Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Rising From Humble Beginnings

Michael D Higgins and his Wife Sabina
On the 29th October 2011, Michael Daniel Higgins was elected as the 9th President of Ireland. In a remarkable election, he gained nearly 40% of first preference votes, and at the final count, won with 61.6% of the vote, seeing off six other challenges, and was nearly 380,000 votes ahead of his nearest challenger.

You can read a warm and appreciative blog here from my Son, Chris. Michael D (as he is always referred to) is a remarkable man, and his rise to the high office of President, caused me to reflect on how possible was it in Britain today for someone with a similar background to rise to the top. I propose to look at Michael D; examine some figures from Britain's past, and consider the position in Britain today.

Michael D was born in Limerick, but raised in County Clare by a family who paid a huge price during the tumultuous events surrounding the foundation of the Irish state. His was a humble, and relatively poor background, but as the link above mentions, he saw education as his means of escape, and has written powerfully about its ability to lift people from one life into another. He said, "What happens in education is crucial to the life of the person, and it defines the values of the society". I was particularly struck by what he said of his primary school teacher, William Clune. "There was not one person who came into his school yard, from any background, with shoes or without, who wasn't respected as a carrier of wonderment". Isn't this the heart of teaching? You have to question today, irrespective of the desires of teachers, in a country full of tests, results and league tables, whether the teacher is allowed the time to see every single child as "a carrier of wonderment".

After working for a number of years as a clerk with the Electricity Supply Board, he became the first member of his family to go to university. It was here that he began to articulate the deep sense of social justice and hunger for equality that he had developed as a young man. In a website dedicated to him here, (and by the way, do try and listen to his acceptance speech found on the site's home page, it is wonderful. Don't be put off by his speaking in Gaelic to begin with, as after a few moments he speaks in English),  it describes Michael D as a young academic, striving to ensure that people of a similar background to himself had the opportunity to access education, and travelled with colleagues to towns and villages throughout the West of Ireland providing outreach courses. "The social exclusion, emigration and poverty that he experienced and witnessed led him to more direct political involvement, where he could argue and advocate for real change, both social and economic".

Michael D is a strong Republican and Socialist, and has never been afraid to challenge anyone, including the Leadership of his own Labour Party, when he felt that injustice, equality and poverty were not being addressed. He is a powerful and intellectual speaker who stands up bravely for what he believes. In his life he has shown his passion for politics, the Arts and sport. The link above gives more details about his achievements, which have been considerable. But it's his fight for the elimination of poverty in Ireland that is the one area that I am particularly drawn to. He talks about a "citizenship floor" or a "social floor", which is the line below which nobody should be allowed to fall. Having listened to all of the clips on You Tube relating to Michael D, I've chosen the following one on his opposing the Irish Governments proposal to reduce the minimum wage. It is powerful, passionate and shows the true heart of the man.

So this is Michael D Higgins, the 9th President of Ireland. The presidency is of course largely a ceremonial office, but the President does exercise certain limited powers with absolute discretion. The President however, does seem to me to represent the face of Ireland, both at home, and abroad. Though the President, traditionally does not criticise the Government, I cannot see Michael D keeping quiet when proposals are brought forward to reduce even further the level of the "social floor". My Son in his blog said, "When President Higgins moves into the Aras an Uachtarain, the Presidential Palace in Dublin's Phoenix Park, he will have a considerable task in transforming the view currently taken of Ireland as a broken country. I believe he will succeed". And so do I. Michael D Higgins rose from humble beginnings, to one of the highest positions in the land; his time as President will certainly not lack excitement.

Ernest Bevin
In thinking about the new President, my thoughts turned to stalwarts in British political life, who similarly rose from humble beginnings to achieve positions of power in the post Second World War Government of Clement Attlee.

One such was Ernest Bevin.  He was born in the village of Winsford in Somerset in 1881. His father was unknown, and he was orphaned at the age of eight due to his mother's death, and went to live with his half-sister in Devon. He only ever had about two years of formal education, and at the age of eleven, he became a farm labourer.

At age 18 he moved to Bristol and became a van driver. During this period he became interested in Non-conformist religion, and for a while was a Baptist lay preacher, where his oratorical skills came to the fore. He began work at Bristol Docks, and joined the Dockers' Union, and by the age of 30 was one of its paid officials. He was also a member of the Labour Party.

The following year, he gained a nationwide reputation by making a speech before the Transport Workers' Court of Inquiry that resulted in a standard minimum wage for British dockworkers. A year later he was responsible for merging 32 smaller unions into the Transport and General Workers' Union, and became general secretary for nearly 20 years. In 1940 he joined Winston Churchill's coalition government as Minister of Labour and National Service. After the war, he became Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Clement Attlee's government, and although controversial, he gained a deserved reputation across the world. Not bad for a child from a poor single mother, orphaned at eight, having two years of formal education, and starting his working life at 11. Rising from humble beginnings indeed.

