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, )


  1. Replies
    1. Sadly not, as noted in the post. I wish our political history had left us with such broad a variety of great female figures that we could all find those who 'speak to us' inspirationally in the exact way that we would each find especially appealing. Unfortunately the inequalities of previous times mean that that just isn't the case. While I personally find that hugely disappointing, and find the feeling that so many potentially great women have been passed over in their own time and therefore by history hugely frustrating, it is also a source of great hope that politics has changed so much in that sense (although there's obviously still a way to go). We've many fine female politicians in more modern times, and future generations will have a fantastic range of women politicians to choose from (I could name a few names of current politicians who I think will inspire future generations, of course, but it would be a little unfair to single them out until history can provide a somewhat more complete picture of their lifetime achievements).

      That's not to say that there haven't been female politicians who I've got a great deal of respect for, of course - Shirley Williams is an obvious example, but also Barbara Castle and Mo Mowlem, and even Mrs. Thatcher, in her own way (OK, slightly grudgingly on that one, I'll admit!). Nor is it to say that I have no female 'heroes' (as much as I have 'heroes', as noted) in other fields either (though sadly politics is not unique in having historically undervalued potential female contribution). I just wish I had more to choose from in looking for the exact mix of attributes that most appeal to me, as I've no doubt we will have in the future.