).

However you look at him, he will always be a towering figure in British politics. Probably one of the greatest, and certainly one of the most quotable, orators in history. Even with his undoubtedly arrogant sense of personal destiny, though, he was able to acknowledge at least some of his own failings and mistakes, and take personal responsibility for them - perhaps his time in the trenches is the best illustration of that. He also seemed to be able to look beyond the 'sweeping' and see and appreciate the important smaller details, something often missed by those who see themselves in grand terms. Though he got many things very wrong, in my opinion, particularly in the post-War era, he also got some things right (especially as a Liberal serving with Lloyd George - we Liberals shouldn't forget his contributions in that period). He is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in political history, and someone I freely confess that I find utterly fascinating.

This is one that might surprise a few people: former Plaid Cymru President and MP Gwynfor Evans. My regard for him as a political figure certainly isn't about supporting 'nationalism' at all - it's about personal determination to pursue what he saw as the right course, sometimes in the face of some pretty bitter opposition even from within his own supposed political allies. When others advocated something much more like a 'revolutionary' nationalist movement to improve the lot of Wales (and it did need improving in many ways, and still does), he chose the course of democracy. When others sometimes leaned towards a more radical (and sometimes more than merely 'radical') stance, he won and maintained the heart and soul of a 'nationalist' party as a force for change achieved primarily through the ballot box. Certainly not afraid to put himself on the line directly when necessary in particular campaigns (for example when it came to the issue of creating a Welsh language TV channel, something that was badly needed), he also made a huge contribution towards furthering his beliefs in a pragmatic and democratic manner.

There is no doubt that he had a great deal of political courage, and political courage directed fundamentally towards peaceful means. There were others in his party who were very much more inclined towards other means, and in some cases even towards other ends, but it is in no small part due to him that they failed to gain the upper hand. Personally I think that was a hugely important contribution to Wales - the other way would have gained a very different reaction from opponents and public alike, could have caused a spiral of reactionary radicalisation on both sides, and could have put Wales in a very different place today in terms of recognition and devolution. As much as I disagree with many of the things that he and his party (then and now) have said and stood for, and as much as there may still be some more 'negative' forces supporting that party in some places, the brand of 'nationalism' that we generally have in Wales is a peaceful, democratic and broadly pragmatic movement for ultimate civic secessionism - one that is also fully engaged in the democratic processes, and also in wanting to make Wales a better place for its people in the meantime (though we may fundamentally disagree about how best to do that). It could quite easily have been so very different, as it was elsewhere in the then UK.

And while we're in Wales, I next must come to Aneurin Bevan. Father of the NHS? Well, as a Liberal I would obviously have to say a firm 'no', and point out that the NHS was the brainchild of Beveridge. However, as much as he wasn't the father, he was certainly a darned good midwife, and that was a vitally important role that needed to be played. While Liberals might sometimes understandably feel somewhat aggrieved that the credit for our health service is so completely claimed by the Labour party, I don't think that that should mean that we fail to acknowledge the tremendous work that was done to being the idea to life, and much of that credit absolutely should be given to Nye Bevan.

It's not just about that for me, though, and nor is it about him being another great orator, although he was that too. It's the fact that he was clearly a man of deep and heartfelt principle, but was again capable of great pragmatism where it was necessary to achieve what he wanted to achieve. He famously 'stuffed their mouth with gold' while forming the NHS, when he could have tried to dig in his heels and take a 'principled stand' that would, I strongly suspect, ultimately have failed to produce the necessary results. There is also the issue of nuclear disarmament, on which he took a pragmatic stance that annoyed many of his own closest political allies. This is an example that I think we should all remind ourselves about when we think and operate in the political world - while we might seek perfection, we need to be able to recognise when a more practical approach might actually get better results in the end.

This is again a pretty predictable example of 'political hero', but it's one that I couldn't miss out. There's not really much to say about Nelson Mandela that hasn't already been written many times over by better writers than me, but this is about my personal view. For me it is about his ability to understand how things needed to be done for the future of his country. It's not so much about his principled stance against apartheid, though having that stance was of course the right thing to do. It is about, as many have recognised, him being able to not just forgive and move on himself but also about the way in which he so effectively brought such a troubled and divided country towards reconciliation.

