Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West. She is the Spectator’s Backbencher of the Year.
He was 95. He’d had a good innings. He was impossibly frail; his diminished frame was bed-bound, but it’s still a shock when someone who has been seminal to international life ceases to exist.
Now that the initial shock, and the endless headlines and tributes for Nelson Mandela have died down, and the whirr of the political machine grinds to a halt as the year closes towards its end, perhaps this is the most appropriate time to reflect on what he taught us – especially we politicians, who have seldom been less respected or less admired. Christmas and the close of the year is a time for reflection on what’s gone before and what lies ahead. A period of quiet reflection, away from frantically chasing the tumble-weed of political and parliamentary daily events, can often serve us well.
A long period away from the hurly-burly of daily drama eventually served Mandela well. Although his jailing seems a gross injustice, if he had continued his battle on the violence-strewn front-line as the controversial freedom fighter it is unlikely he could have found that space for deep reflection. That time turned out to be essential preparation time for what was perhaps Mandela’s greatest achievement of all – forgiving his captors and those who abused him.
This was not an achievement of sound bites and words. It was not even so much an achievement of actions; it was an achievement of moral identity and core personal values. The phrase ‘Moral Giant’ has been used frequently in tributes to Mandela, but after the noise of the eulogies and tributes have subsided, it is not clear that our politics has really taken to heart what this means. The lesson of Mandela to today’s politics is: “Be” first. “Do” second. “Say” last.
Even beginning to live up to this is difficult. It requires extraordinary self-discipline and personal sacrifice. This “Be’ first, ‘Do’ second, ‘Say’ last” idea is a world away from a political culture that generally puts polling first, sound-bites second, and action last. No wonder people don’t have much respect for us.
It is also a reason why the MPs’ pay issue has become so disastrously toxic. I am not sure there is any MP’s salary with which the general public would be happy. Perhaps that is because the basic instinct of many is that MPs should be leaders driven by vocation, their own moral values, and a sense of justice, just as Nelson Mandela was. A very large number of MPs of all parties are in fact driven by these values, but unfortunately, the overall culture and functioning of politics gives almost the opposite impression. It is against that context that the population are so agonised over any discussion of MPs’ pay – they don’t feel our political system is giving the values-driven leadership that it should. That is a challenge that we should all take very seriously.
One of the most awesome ( in the old fashioned sense) and inspirational moments of Nelson Mandela’s life was in the speech he gave at the Rivonia Trials, in 1964. Standing in the dock he said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
There is nothing more powerful and inspirational than the spectacle of an individual prepared to give up their own life for the sake of an ideal that serves others. That is the mark of a true leader, and a question which those at the pinnacle of power, or who aspire to be, should be able to answer is, “What is it for which you are prepared to die?” . If the public felt our political culture could authentically answer that question, they might not be so distraught about how much these people get paid.
This is a time of year when some people celebrate Christmas, not only as a time of reflection and of celebrating friends and family, but also as a time to remember the birth of Someone who believed in something so much, he was born in order to die for it. Whatever your personal belief, the power of that idea has lasted for over 2000 years. It is a story that politics, and all of us who work in it, would do well to note. Have a very peaceful, happy Christmas, summed up best for me in this superb poem by T.S. Eliot, and here’s to coming back after this time of reflection to a New Year of Being first, Doing second, and Saying last, of which even Mandela would be proud!