Nehru and great speeches

Sixty nine years ago Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru became Prime Minister of India and delivered the speech of his life.

Great political speeches have two characteristics at least: they rise to the demands of the occasion or the subject they address; and they have high recall, leaving us with one or two memorable phrases as a handle.

I count among these Lincoln’s Gettysburg address – probably the finest of all- which gave us “the last full measure of devotion” and “government of the people by people…”; Dr Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” and the content of our character; John F Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you”; Mark Anthony’s appeal to “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” to lend him their ears as he paid tribute to the fallen Caesar; Franklin Delanor Roosevelt’s first inaugural with “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; and

Theodore Roosevelt’s speech at the University of Paris on his return from his African Safari in April 1910 which had this – and it is worth quoting in full: “it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Beautiful! Isn’t it ?

I would also add to these the coda to Nelson Mandela’s three-hour speech at the Rivonia trials in 1964: “During my lifetime” he said “I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” And Kwame Nkrumah’s independence speech with “the independence of Ghana is meaningless…” His OAU address was even better but the independence speech has a higher recall.

The modern master of speech-making, however, is Winston Churchill whose famous radio addresses to the British Commonwealth were crucial in motivating an entire people to stick with the noble enterprise of defeating the Nazis even when the going was tough. After taking over from Neville Chamberlain he gave a rousing speech in the House and to his ministers with the now famous “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

After Dunkirk he was even more defiant promising this: “we shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

His most emotional must be the one given after Battle of Britain with perhaps the most famous recall : “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

Following the fall of France, Churchill delivered a somber and perhaps one of his finest speeches. With an eye to posterity and a sense of foreboding and the gathering of the storms he said “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

Sixty-nine years ago, Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru who like Churchill was educated at Harrow School similarly rose to the occasion at the historic independence of India – the first outside the white Commonwealth – with a speech he titled “Tryst with Destiny” which still gives me goose pimples whenever I listen to it. The famous line from the speech, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom” provided the inspiration for Salman Rudshie’s “Midnight Children” and has swirled around my brain for years.

On the occasion of India’s 69th Independence today it is worth rereading Nehru’s words which can be found here at http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1947nehru1.html

At the appropriate time I shall return with my assessment of India’s tryst with destiny but for now Happy Independence Day India!

Delhi

August 15, 2016

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India’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ 70 years on

Ekow Nelson
Seventy years ago, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire came off to sparkle independently and inspired oppressed peoples all over the world. After 89 years of the British Raj – or nearly 200 years if you include rule by the British East India Company from 1757 – the Empire’s writ over the prized-Dominion which ran from Calcutta in the East to Karachi and much that lie to its West; Madras and the South to Jammu and Kashmir in North, finally ended.

A new world order
At the stroke of the midnight hour on August 15th, 1947, as the world was asleep, Pandit Nehru proclaimed India awake to life and freedom. It marked the beginning of the remaking of the world’s geo-political order on a scale comparable to the one brought about at the end of the previous World War in 1918, when after a millennia, the shifting borders and ambitions of Germany were fixed; the Balkans reorganised; the Ottoman Empire crumbled; and, the Western powers remade the Middle East as they filled the vacuum left by the defeated Ottoman Turks.

As Nehru foreshadowed in his Tryst with Destiny speech, India’s was an inspiration for all those countries that aspired to self-determination. In his words, “a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia and for the world” when a new star arose, the star of freedom in the East, a new hope came into being, and a vision long cherished was materialised.

