Politicians’ Heroes from the English Perspective

As if on cue with regard to one my recent posts on role models, the English (run by the Guardian newspaper) have put on two debates – one by each political party — to establish who is the greatest hero [of their party]. The format in each case was to put forward a short list of four candidates.

The first debate by the Labour Party chose Clement Atlee (1883-1967; the only Prime Minister [1945-1951] in their list, defended by David Blunkett), Keir Hardie (1856-1915; Scottish socialist and founder of the Labour Party, presented by the Labour peer and historian Kenneth O Morgan), Aneurin “Nye” Bevan (1897-1960; creator of the NHS by Ed Balls), and Barbara Castle (1910-2002; championed by Fiona Mactaggart, with article here from Patricia Hewitt). And the winner was the founder of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie, without whom the others would not have existed… See here for the Guardian writeup. BBC writeup here.

On the Tory docket, debated on Monday September 29, were: Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1888; Prime Minister 1868, 1874-1880), Winston Churchill (1874-1965; and Prime Minister 1940-1945, 1951-1955) and Margaret Thatcher (b 1925; PM 1979-1990). And the winner of the Tory debate was the Iron Lady, Maggie Thatcher (pictured as a young lady on the right, in front of another icon).

A few things to note about this Tory short list.

First, it is neither a classically Conservative nor particularly pure breed list. As the Guardian points out (Fight for the right), under closer inspection, the list “reveals more respect – at least in retrospect – for unorthodoxy, romanticism, even recklessness among leaders than first glance suggests.” Moreover, three of the four have a mixed background: Churchill (half American and a past Liberal), Disraeli (3rd generation immigrant, son of a practicing Jew, and a former radical) and Burke (Irish & Whig heritage).

Secondly, the list includes a woman. Kudos.

Thirdly, in reference to my prior post (read here) on the topic of political role models, I note that I chose Palmerston over Disraeli (eminent rivals). Also, I mentioned in the same paragraph Churchill and Gandhi, whom the former called “a half-naked fakir.” Oops.

Finally, there are two out of the four from the 20th century (oh dear, that was LAST century) — with 3/4 for the Labour Party selection. The beauty of a debate like this is that the winner depends on the quality of the presenters as well as the context within which it is taking and some “great people” do some great things that may or may not age well. In any event, one could read all sorts of things into the winners in both camps, but I note that the Labour Party chose its only 19th century [non 20th] representative. (Added later) Read here for an insightful commentary from Martin Kettle, including what the winner says for each political party.

I love the fact that we spend time to debate the great heroes in England. Reviewing, debating and selecting heroes is a great way to sharpen one’s understanding of the importance of role models. Perhaps we should do the same in France? For the right and left, it would be hard not to want to feature de Gaulle from the 20th century. Who would you propose on the short list for France’s political role models?

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