Westminster Watch – January 2014

Toby Craig reflects on the life of Nelson Mandela and his contribution to the political landscape.

In a pithy sentence, Barack Obama masterfully captured the essence of Nelson Mandela’s influence on global politics. The ability of political leaders in a few short words to capture a mood, to shape and influence thoughts and to change the destiny of nations sometimes seems a lost and forgotten art. In a year that saw the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century, John F Kennedy, it ended up being a year which will be rightly remembered for the death of another great leader of our times who understood better than most the enormous power of language.

As Mandela remarked in 2000, “It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”

Whereas the passing of Margaret Thatcher, undoubtedly one of the towering figures of recent history (whatever one’s view of her), saw a decidedly mixed response and heralded a visceral hostility in some quarters and heroine worship in others, the death of Nelson Mandela united most of the world in respect and admiration of an historic and lasting legacy. The epithet of greatness is too often and easily conferred. But how many politicians of this generation will have it so naturally and seamlessly applied to them?

It is a reality of politics that sometimes things happen far away which bring into sharp focus how trivial and tiny the Westminster bubble can be and burst it in an instant.

As politicians of all stripes rushed to identify themselves with his cause, it demonstrated not just how much great figures are needed to give meaning and provide alternatives to the struggles of their time, but also how much their leadership can cause attitudes to change, adapt and evolve beyond any reasonable expectations.

On the afternoon of Mandela’s death, but seemingly in another time, Chancellor George Osborne had delivered a confident and bullish Autumn Statement, which had left Ed Balls struggling to respond. The numbers were better than the Chancellor would have dared to imagine and the Opposition’s credibility to challenge them, damaged further by the lurid scandal involving its former economic adviser, Reverend Flowers, buoyed Osborne further. Although, as mentioned before in WW, there are concerns raised by the Office for Budget Responsibility that it is a recovery built too flimsily on consumer debt, those arguments would have to wait for another day. The front pages, designed and ready to go, filled with headlines of austerity, growth, the cost of living and the politics of division were stopped in their tracks. They no longer assumed centre stage.

The Statement brought news of further departmental cuts. The Ministry of Justice will be called on once again to achieve further savings; its budget being reduced by £77m in 2014-15 and then by £71m in 2015-16. As it continues to be whittled away, supposedly not impacting in any way on the quality of our justice system, it is always worth remembering how we are seen by the outside world: “I have great respect for British political institutions, and for the country’s system of justice. I regard the British Parliament as the most democratic institution in the world, and the independence and impartiality of its judiciary never fail to arouse my admiration.”

In recalling perhaps Nelson Mandela’s most famous speech of all, powerfully delivered during his 1964 trial from which these words are taken, which concluded that his ideal of a free and democratic society was one for which he was prepared to die, we would be well served to ask ourselves what we can do to protect the value of the rights and freedoms we enjoy which are too easily withdrawn for political and economic expediency.

"I have great respect for British political institutions, and for the country’s system of justice. I regard the British Parliament as the most democratic institution in the world, and the independence and impartiality of its judiciary never fail to arouse my admiration."

Much of this year will be spent laying the groundwork for a range of events and activities which mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta in 2015. One of the largest of such events will be the Global Law Summit, hosted in London in February next year, hosted by the Bar Council, Law Society and City of London, in partnership with Government and a broad range of supporting organisations. That will aim to project the international value and values of English law and our legal profession and our adherence to the Rule of Law. It is yet another reminder of how important it is to protect the principles which underpin our global reputation and success. Effective access to justice is a price worth paying for.

By the time WW is published, there will be little about Nelson Mandela’s Pictures of Nelson Mandela surrounded by candles and flowers at a service held in his honour at St George’s Cathedral passing which remains unsaid, but the departure of one of the world’s most recognisable and revered figures puts into perspective some of the high profile political debates which seem based far more on personalities than policies. It is a salutary, if uncomfortable, reminder of the poverty of real thought and ideology in Westminster. Whilst Mandela was not immune from polling, as master pollster Stan Greenberg recollects in Dispatches from the War Room, which records their time working together, he was driven by strong principles which transcended the numbers and indeed came to shape them. It is now often the pollster or adviser behind the politician who commands as much analysis as their principal. Lynton Crosby is only the most recent example.

As the political parties warm-up for next year’s election, perhaps rather than the endless search for dividing lines and the tiresome character assassinations, they might be inspired instead to focus on what they stand for, rather than what they are against, and expound a positive vision for the future. Well, we can but hope.

Toby Craig, Head of Communications at the Bar Council

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