Forces from the Colonial regiments in Africa and the Caribbean who had served in India, Malay, and Burma in World War II came back home determined to do for their peoples what Gandhi and Nehru had achieved for India. And within ten years of India’s independence, Ghana followed and blazed the trail for self-government across the African continent. In the subsequent ten years much of the Africa, the Caribbean and South-East Asia freed themselves from the clutches of colonial rule by the French, Belgians and British. Despite Portuguese intransigence, their hold on Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau finally ended in the 1970s. The denouement came in the 1980s and 1990s when vestigial European rulers on the African continent finally yielded to the inevitability of self-rule in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Partition and its consequences
The biggest impact of India’s independence however, has naturally been felt in Asia. Just as the Sykes – Picot agreement defined the geopolitics of the modern Middle-East for much of the twentieth century, the Radcliffe Line (named after Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Border Commissions) that symbolised the partition of India and Pakistan has been the geo-political and military fault-line in the subcontinent’s affairs over the past seventy years. Both with catastrophic consequences.
The partition of India and the creation of the modern state of Pakistan unleashed an avoidable human tragedy of death, displacement and religious conflict that continue to plague the region. It also led to the eventual partition of then East Pakistan in 1971 and gave birth to Bangladesh.
Three scores and decade after the British departed the region continues to be mired in conflict. And the suspicion and hatred fostered by partition continues to fuel the low-intensity warfare along the Jammu Kashmir border.

A tale of two countries
In that time, Pakistan has gone from the moderate Islamic republic its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah conceived, to the institution of martial law, a left-leaning republic under Zufilkar Ali Bhutto and a more pro-Western Islamic Republic under General Zia ul Haq who turned it into an unflappable ally of the United States during the Cold War against Russia.
An important military outpost for the US’s proxy war against Russia in Afghanistan fought by the Mujahidin in the 1980s, it eventually turned around and became a safe-haven for the Taliban and a training ground for the scourge of Islamic extremism.

Except for 21 months of ‘The Emergency’ under Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977, India has remained a secular democracy since independence – largely. After decades of failure and disappointment by the dominant Congress party to deliver Pandit Nehru’s promises in his Tryst with Destiny, India lost much of its self-confidence until the economic renaissance brought about by globalisation in the 1990s.
India’s rise also coincided with the emergence of a rejuvenated Hindu nationalist party as a countervailing power to the Congress Party. With the electoral success of the BJP, religious nationalism that one associated with Pakistan is now on the ascendancy in India with a semblance of growing intolerance towards many of India’s secular political traditions. The only bulwark against this being the plurality of voices in India’s state and federal governments and which permeate much of its other political traditions.

Much left to do
Over the past 20 years India has made strident improvements economically and along with China, achieved staggering growth rates, thanks largely to globalisation and information technology – a field in which it has become a strong global competitor. It has one of youngest populations of any country in the world and is the third largest hub for technology Start-Ups. The middle class has expanded and many of its citizens lifted out of poverty.

However, Nehru’s vision of ridding the country of poverty and wiping every tear from every eye has yet to be achieved in India and certainly in many of the countries who were so inspired by its example in 1947. But as he admonished us seventy years ago “the future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges we have so often taken.”

It is for the current leaders of India and ex-colonies like Ghana who followed in its footsteps to take-up the baton and make real the dreams of seventy years ago.

15th August 2017
Laribanga, Ghana

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UGCC on the wrong side of history

Ekow Nelson

Last Friday the organisers of Ghana@60 commemorated the founding of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) in Saltpond, positioning it as an overlooked significant national event. The founding of a political party with no notable accomplishments is being touted as Ghana’s Birthday along with, or perhaps, instead of, March 6th, 1957. Sadly, the current President lent the authority of his office to a commemorative farce that flies in the face of historical truth.

False starts with no accomplishments
It is argued that the founding of the UGCC represents the conception of Ghana’s independence struggle. But is it? When exactly did the anti-colonial struggle begin? It certainly is not 4th August 1947. Prior to that there was the Aborigines Rights Protection Society and the National Congress of British West Africa, preceded by the Fante Confederacy and many others. As Professor Emmanuel Kwaku Senah has argued, “national histories do not have starts; just major confluences of powerful factors and strong personalities”.

Even if we accept the UGCC as the harbinger of the anti-colonial struggle where in the world, or in our lives, is conception equally or more important than birth? For all the over-sized claims made on its behalf, the UGCC contributed nothing tangible to our independence struggle. Any objective assessment, stripped of all the emotional guff, shows that, except for the consequential decision to recruit Nkrumah as its General Secretary, the UGCC was a colossal failure. And here is why.

