Mandela, Thatcher and the return of history

In response to the death of Nelson Mandela, David Cameron, remembering the ANC leader’s long imprisonment, said “the abiding memory I have is […] his complete forgiveness, his total lack of malice toward those who had done this to him […] an amazing man, an extraordinary heroic figure, but someone with a sense of forgiveness, which I think is the lesson we all have to learn and try to live by.”

This was indeed the great miracle of the Mandela presidency, the ability to overcome decades of conflict and build a political consensus around a peaceful transition. And it made possible a second miracle: the universal celebrity of Nelson Mandela which transcended the political programme he stood for.

In scenes bizarrely reminiscent of the death of Margaret Thatcher in April – two more contrasting politicians are hard to find – world leaders of all political shades, bitter rivals in the day-to-day affairs of their countries, united in paying tribute to the former South African president. The wider political programme of the man, embodied by the Freedom Charter of 1955, seemed almost forgotten. This document was written by the ANC and their close allies the South African Communist Party, who would later participate in Mandela’s government. It proposes racial and sexual equality, the redistribution of land and wealth, nationalisation of industry and finance, trade union rights, state welfare, full employment, a minimum wage, a forty hour week, universal housing and free education.

This large act of forgetting is due in part to an ever-increasing cult of celebrity, as Ben Sellers wrote about in the founding post of this blog on the reaction to Thatcher’s death. (The Cape Times cheekily transcended this boundary with their headline covering this event). Looking the other way is also part of an instinctive response to death of any individual: to honour the memory of the deceased and not draw attention to controversy and sources of division from when they were alive. While this is a sensible reaction to the passing of personal friends and relatives, it is highly questionable when the deceased is remembered for their impact on society and their mark on history.

The Cape Times in April after the death of Margaret Thatcher

The Cape Times in April after the death of Margaret Thatcher

Unlike the natural sciences, the study of history is not cumulative. Nor does it arrive naturally at consensus. Historical debate advances dialectically, with opposing views in constant conflict, reflecting the conflict awash in both the society of the historian and the society she is studying.

This is what is at stake in Michael Gove’s reforms of school history syllabuses. A creeping return of jingoism and an over-emphasis on national history threaten to propagate an interpretation of the past that is that of ruling élites. Namely, that historical events justify the current configuration of power in society, to which the past is the natural prologue. History – both the events themselves and their study – does not belong to ruling élites, but to people. An interpretation of the past is inevitably an interpretation of how society functions, making history a battlefield of interests. Hence the words of Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.  

This struggle will make itself known next year during the centenary of the First World War. Two interpretations of the war will be pitted against each other: on the one hand, the official, government sponsored-interpretation which will resemble a “celebration”. On the other, there will be a popular interpretation by intellectuals, campaign groups, veterans and members of the general public for whom the enduring memory of the war is the desire for peace.

Statesmen attempt to overcome the conflict inherent in historical debate to put out messages which can reach a universal audience. But they cannot escape history. This was clear during the obituaries to Margaret Thatcher. Neither Ed Miliband nor David Cameron could have delivered the other’s speech to parliament paying tribute to the deceased Prime Minister. This was true even despite criticisms that public mourning of Thatcher by the Conservative government was closing down historical debate.

No doubt, David Cameron felt the weight of history as he gave tribute to Nelson Mandela. That his recently deceased predecessor had described Mandela as a “terrorist” is well known. That “Hang Nelson Mandela” t-shirts were worn by Young Conservatives is even more damning. Perhaps Cameron’s own business trip to apartheid South Africa weighed on his mind. It is therefore not surprising that he chose to emphasise Mandela’s forgiveness. Cameron was being consistent with his party’s history, celebrating how Mandela kindly made it possible for the ANC’s opponents to conveniently look away from, if not forget, the past.

Many black South Africans are critical of this universal forgiveness, embodied in their country by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, inasmuch as it exists against the backdrop of the non-application of the principles of the Freedom Charter. More than anything, Mandela’s original supporters are no doubt as bitter about this last point as his former opponents are grateful. Nelson Mandela’s struggle goes on in South Africa, as it does in Palestine and around the world. That is why we need a popular history of Nelson Mandela and of what he stood for.


Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow’s indigenious folk

I’ve written before about the appalling political journey undertaken by many who bought into the Blairite project. Phil Woolas is another prime example. As a student he led a demonstration against the National Front. As a New Labour politician he fought a disgraceful election campaign on the basis of getting ‘the white vote angry’.

Now Tom Harris MP, who is according to his Twitter a ‘proud Blairite’ recently took to the Telegraph to plumb new depths.  Although he concedes that immigration has been a postitive thing for Britain, according to Harris, eastern Europeans are bringing with them all sorts of social ills into our green and pleasant land:

‘…filthy and vastly overcrowded living arrangements, organised aggressive begging, the ghetto-isation of local streets where women no longer feel safe to walk due to the presence of large groups of (workless) men, the rifling through domestic wheelie bins by groups of women pushing oddly child-free prams, and a worrying increase in the reporting of aggressive and violent behaviour in local schools’.

Apparently, he’s only expressing the concerns of his constituents. But I have my doubts. Harris certainly had no regard for the views of his constituents when he voted for the Iraq war.

So, where’s the actual, concrete evidence for all this? Are eastern European migrants more likely to be unemployed? Are they more likely to commit crime, whether anti-social or fraudulent? Are their kids more likely to be responsible for violent behaviour in schools? Come on, show us the evidence. Or is this yet another example of passing off prejudice as fact and still clinging to the repulsive idea that certain ‘races’ have certain ‘traits?’

No doubt defenders of Harris will say that we need to debate immigration. I agree, but it must be an informed debate. Harris is clearly entirely uninterested in that. Instead, he seems to revel in his own ignorance. He clearly does not grasp that Romanians and Roma are not one and the same. Let me try and make things a little clearer. The Roma people are a distinct ethnic group. They originate from India. There are Roma communities across Europe. Some live here, some live in Germany, some live in Romania, some live in Greece, some live in France and so on. They have suffered centuries of discrimination and under the Nazis, were the victims of an attempted genocide. Romanians are people from Romania, some of whom are Roma. Not exactly hard to understand is it? It is frankly embarrassing that an elected politician could be so utterly ignorant and pen such a fact-free article.

So, I don’t think Harris is a ‘Romaphobe’ as I don’t think he understands who the Roma people are. He is however, a racist. The language is that of a racist. In Harris’ incredibly nuanced view of society, there is the ‘indigenous’ community and then there are these immigrants with their ‘utterly alien culture’.  Who exactly are the indigenous population, I wonder? Does it include Harris’ fellow Blairite MP Jim Murphy? It’s just that you know, perhaps some might consider him a bit too Irish to be truly indigenous.

Throughout our recent history, racism has been rationalised like this. The Chinese were bad because they could undercut British workers. Why? Because they could live on just rice. The Irish were bad because they were all drunks and layabouts. The Jews were bad because they were ‘unclean’ and ‘violated our customs’. (Sound familiar?). The Italians were bad because they spread TB through selling ice cream. Black people were bad because black men were a threat to ‘our women’. And so on and so forth.

Harris and others indulge in this kind of gutter politics because they cannot offer any solutions to the very real social problems which affect all working class people, irrespective of their ethnic origin, such as inadequate social housing provisions, overcrowding, rogue landlords, exploitative employers, a lack of decently paid jobs and chronic unemployment. How about a debate on that?