It would be wrong to say that he was perfect, of course, and it would be wrong to say that everything he did was perfect or that the country is now perfect. there are many problems in South Africa, and at least some of those may perhaps be due to some (probably inevitable - nobody can predict the future entirely) failings of foresight in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the previous regime. Again, he wasn't a 'hero' to me in the sense that some may use the term. That's not the point, though - as with some others that I've mentioned, in the end he allowed his originally principled stance to be moderated by pragmatism and fully contained by peaceful and democratic process. Given the circumstances of that country during the period of his life and the consequent personal circumstances of his own life, I think that was a remarkable personal achievement.

So there you have it - a few of my personal political 'heroes', as much as I have such a thing. Though they are from different political backgrounds and parties, I guess you might have detected something of a theme - a common thread among them. I'd call it 'principled pragmatism', along with the independence of mind to stand up and be counted for what they believe even when the circumstances for their political beliefs are unfavourable at the time, or even when they face opposition from their own supposed allies. Often complicated characters, often people with whom I disagree on many things, and often with careers littered with what I might call 'mistakes', they could each in their own ways be described as both 'visionaries' and 'achievers' - that is something that I personally find inspirational in politics. Achieving is worth little if you have no vision behind whatever you are trying to achieve, in my opinion, and vision is worth little if you never do more than talk about it - it is that combination of things, even if it comes with some pretty big flaws, that makes a politician 'great' for me.

There are some others that I could have mentioned in similar terms, of course - Charles Kennedy and David Lloyd George would be the most obvious examples for me, as you might imagine. There are also some others who, despite whatever else they may have done or not done, have committed great acts of political courage that are worthy of note too. Here I must (perhaps unfortunately!) mention Neil Kinnock - whatever disagreements I have with what he has said and done over the years (and believe me I have many!), 'that' conference speech in Bournemouth in 1985 was perhaps the bravest political speech I have seen a leader give to his party in my lifetime (whether you agreed with him or not). I should also (as much as I would like not to!) mention David Cameron here - though his legacy is a political mess that threatens the whole future of the country, and history will, I suspect not judge him kindly (and rightly so), he did do something worthy of credit. It's something that ironically he may even have had, or have taken, too much credit for (taking credit that should really be primarily due to the Liberal Democrats, in fact), but I think credit should be given where it's due. Whatever his reasons, and whatever the aftermath, for a Conservative PM and party leader to publicly champion Same Sex Marriage in the way that he did during the coalition period was undoubtedly a brave move that was never likely to make him popular among large parts of his own party - that, I think, is something (though perhaps almost the only thing) that should be recognised and credited. There are many other examples of individual acts of political courage, as I'm sure there are many other examples of 'principled pragmatism' in politics - I'm not here to try to produce an extensive list, though.

One more thing you may have noted, as I have myself - the majority of these figures are straight white men. I can assure you that this is more a reflection of them being in the overwhelming majority for most of out political history than it is of any kind of bias in that kind of direction myself. Indeed it is a cause of great regret to me that history hasn't given us the same number of others to choose our 'heroes' and examples from, and I look forward to a time when the greater and increasing representation of others in our political system gives future generations just that. There are a one or two I could mention, but more importantly there are a number in more recent and current times who may prove themselves every bit the equal of their predecessors. Only time will tell, and history will be the judge. Those I have included are all, of course, past politicians that we can reflect upon with the benefit of hindsight (only one is still alive, and long may he remain so). I have great hopes that in future decades such a list will almost inevitably be considerably more balanced.

So there you have it. A few of my political 'heroes', or at least some of those politicians who have inspired me in some way. I don't know if that helps to explain anything about me, or if there are any conclusions to be drawn from a list like this. I will simply end kind of where I started - I'm no worshipper of 'heroes' generally, and I think such things are usually a pretty bad idea. We must never let out admiration for certain acts or attributes blind us to the totality of a person or their actions. That can apply to 'villains' too, of course, even if the balance of what they have done or what they have stood for is negative. People are people, and that includes politicians - complicated creatures who are capable of doing, and usually do, a blend of good things and bad things. As we go through life assessing those we agree with and those we disagree with, we shouldn't lose sight of that fact.

(photo attributions:
Steel: By DavidSteel1987.jpg: Rodhullandemu derivative work: PaweĊ‚MM (DavidSteel1987.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Churchill: By BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Evans: Geoff Charles [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bevan: By Geoff Charles - Aneurin Bevan and his wife Jenny Lee in Corwen, CC0,
Mandela: By South Africa The Good News /, CC BY 2.0, )