The multiple struggles at UGCC’s birth
After the second world war and demobilisation when the colonial authorities shut down military bases in Ghana, returnee soldiers found themselves without jobs or decent incomes. With soaring inflation and shortages of consumer goods, public confidence in the Gold Coast government began deteriorating.

At the same time the Gold Coast’s cocoa industry, the primary source of income for the exchequer, was ravaged by the swollen-shoot disease and the government’s policy of cutting-out acres of trees with no compensation exacerbated farmer disenchantment.

The desperate voices of large swathes of the disaffected population were ignored by the political class, including the Joint Provincial and Legislative Councils, until Nii Kwabena Bonnne II, Osu Alata Mantse, emerged to lead large public protests against steep hikes in the prices of consumer goods.

It was in this milieu that the UGCC was formed by the African political elite and failed politicians. While it quickly garnered public support in Kibi and major coastal towns of Saltpond, Accra, Cape Coast and Sekondi, in the words Aiken Watson KC., of the eponymous Gold Coast commission he chaired, “the U.GC.C. did not really get down to business until the arrival of Mr Nkrumah on 16 December 1947” who was singularly responsible for broadening the appeal of the movement across the country.

On the wrong side of history

Nkrumah’s arrival coincided with Nii Kwabena Bonnne’s widespread boycott of mostly, foreign-owned trading firms. After a month of protests in early 1948 the Association of West African Merchants (AWAM) whose members were most impacted by the boycott, negotiated an end to the protests due to come into effect on 28th February 1948.

The shooting of Sgt. Adjetey, Private Odartey Lamptey and Corporal Attipoe during the ex-servicemen march to the Castle on that same day, however, triggered rioting in Accra. Shops and offices owned by foreigners were attacked and looted and violence soon spread to other towns. Faced with widespread disorder, Governor Sir Gerald Creasy declared a state of emergency, troops were called out and police arrested the ‘trouble makers’ earning them the dubious sobriquet of the ‘Big Six’. But the UGCC leaders quickly distanced themselves from the riots blaming them on their new General Secretary

While Kwame Nkrumah and Dr. Danquah had addressed the ex-servicemen at a rally in Accra on 20th February 1948 where their petition to the Governor was drafted, leaders of UGCC did not anticipate or plan the 1948 riots.

The riots and disorder, however, led to the appointment of the Watson Commission to investigate the causes and make recommendations. As the noble Lord Rennell conceded in 1952 “[t]he inevitable consequence of their Report was the appointment of the Coussey Committee to consider constitutional developments in the Gold Coast” whose result was “the promulgation by Order in Council of the new Constitution of the Gold Coast” in 1951.

In other words, there is a direct line from Nii Kwabena Bonne’s boycotts, the shooting of the three ex-servicemen, the riots that followed and Watson, to the establishment of the Coussey Committee that produced the 1951 constitution which in turn led to the first all-African elections with the broadest franchise in the country’s history and the first All-African government. And none of these enabling events for Ghana’s independence was orchestrated or led by the UGCC.

The failure of the UGCC
The UGCC only positioned itself for a share of the spoils of the1948 riots it repudiated and jumped on the bandwagon to draft the 1951 constitution under Sir Henley Coussey. This was their chance, they believed, to ensure Nkrumah disappeared from the political scene. Nkrumah and Trades Unions were excluded from the Committee who skewed the election rules in favour of the UGCC.

But even with the scales tipped in their favour, the UGCC managed to botch the elections and the CPP won by a massive landslide. After they lost, they started undermining the very constitution they had drafted with prominent members (William Ofori Atta and Dr Danquah included) describing it as “bogus and fraudulent” as Nkrumah had, prior to the elections.

The mantle for carrying through the programme for self-government naturally passed to Nkrumah and the CPP government. This was momentous because with the demise of the star-studded but failed UGCC in the 1951 elections, Dr.Danquah’s command of Gold Coast politics ended and Nkrumah’s took off.

Dr. Danquah’s own contribution to the anticolonial struggle is not in dispute but that is not to be conflated with the UGCC. The UGCC was his last substantive political project and it failed and it ceased to exist after the elections. The rump reconstituted themselves into various opposition groups whose raison d’être was to stop Nkrumah from leading Ghana to independence. And they thwarted every effort to deliver the promise of self-government they committed themselves to in August 1947.

