Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Political heroes

Choosing political heroes is sometimes dangerous and often fairly partisan. So in Britain Conservatives usually choose Winston Churchill (conveniently overlooking the fact that he moved with comparative ease across party lines in his younger career) or Margaret Thatcher. Socialists often choose Nye Bevan or Atlee. Liberals probably choose Jo Grimond who brought their party back from the dead, or Paddy Ashdown who remade it.

Cicero has a wider range of political heroes. As philosophers, JS Mill, John Locke, Kant and to a degree, Friedrich von Hayek capture a philosophical defiance of tyranny. Amongst British political leaders, John Hampden, one of the five members who stood up to the tyranny of Charles I, is sometimes seen as a proto-Liberal. Pitt the Elder, who spoke for the freedom of the American colonists against the foolish authority of George III stands as a giant of a later century. For the nineteenth century, Gladstone, whose rousing speeches during the Midlothian campaign awoke the conscience of Britain over the Bulgarian atrocities stands out as a great man and a great Prime Minister. Then perhaps John Bright and Richard Cobden, who were the first real campaigners for free trade. In the twentieth century, FDR for his personal courage as well as Churchill for his glorious rhetoric in the face of Hitler. Tomas Masaryk, the apostle of Liberal nationalism and Jaan Tonisson, the Estonian leader who spoke for Europe a hundred years ahead of its time. Of course, more conventionally, Cicero also approves of Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. For moral courage, Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet or Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright are also great heroes to me.

Villains are often so much more obvious: Pol Pot, or Mao-tse-Tung, Hitler or Stalin are all vile murderers and their crimes evil but sadly far from unique. In Britain such evil is not accounted in our recent history, so our villains are mistaken rather than crudely evil, though doubtless many Communists had the potential, as Oswald Mosley did, to sow hatred and violence- if they had ever got the chance. We have our fair share of less creditable leaders: Charles I, whose inflexibility and incompetence cost him his throne and his head. Disraeli and his charlatan policies that swapped the realities of economic power for the tawdry expense of Imperialism. As for the mistaken of the twentieth century, well Chamberlain for his foolish appeasement or Attlee with his milksop economic socialism cost our country dearly- Baldwin too. All these the masters of the locust years when Britain withered in influence and power.

In the end the heroes have vision and moral courage, the villains are banal or blinkered.

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