Herbert Morrison
Herbert Morrison was born in Lambeth, London in 1888. His father was a police constable. As a baby, he lost the sight in his right eye due to infection.

He had little formal education, and left school at the age of 14, and became an errand boy at a local grocer's shop.

His early politics has been described as radical, and he briefly flirted with the Social Democratic Federation, before becoming a member of the Independent Labour Party.

In World War One he was a conscientious objector, and was involved with a pacifist movement. During the war he worked in a market garden in Letchworth.

In Attlee's post Second World War Government, he held a number of senior cabinet positions, such as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and Deputy Prime Minister.

Again, not bad for someone from humble beginnings and little education, who would rise to the top.

Aneurin Bevan
One of the giants of 20th Century politics. Aneurin Bevan was born in 1897 in Tradegar, South Wales. His father was a coal miner, and life was hard for any mining family, and the Bevan's, with ten children, were no exception.

Bevan left school aged 13, and like his father, went to work in the mines. He was an activist from an early age, and through the trade union, at the age of 19 he became the head of his local Miners' Lodge.

Management at the pit saw him as a troublemaker, because of his activism, and at one point sacked him, only to have to much later give him his job back. He was a strong socialist, who fought for the rights of the working man. In the lead up to the 1945 General Election he said, "We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders. We enter this campaign at this general election, not merely to get rid of the Tory majority. We want the complete political extinction of the Tory Party".

After the election victory, Clement Attlee made Bevan Minister of Health. In spite of strong opposition from the British Medical Association and others, he steered through the Bill that resulted in the National Health Service coming into being on the 5th July 1948. The NHS along with the Welfare State was one of the most important developments in post-war Britain, as it helped those who could least afford to help themselves. As someone said, "The whole ideology behind the NHS clearly fitted in with what Bevan believed in - helping the working class". Not bad for someone from such humble beginnings.

So Higgins, Bevin, Morrison and Bevan all came from humble beginnings; their early path into politics may have been slightly different, but they all rose up from those humble beginnings because they wanted to make a difference in the world for everyone, but in particular, a difference to those who felt disenfranchised - the working class.

My question to finish with is this, "Can people from humble beginnings in Britain today, rise to the top in politics?". In my view the nature of politics has changed. Where once it was seen as service, now it is seen as a career path. Yes there are still people in Parliament from "the old school", but they've been there for years, and no long carry much weight even within their own party.

Over the years, the route into politics for many from humble beginnings was the trade union movement or local government. With the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, we began to see the beginning of real de-industrialisation with the closing of coal mines, ship yards and the car industry. Along with this came the centralisation and gradual decimation of local government.

With millions out of work, the power and place of the trade union was diminished, and fewer opportunities existed in local government. The opportunities for those with little formal education became less, and a more "professional" class of politician came to the fore. This subject deserves more time given to it that I can give here, so I recommend you read the finest book on the subject I've come across, which was published earlier this year, and which I've just finished reading. It's by Owen Jones, called, "Chavs: The Demonization of the working class".

The whole system is stacked against those from humble beginnings rising to position of power and influence. Former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone regrets the "abolition of the traditional council structure where working class people got elected, learned via committees how things are run, and then went to Parliament. That's gone ... There's a lot of people that used to be on Lambeth Council or Camden Council who weren't terribly good in terms of literacy and numeracy, but loved representing their area, and could work the machine and the council. They didn't have to have bloody A-levels or degrees to do it. In that sense the barriers against the working class are stronger now, not because an aristocratic elite is keeping them out, but because a sort of middle-class layer has introduced too many qualifications, rules and regulations".

Following the 2010 election, 1 in 20 MP's came from blue-collar backgrounds; 1 in 10 MP's had a background in financial services; 1 in 5 MP's had already worked in politics before taking the Parliamentary oath. This was mostly in the role of unpaid research assistants, which you can only do if you have money behind you to cover your costs. Perhaps the last MP in the modern era who rose from humble beginnings to near the top was John Prescott. He was the son of a railway signalman, who failed his 11 plus, and joined the Merchant Navy as a waiter. We all know of the scorn that was constantly directed at him within Parliament and within the right-wing press, and this has continued since his elevation to the House of Lords. The class war is alive and well, and is directed against those from a humble, working class background.

I am thrilled to see Ireland appoint Michael D Higgins as its 9th President, but I fear that Britain will never again see the calibre of such men as Bevin, Morrison or Bevan.

I started this blog with Michael D Higgins, so let me finish on a lighter note, and show you something of another side to him - that of poet. Perhaps the clip below will give you a flavour of his work, as he reads a poem about his Father, then talks about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment