A few years back, I was on tour in Germany. By sheer chance, someone I’d gone to college with was sitting in the audience in Munich. It was a big thrill to see so familiar a face so far from home and as it turned out, Colin had moved with his girlfriend to Dachau. This gave me the incentive I needed to do, something I’d been putting off: which was to visit a concentration camp.
Nothing can really prepare you for visiting one of these camps. There is a greyness there, as if all joy, all life had been sucked out of the area; and it is the case that not even the birds sing there. Colin said to me he had made the journey several times, and that always struck him. Then he said “If I’d been alive then, I would have fought against this”. His certainty gave me pause, and I asked him how could he be sure? He said because it was the right thing to do. He then asked me would I have fought against it? I said to him I honestly didn’t know. I’d visited the museum in Munich the day before, and the enormity of the political situation came home to me with a wallop – family members informing against each other, a pervasive atmosphere of mistrust, the threat of labour camps not only for oneself, but one’s family members. Of course I hoped I would have done the right thing; but unless faced with the situation, how could one be sure?
This was brought to mind over the last year, starting with the death of Mandela. It was quite incredible how many people came out of the woodwork to say they had battled as allies against apartheid South Africa; a Tory friend of mine recounted in amusement how George Osborne was reminiscing on Radio 4 about his days on the frontlines as an anti-apartheid activist in the 1980s. (That may be the case; but forgive me if I would like to see pictorial evidence of this…). I remembered how in Ireland, as a child, we heard about the Dunnes Stores workers. These were a group of supermarket check-out girls who had been instructed by their union, after meeting with a South African trade unionist, to not handle South African goods. As the story goes, Mary Manning, one of the check-out girls, started the action by refusing to handle South African fruit. They didn’t quite know at first why they were striking; as Manning herself said, as an 18 year old, politics was not at the top of her agenda. But as time went on, the magnitude and significance of what they were doing apparently took over, and despite financial hardship and lack of employment (no small consideration in recession-hit Ireland) the strike lasted for 3 years and changed the face of Irish politics.
Morality and the lack thereof in politics worldwide has become a key theme of this recession. In the UK, it is painfully obvious that there is a dearth of individuals prepared to “do the right thing”. Despite the wealth of evidence in front of them of the tyranny of their ideologies, and the damage caused therein, including direct causation of deaths, Messieurs Cameron and Osborne & Co cling to their misguided mantra of “Austerity is necessary”. This despite proof to the contrary. This despite being directly linked to the deaths of pensioners Stephanie Bottrill and Charles Barden, who directly cited this particular heinous “policy” (later proven to misapplied in the case of Bottrill) as the cause of their suicides. Death has a funny way of bringing what is important in life into sharp focus, and for me, this exemplified why this government must go: ruthless, blinkered, asinine, and bullying.
Cabinet ministers like Maria Miller resign, not because they believe what they are doing is wrong, but because their hand has been forced by those with more power than they i.e. a bigger bully (in Miller’s case, allegedly Osborne). However, she was clearly seen by her party to not be accountable, according to the £17k pay-out she received; which, granted, she donated to charity, but only after public outcry. That action in itself indicates that Teflonism is truly alive and kicking in Westminster; we are ruled by those whose actions have serious consequences, sometimes fatal, and yet rarely does anything stick.
Compare Miller’s actions to Caroline Lucas MP, of the Green Party, who was arrested for protesting fracking, and it is easy to see why people are disillusioned by politics. My guess is that ultimately the default position of most people in the UK is disengagement through a sense of powerlessness. It is a huge issue for the 2015 election, and one that all parties will probably seek to avoid. However, it is also a huge opportunity for the right politician: someone who has moral fibre, the courage of their convictions, and most of all, genuine empathy with the electorate. The time has never been riper for a political giant. And it is possible. The late great Tony Benn, brings to mind the importance of those who form what certain media pundits might dismiss as “the awkward brigade”, who nonetheless had character, integrity and political heart.
Today I saw a video made by ‘BNP Youth’ – a group of more vitriolic misfits it would be hard to find, spreading their message of fear and hatred, exclusion of the other. I also read today of the passing of Stephen Sutton, the Teenage Cancer Trust fundraiser, who made his short life not about time, but about the positive legacy he could leave behind. The response to his fundraising efforts in the last short weeks of his life prove people are hungry for goodness, strength of character and personality. It struck me that the issues of this next election are both about the physical and metaphysical. That we should judge politicians on the positivity of their promises and previous actions. That we should question whether kindness or avarice motivates them; whether their rhetoric includes or excludes. Whether they are for the many or the few. But ultimately, the choice is ours – and it’s going to make for a very interesting election year.