We can debate the start but not the end
Contrary to the revisionism being peddled, the UGCC was not the handmaiden of our independence: it was not the first or most significant in the anticolonial struggle; it was on the wrong side of every major issue in its short-lived existence and the wrong side of history.

In the words of Professor Senah, “[i]n the end, the foundations of Ghana crystallised around who was best able appreciate and marshal the historical forces unleashed between 1870s and the Second World War. It was Nkrumah who was to turn the aspirations of many who came before him – Mensah Sarbah, Caseley-Hayford Kobina Sekyi and Dr Danquah among others – into a concrete programme that finally secured Ghana’s independence.

We can debate who started the struggle for independence but we can’t dispute who achieved it. Surely, that alone should put this matter to rest.

Accra, 7th August 2017

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Complete and utter May-hem!

Ekow Nelson

Surely after the recent UK elections Theresa May’s reputation is as diminished as Jeremy Corbyn’s has been enhanced. The Prime Minister asked the electorate for a mandate to strengthen her hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the European Union; they denied her that and as a result Britain has needlessly been plunged into a constitutional mess at a most inopportune time. Almost one week before those negotiations begin, the Prime Minister is scrambling to put a desperate coalition together but they are both unlikely to survive for very long.

From hubris to nemesis  

She had an overall working majority in Parliament; was riding high in the polls, 20 percentage points ahead of Corbyn whom she trounced in their weekly encounters at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons. She strutted round European capitals buoyed by the authority of last year’s Brexit mandate and projected an image of strength and leadership at home. 

Then hubris struck at Easter, during a walk in the Welsh mountains, and persuaded the Prime Minster that what she really needed was even more power to do as she pleased and crush an enfeebled Labour Party. And she fell for it! The result? The loss of a wafer-thin majority in the Commons; demonstrable proof that she is a weak campaigner, an unsteady hand, a flip-flopper of questionable judgment and an emboldened leader of the opposition.  As my friend Ama put it pithily, what a “complete and utter May-hem!” 

So how did we get here? 

An unlikely beneficiary of the outcome of the Brexit referendum last year, Mrs. May emerged as a calm, steady-hand the Tories and the country needed.  It did not take long, however, for this reformed ‘Remainer’ to adopt a more stridently, hardcore Brexit posture, constantly reminding anyone who challenged her that the people had spoken and “Brexit meant Brexit”. Her stern and steely demeanour designed to project toughness drew admiration and respect from the people. 

As she demolished the leader of the opposition in their weekly Punch and Judy exchanges that make for political theatre in Britain, rid her cabinet of leading ‘Remainers’, surrounded herself with hardcore Brexiteers, and took the fight to EU negotiators, her poll ratings soared. She was going for a rupture with Europe. The semi-detached Norwegian or Swiss models which allowed those countries access to the Single Market without being full members of the EU, were ruled out. 

Many more people now supported Britain leaving the EU than had voted for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum. So, despite prior refusals to call an early general election, with the Labour Party on the ropes under a “shambolic” leader, her poll ratings in the stratosphere, the Prime Minister decided to go to the country ostensibly for more legislative room to negotiate Brexit, but in reality to finish off any residual opposition to her interpretation of Brexit and negotiating stance. 

The battle plan did not survive contact with the enemy 

The Brexit battle plan, however, disintegrated on first contact. Jeremy Corbyn’s own lukewarm attitude towards the EU took Brexit off the table as an election issue. He could not be portrayed as pro-European like many in the Labour party establishment. He stated very clearly at the outset that under his administration Britain would leave the Single Market and put an end to EU freedom of movement which in his view under-cut wages of the working class. All of which made it possible for many Labour and UK Independence Party (UKIP) voters who supported Brexit to come back home and focus on traditional campaigning issues of health, schools, jobs, wages etc.

