With the thousands of pieces being written around the world about the death of a political giant, this is not about the great man himself – there are plenty of people better-qualified to write that one.
But it’s worth pausing to think about Mandela’s relationship with Labour.
Like many, I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s constantly hearing about some or other horrific injustice from apartheid South Africa on the 6 o’clock news. We were too young for the Sharpeville massacre or the imprisonment of Mandela himself, but not too young to learn of the death of Steve Biko in police custody. In fact, you had only to listen to switch on Radio One – Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, Little Steven’s “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” or The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela”* – to be aware of what was going on.
It’s probably fair to say that one of the things which made me realise that it was Labour, and not the Tories, that would be my party of choice was the fact that the Tories seemed perfectly content with tolerating a regime where black people were not valued the same as white people. In 1985, Margaret Thatcher was rather dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing limited sanctions against the all-white Botha regime, whilst black citizens were still not eligible to vote. Others in her party continued to resist even that token action.
Different reasons appealed to the Tories for why it was best not to upset the applecart with Pretoria. There was, of course, the odd not-very-nice Tory who had business interests to protect, or simply a quasi-identification with the idea of blacks as second-class citizens. But more common were those who had not yet experienced the fall of communism and genuinely thought that “engagement” was the way to gradually improve things; or – a little less forgivably – that we should not interfere in “foreign cultures” which we didn’t understand.
They were all wrong, as Mandela was to prove; but it also behoves us to remember those on the left reluctant to interfere with “foreign cultures” today. Those perfectly happy with, say, not interfering in honour killings, female genital mutilation or forced marriage (see the Times report on a foolish academic paper to this end) on precisely those grounds, even when these take place in their own country and not a foreign one.
By 1990, having lived through our student years and become a bit more political, I and most of my contemporaries fully understood the huge significance of the freeing of Mandela. We all stood and cheered at the Wembley concert where this slight, smiling figure with tremendous charisma stood up and thanked us all politely for our support.
A decade later, his country meanwhile having spent its first five years as a true democracy under his leadership, he was to be seen here again, this time at Labour party conference in Brighton.
He well remembered that the Labour party had been pretty much a lone voice arguing his cause in Britain during his years in prison, and was grateful. He charmed us, like he charmed everyone, with his humour: the “unemployed pensioner with a criminal record”. We basked in his thanks, mostly because he was right: we had been there in his our of need (if not in government, which would have been considerably more useful). The facts were the facts.
But there’s more to the story.
Much had changed in between times, of course: Labour was no longer a lumbering elephant of an opposition party, stumbling between crises. It was unquestionably, for better or worse, a well-disciplined governing power with a thumping majority. The Tories were marginalised, and in a mess. On the way to meltdown, of course, they had made many mistakes, but their stance on South Africa had surely failed even to register on British voters’ scale of priorities.
No, it was other things that had done for the Tories: Black Wednesday, politicians’ “sleaze” and the visibly disintegrating government of John Major. Just as, in the 80s, it had been our stance on unilateral nuclear disarmament, or our dogged refusal to embrace any kind of market economics, or any number of other things, which did for us.
The coverage following Mandela’s death reminds us of two things: first, that there are fundamental differences between Labour and the Tories, and we should be glad for them. There are reasons why most of us could never metaphorically “cross the floor”. We were on the right side of this debate, if nothing else.
But the second is that Tories who believed what they did in the 1980s did so not because they were evil; merely because they were wrong.
Labour called this one right, yes: but in practically all the other debates of the day, the party ended up on the wrong side of history. And at least one of the Tories’ mistakes of that era, that of thinking someone else’s “culture” is no business of ours, is still going on in some corners of our party today. If you don’t believe me, look at the Labour MPs who still embrace jihadi terrorists or hate preachers.
Peter Hain, as a Tory Twitter correspondent of mine even-handedly pointed out, has “legitimate bragging rights” as a leader of the anti-apartheid movement. Good luck to him – he worked for it. As for the rest of us, we can probably afford ourselves the luxury of a little humility about the story of all those years ago.
This post first published at Labour Uncut
*Top #pedantry marks to Tom Harris MP for pointing out that it was actually The Special AKA and not The Specials who recorded it