Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and so on and so forth

For someone never elected to public office, someone who chose a life which stopped me ever standing, I have hung around politics for rather a long time and seen careers come and go. I don't think of myself as cynical so much as moderately well-informed and as having certain insights into character that come both from observation and a habit of trying to make plausible characters up.

Two careers just came to an end in which I had a marginal walk-on role.

I remember Peter Hain from when he was about twenty and I was about 18 - which is to say forty years ago, when he was newly here from South Africa and full of fire and idealism. We were both on the central committee of the Young Liberals, which was in those days the very radical youth wing of a not very radical centre party. (And, in a quick digression, that was a committee which produced a Labour minister of some distinction, the founder editor of an eco-feminist magazine, the heads of an Intelligence scrutiny campaign, the editor of a left Labour newspaper, a leading figure in a prisoner's aid organization and, in me, the deputy chair of a major civil liberties NGO. Not bad for a bunch of crackpot idealists.)

We were on opposite sides of some crucial rows within the organization - these days I would at least consider the possibility that he was on the right side and I may have been on the wrong side. The rows in question were about armed struggle and I was a Christian in those days and therefore a commited anarcho-pacifist, and a little too prepared to accuse other people of being prepared to fight to the last drop of someone else's blood.

He did admirable work in the 70s, organizing sports boycotts as a way of hurting white South Africa in the core of its spirit. He annoyed them so much that they tried to frame him for bank robbery. Like most of us, he got disillusioned with the Liberal party when Thorpe was its leader - which is a tale for another time - and joined the Labour party. And prospered, and acquired grey hair and a rather silly perma-tan, and dissented from much of the Blairite project, but never enough. Finally he stood for the Deputy Leadership, and took dodgy money for his campaign, and has had to resign.

There is a line in Bolt's A Man For All Seasons where More asks his former friend Rich, now one of his accusers, what the seal is that he is wearing on his neck and Rich replies that he has been made, as indeed Hain was, Secretary for Wales. And More says 'what shall it profit a man that he gain the whole world and lose his soul...But for Wales, Richard, for Wales??!'

Or indeed the Deputy Leadership.

It is all a terrible shame and a parable of the rake's progress of idealism.

The British Labour Party has never been especially frightened of dynastic politics - look at the Foots, look at the Benns, look at the Morrisons/Mandelsons - and one of the grandest of those dynasts was Peggy Jay who died the other week at the age of 92 here. She had the sort of public service career that was not about self-enrichment or self-aggrandisement but about hard work for good causes. She was never much of an idealist, just a hard-working woman who was part of an extended family who did things - she did not marry into politics, so much as marry through them.

Oddly, the obituary does not mention the context in which I had an extended encounter with her - in my first year in the Civil Service, I was part of the secretariat of a committee she chaired on the provision of services for what in those days were called the mentally handicapped. In the event, I wrote the final draft of what was published as the Jay Report - it advocated care in the community but not in the discredited sense in which the term was used under Thatcher and Reagan. This was the version of care in the community which was all about spending money to afford underprivileged people respect and decent lives, not about saving money by shrugging off responsibility for them.
I never knew Peggy personally - I admired her in the way you do when you are a lowly public servant providing drafting help to that sort of grandee. She has always been one of my models of what public service is like.

I wish Peter Hain had achieved more in the end. I know how much Peggy Jay achieved.


Or, to put it another way, I did not vote for Tony Blair for leader of the Labour Party - faute de mieux, I voted for Margaret Beckett because she was the sort of solid party hack about whom there is no whiff of bullshit.

I disliked Blair from the first time I became aware of him as Shadow Home Secretary, trying to sell the Daily Mail readership on the idea that a Labour government would be 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' and trying to outflank the vampiric Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard on the right.

I went to hear him speak, because I still think that public speaking is one of those revealing things. I know how the tricks work, because I am not entirely bad at them - and that is why I have a lot of time for, say, Tony Benn, with whom I once shared a platform, even though I disagree with a lot of his actual politics, simply because he is the real thing.

Blair is not a good speaker, whatever his reputation, because he has learned a few tricks, like the randomly inserted pregnant pause between undistinguished phrases that thereupon sound like sound bites, and the breathy intensity that makes jejune remarks sound like the wisdom of the ages.

I distrusted him as a god-botherer from the beginning. Catholic converts are usually worse than cradle catholics because they swallow every bit of the nonsense. I remember once ending up after a concert at a dinner party full of Blairista apparatchiks, one of whom was dating a woman I intermittently flirt with, and they were all being gushy about his messianic appeal and slightly giggly about his Romishness.

I said that as a former catholic, I remembered my catechism and that one of the sins crying out to Heaven was cheating the labourer of his hire, and I suspected that Blair had not quite got that particular memo.

I left the Labour Party over the first Gulf War, but rejoined after a decent interval - I left finally when Blair persuaded the membership to abolish Clause Four. I was never a huge enthusiast for nationalisation on a centralized model, but I knew that Blair wanted people like me out of a party which was to be a vehicle for his personal power and whatever he chose to do with it.

At some other time, I will talk at length about what happened in Liberty, and how I fought the Blairistas inside the organization until my health failed and I had to go off and write about popular culture instead.

I voted Labour in 97 and I do not regret it. We got abolition of the hereditary peers, and gay partnership, and some trans rights, and the return of democracy to London. Unfortunately we also got the Iraq war, but the Tories would have been worse toadies to Bush, even.

I have known idealists who went stale, and I have seen people who evoked mass enthusiasm in spite of not being nearly as good as their fans thought, and I have known machine politicians who worked hard for the common good.

I don't know what to think about the American elections - a black President would be a good thing, and so would a woman President.

What I do know is that a husband and wife team is not a dynasty, and that people whose supporters go on and on inaccurately about dynastic politics should not be seeking out the endorsement of actual dynasts. Ted Kennedy is an admirable man whose opinion I respect - but not when he is acting as part of a dynasty rather than as a distinguished senator. Caroline Kennedy is wholly and solely a member of a dynasty, and her endorsement of Obama is a dynastic one.

'A President like my father' - by which I take it we are not supposed to understand a man who will nearly cause nuclear holocaust, who will get the US into another disastrous war, who will stand aside from important social causes.

I think better of Obama than that he is the over-rated JFK's natural heir.

What I do think is that I would rather have a battered pragmatic public servant than an untried personable spinner of wonderful empty words; I see the idealism that has focussed on him and I remember how many of my friends had real hope from Blair as opposed to voting for him because it was important to get the Tories out.

A Clinton Presidency is going to be unexciting, not especially idealistic and only better by comparison with Bush. But it will break no one's hearts.

I look at my friends list and see a lot of wonderful ideals and I worry that Obama will break your hearts if he attains power.

I hope that I am wrong.
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