As a lifelong activist and campaigner Corbyn came into his own on the hustings and in debates with the public. He may have pulled his punches, missed open goals, and looked awkward during his weekly encounters at Prime Minister’s Questions, but on the campaign trail, he was most at ease as she was uncomfortable. He had the conviction of his beliefs on a range of issues from tuition fees, minimum wage to foreign policy, even if they were outside mainstream establishment thinking. 

She, on the other hand, remained her hubristic self;  refused to debate other party leaders, offered no detailed  programme beyond her robotic “strong and stable” mantra and went all weak and wobbly on the only substantive domestic policy she put forward in her party’s manifesto. The appearance of wanting to impose a tax on old-aged pensioners to pay for social care (dubbed dementia tax) offended many loyal Tory voters.

In the end, rather than Brexit, it was the juxtaposition of disaffected pensioners who could otherwise be relied on to deliver the votes for the Tories in any election, and previously unreliable young voters who turned out in large numbers to vote for Corbyn in support of his populist tuition-free, higher minimum wage policies, that defined the 2017 election campaign. 

Jeremy transcends his perceived vulnerabilities

Jeremy Corbyn’s achievement is all the more remarkable because he increased the Labour Party’s share of the popular vote to 40 percent, the highest since 2005, at a time when Britain was ravaged by terrorist attacks during the elections, first in Manchester and then London. Corbyn’s previously held positions and associations with the political wings of various terrorist groups made him especially vulnerable on issues of national security. Still, he did not shy away from expressing his long-held beliefs on the connection between British Foreign Policy and terrorist attacks. And despite the derision and condemnations of the mainstream media and the political classes, it had no impact on his standing with the electorate.

On the contrary, the London attacks refocused attention on whether the police and security forces were adequately resourced to deal with the terrorist threats. Ironically, the Prime Minister’s own role in overseeing cuts in police numbers during her seven-year tenure as Home Secretary made her more vulnerable on this issue than Corbyn.

And rises from Theresa’s mayhem

Having confounded his critics by winning his party’s leadership twice and brought them closer to forming a government than at any time since 2010, today’s Labour Party belongs to Jeremy Corbyn. Theoretically, if May fails to sustain a coalition and he could demonstrate his ability to form a stable government to Her Majesty, Jeremy Corbyn might be Prime Minster sooner that most imagine.

The progressive wing has moved into the mainstream of the Labour Party with a populist agenda rooted in idealism that has aroused the interests of young people and galvanized them to engage. In this regard Corbyn’s campaign emulated the US Democratic Presidential Candidate, Bernie Sanders, with his polices on University tuition fees and higher minimum wage. 

As for Theresa May, she has come to the end of the road and will not see out her five-year term as Prime Minister. Her coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland will not provide the stability needed to sustain a government through the next Parliament. Since she can’t afford a single dissension from any major Bill, her government is headed for inevitable collapse. 

Short of a ‘Grand Patriotic Coalition’ with the Labour Party to negotiate Brexit in the interests of all its people over the next two years, Britain will head to the polls once again for another general election sooner rather than later.

Delhi, June 2017

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A senseless tragedy but Mancunians will be back

For many outside the city and certainly the United Kingdom, the name Manchester conjures images of the most successful football club in the history of the English Premier League.

A city that on most Saturday (and some Sunday) afternoons puts up a spectacle of athletic beauty from Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadiums for millions around the world, is now a smouldering pyre of the tragic remains of innocent young men and women whose only crime was to go see Ariana Grande in concert. The tragedy of this is as unfathomable as its senselessness, but Manchester will be back.

Busby Babes and tragedy of post-industrial Manchester

A bastion of the old industrial England sandwiched between the Cheshire Plains and the Pennine Hills, Manchester had been in decline since World War II with the demise of its once dominant textile industry that was the source of most of its wealth and that of Lancashire.

It was slowly recovering when tragedy struck in February 1958 with the Munich air crash that claimed the lives of eight members of a young Manchester United team, along with some crew members and eight journalists among others, who were returning from Belgrade after drawing 3-3 in the European cup championship match against Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia. The eerie sadness of that tragic event hang over the city for years but a decade later, Manchester United, with the Busby Babes (named after United’s manager Sir Matt Busby) rebuilt, went on to win the European Cup with some of the all-time greats of English football, including George Best, (arguably most skilful delightful player these Islands have produced), Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton who was among the only two surviving members of the 1958 crash to play in the final against Lisbon’s Benefica.

