This evening I caught a few minutes of the news and had the misfortune to hear an excerpt from the Liberal Party conference. I know very little about their leader, Nick Clegg, but he managed to achieve the seemingly impossible task of making even Gordon Brown look interesting.
Unfortunately, Nick Clegg is the rule rather than the exception. In today's media age, politicians are subject to such a high degree of scrutiny that it encourages a culture of blandness and conformity. Where are the mavericks?
By coincidence, today I discovered an autobiography by a political maverick from 50 years ago, called Sir Gerald Nabarro. Apparently he was famous in his time...
I instantly warmed to Sir Gerald's aristocratic demeanor and ridiculous moustache. He looked like a man who said what he liked, regardless of the party apparatchiks, because he was probably rich enough to be incorruptible and had a strong sense of noblesse oblige.
However, a brief amount of research (i.e. Wikipaedia) reveals a different story:
Nabarro was born in North London, the son of an unsuccessful shopkeeper. He was born to a prominent Sephardic Jewish family but later converted to Christianity. He was educated at schools run by the London County Council, belying his later image as an aristocrat. On leaving school in 1930 at the age of 16 he enlisted in the Royal Army, in which he served for seven years, rising to the rank of Sergeant. In 1937 he left the army to work as a machine-hand, being swiftly promoted to be factory manager.
In the 1950 General Election, Nabarro was elected as an (MP) for Kidderminster, Worcestershire, which he held until 1964. He characterised himself as an old-style Tory: he opposed entry to what is now the European Union, was a proponent of capital punishment, and supported Enoch Powell. In 1963, during an appearance on radio, he said "How would you feel if your daughter wanted to marry a big buck nigger with the prospect of coffee-coloured grandchildren?" - remarks which were excised from a repeat of the programme the following week.
Comments that like that could have been the kiss of death to Nabarro's political career, but he continued to sit as a Conservative MP and was one of the most popular figures of the 1960s. Nicknamed 'The Abominable Showman', Nabarro claimed that 'Half of Britain swears by me, the other half swears at me.'
However, in 1971, Sir Gerald and his company secretary, Margaret Mason, were accused of driving the wrong way around a roundabout. Nabarro was eventually acquitted, but the general consensus was that he had been driving and encouraged his secretary to take the blame. It was hardly Chappaquiddick, but Nabarro found the whole episode very traumatic. A normally healthy man, he suffered two strokes and died at the age of 60.
You may think that this is leading up to a point, which could probably be something along the lines of conceding that however bland today's politicians are, at least they don't talk about 'big buck niggers.' But I was more struck by how Nabarro's bigoted comments and eccentric persona could only be the product of someone who was an outsider, insecure about their own social status. If Sir Gerald had been genuinely aristocratic, I doubt that he would have felt so threatened by change.
For all his faults, Nabarro did do the British public one inestimable service. He was responsible for the Clean Air Act of 1955, which bought an end to the dreadful London smogs and probably helped to save thousands of lives.