1996 1RA Bombing and Manchester’s renaissance

In 1996, tragedy struck again when the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) detonated what was then the most powerful bomb on the British mainland since World War II, at the Arundel Shopping Centre in Manchester city centre. Miraculously there were no fatalities although 700 or so people were injured with significant damage to buildings and property. The devastation from this bomb inveigled the local authority and government to step up the redevelopment of the city and it led to an architectural and cultural renaissance which also coincided with the heady footballing dominance of United and the emergence of successful rock bands such as Oasis. Manchester was hip again.

A defiant Manchester will be back

The recent tragic attacks and the sight of distraught and frightened young girls running for their dear lives cannot be expunged from our memories but the city will be as defiant as once its famous daughter, the suffragette, Dame Emily Pankhurst was and will not rest until justice is done.

The tragic loss of young, innocent lives is most dispiriting but Manchester will not be cowed by the cowardice of the terrorists who murdered them in cold blood. Mancunians will be back – on the terraces at the weekend and in concert halls and theatres all over the city to celebrate life as only this city knows.

Delhi, 24th May 2017

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Blair’s new dawn and the early buds of May

I remember it all like yesterday. Our new born baby girl (now 20) was just over a month old. My parents-in-law were visiting – mother-in-law to support her daughter; father-in-law enroute from New Zealand where he had been for a few months with his eldest son. As a retired diplomat he too was interested in politics and so as usual, as the polls closed, we sat glued to the television watching the marathon broadcast of the election returns chaired by the magisterial David Dimblebey, aided by the grand inquisitor of the BBC Sir Robin Day.

Time for Change

As always on election night, there was also another race for the first constituency to declare its results. In elections since 1979, David Amess’s constituency of Basildon in Essex had gotten ahead of everyone to be first to announce. This was no meaningless race: it was a portent for how the night might unfold for the parties. Basildon held the record for being first to declare, and each time in recent years returned a Tory MP and the Conservatives romped home to victory.

On this occasion, May 1st, 1997, however, the Tyne and Wear constituency of Sunderland South was the quickest to count its ballot papers and declared Labour’s Chris Mullin winner, with a majority of 49 percent and an electoral swing of 10 percent. It was the start of a momentous evening. After 18 years of Tory rule and three unsuccessful party leaders, the prospect of a Labour comeback now seemed real. Unlike John Major’s surprise victory in 1992 over an over-exuberant Neil Kinnock, this time, with an English leader middle England could relate to, it was surely Labour’s turn.

One by one, the great and the good of the Tory party who had dominated British politics for much of my adult life were swept-up in an electoral tsunami. Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary; Tony Newton, Majority Leader in Parliament; Norman Lamont the former Chancellor; Michael Forsythe Secretary of State of Scotland; Ian Lang President of the Board of Trade; William Waldegrave, former Chief Secretary to The Treasury; Jonathan Aitken former cabinet minister and ex-convict; and, Edwina Curry, former Health Minister among others.

How the mighty fell

But even as they fell like dominoes, the extent of the defeat that would keep the Tories out of power for the next thirteen years was not fully understood. Until that is, the studios turned their attention to the North London constituency of Edmonton and Southgate. If the Tories were to lose, as was expected, one sure bet was that Michael Portillo, the MP of the constituency, would become leader of the Conservative Party. Despite the Tory electoral headwinds the then Secretary of Defence and  standard bearer of the Eurosceptic right was odds-on favourite to succeed John Major.

But as the David and Goliath of the 1997 elections walked up the stage for the returning officer’s declaration, Twigg’s somewhat suppressed, self-satisfied smile and Portillio’s forced cheerfulness suggested something ominous was in the air. And within minutes as the returning officer spoke, it was clear that the mightiest beast of all in the now bare Tory jungle had fallen. This was no ordinary defeat- it was a bloodbath!

The End of Thatcherism

The country was on the cusp of change from nearly two decades of Thatcherism – the embodiment of the evisceration of the state and much that mattered to Labour voters; from the NHS, public education, welfare, unemployment to even state ownership of vital services like utilities. Having abandoned Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution that committed the party to public ownership, Blair was going to be a different kind of Labour leader.

For a brief period I was enamoured by him when he gave his thumping speech at party conference in 1992 and implored us to mean what we say and say what we mean. I had followed him on the campaign trail, asked him questions and had him sign one of his books for me and so I was well aware of what he represented. Even so he would be different from the rapacious Tories and carry out the pledges he had committed himself to: enact the UK’s first minimum wage legislation; opt into the Social Chapter of the EU’s Maastricht treaty to protect workers’ rights; focus on education, education, educational as he had promised; devolve power from Westminster to Scotland and Wales; reform the House of Lords and rid it of hereditary peers; investigate the Police’s mishandling of the investigation into the killing of Stephen Lawrence; and many other progressive policies.

With the fall of Portillo, one finally understood the extent of the breach of the Tory Dam. History was unfolding right before our very eyes! And while I enjoyed the experience of watching the results on TV with my father-in-law, the desire to be part of it and to live to tell the tale one day was so irresistible I jumped into the car and drove the fastest I could, from Pinner to the Southbank, where the Labour leadership and supporters had gathered to celebrate this historic victory.

A new dawn has broken

Naturally the place was packed. Blair was rumoured to be travelling down by helicopter from his Sedgefield constituency to the Southbank and we waited with heightened anticipation. I dumped my car somewhere and rushed to the join the teeming crowds as we sang along to D.Ream’s “Things can only get better”. Outside, I spotted my former MP Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson, Labour’s image and Communications guru and grandson of Herbert Morrison. Neil and Glenys Kinnock were singing along too. Ever the master of political sound bites, Blair’s opening words in his speech after he landed around 2am – “A new dawn has broken, has it not?”- captured the historic moment perfectly!

But standing outside was not enough for me. My mission was still incomplete until I was inside the Hall, where all the great Labourites were gathered but it was strictly by invitation only. I summoned all the charm I could to persuade the security guards to let me in but they would not budge. The comedian Eddie Izzard pitched up and I pretended to wave knowingly at him but he ignored me. After several minutes of milling around idly, a Land Rover pulled up with a noisy bunch. As soon as we found out the people in it included Stephen Twigg, the man who had just slain the Tory beast, the vehicle was assailed by hordes of supporters. We jumped around, sang till our voices were hoarse and carried the hero of 1997 election high on our shoulders. It was exactly the ecstatic moment of history I longed to savour.

When Twigg and his team made their way into the hall, I decided to tag along. I got away for a while until one of the security guards pulled me back and asked who I was. My response? “I am with the Stephen Twigg party”. Which constituency? the security guard asked. I thought to myself wrong question; I am in! Without much hesitation I uttered three words in response : “Edmonton and Southgate”. He looked up his sheet and despite his doubts let me in. The rest, as they say, is history

Damage and budding revenge in the air

After a night heedless revelling, I headed back home around 5am only to find David Mellor, Secretary of State for National Heritage and Consigliere of John Major had lost the super safe Tory seat of Putney. As expected the anti-corruption candidate and former war correspondent Martin Bell unseated Neil Hamilton from Tatton. Labour went from 271 to 418 seats in Parliament and the Tories crashed from 336 to a paltry 165. That, in any book, was a colossal thrashing.

Amidst all of the riotous debris on one side and the euphoria among Labour supporters, the 1997 election also ushered in a new MP for Maidenhead. Her name? Theresa May. Twenty years after that clean-out she is now Prime Minister poised to avenge the worst defeat her party had suffered in recent years. She may yet do to Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 what Blair did to
the Tories on the night when they were both victors.

(C) Ekow Nelson

Singapore, April 2017

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Will Theresa May’s Election Gamble Backfire?

Ekow  Nelson

Fresh on the heels of Turkey’s referendum, British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to have taken a leaf out of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy and has suddenly decided to go to the country for more legislative room to negotiate Brexit on her own terms, without much hindrance or opposition. But will this work? Or has she awakened a sleeping and demoralised ‘Remain Giant’ that had all but given up on the inevitability of so-called hard Brexit?

Up until recently, the Prime Minister argued strenuously that there was no need to legitimise her position, which she assumed without an explicit vote by the electorate after the resignation of David Cameron. But apparently, after a ponderous reflection over the long Easter weekend, she decided it was right after all to seek a mandate for her programme and interpretation of Brexit.

She had insisted that “Brexit meant Brexit” without explaining exactly what the 52 percent of the electorate who voted to leave the European Union had in mind. She resisted calls to allow Parliament a vote on Article 50 until she was ordered to do so by the Supreme Court. She refused to issue a White Paper setting out her government’s strategy on Brexit but relented after much pressure. The prospect of using so-called Henry VIII powers to alter EU laws being repatriated back to the UK has alarmed many observers. More generally, her hardline stance on immigration (which she believes was the main message of the referendum), withdrawal from the Single Market and even the Customs Union, have made many people more nervous about the uncertain future that might emerge after Britain leaves the EU.

Despite losing a few legal challenges and temporary setbacks in the House of Lords, it was assumed no one could stand in her way. Until today. But her stated reason for calling an early general election, like Henry II, of wanting to be rid of troublesome opposition parties in Scotland and the mainland who are making life difficult, may well cause the electorate to deny her the freehand she seeks.

Because the truth is, despite appearances, 48 percent of those who voted in the last referendum wanted to remain in the European Union. Many of these ‘Remainers’, including a large proportion of younger voters had given up and were resigned to Britain’s exit. Now the Prime Minister has given them a second chance to pronounce on her Brexit negotiating posture. And it may be too tempting for those opposed to a hard Brexit not to use the opportunity to deny her precisely what she is demanding.

The opinion polls show she is 20 points ahead of the opposition Labour Party which has been ravaged by internecine conflicts since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.  His lacklustre parliamentary performance has not inspired much confidence among his base or the country. And Mrs. May is gambling that opposition disarray will strengthen her meagre majority and give her the mandate to go for the rupture that many of her hardcore backbench Brexiteers have craved for years.

Unlike many Labour MPs, Corbyn himself is not an EU enthusiast and is at best a reluctant Remainer. In that regard he is not too dissimilar to many of Labour’s core supporters outside the large metropolitan cities and in the industrial heartlands of the Northeast. So he leads a parliamentary party that wants to oppose Mrs. May but a rank-and-file membership whose sentiments are with her. How does he square that? It’s an impossible task. The best argument Corbyn could offer is moderation and to make the forthcoming election a referendum on Mrs. May’s hard Brexit.

The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon whose call for a second referendum on Scottish independence did not garner as much support as she imagined, will also use this election to shore up her party’s position as a check on the extremism of the Prime Minister who could split the United Kingdom and cause irreparable damage to the Union.

If the Prime Minister’s pole position in the polls begins to slide, as it must, she could moderate her stance so as not to frighten off middle-of-the-road voters but would then incur the wrath of her hardline Brexiteer base and risk losing them to the more extreme UK Independence Party (UKIP) who have described Mrs May’s decision as a sign of weakness.

This election may not turn out as Mrs. May had intended. After all, the British electorate were finely divided on the issue of leaving the EU and it may be time for a redress. While immigration dominated the referendum campaign, the reality of leaving has suddenly dawned and with that, justifiable concerns about the consequences for trade, jobs, investment, and employment rights.

British voters may not wish to reverse the decision they made on June 23rd 2016; but they want a more cordial and amicable separation with visiting rights and the preservation of some mutual obligations. The unintended consequence of Mrs. May’s call for an early general election may be to reinforce the opposition to her hard Brexit stance, leave her without significantly more legislative room and force her to negotiate compromises she has thus far been unwilling to make.

Delhi, 18th April 2017

Posted in Brexit, Britian, EU, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Nicola Sturgeon, Politics, Theresa May, Tory Party, UK Elections, UKIP | 1 Comment