Friday, June 20, 2014

What politicians should learn from Les Dawson

Inspiration can be found in the strangest of places.  Whilst many people will say they took profound lessons from great thinkers, religious texts and political tracts, I'm willing to bet more of us than would like to admit it have also been struck by words of wisdom from rather unlikely sources.  Sometimes they can be the simplest and most obvious sentiments - but as the framers of the US Constitution could tell you, declaring a truth to be self-evident doesn't lessen its impact.

So it was with Les Dawson.  A couple of years ago, a biography of the late comedian was published, written by my friend Louis Barfe. It was as meticulous and engaging a read as I had expected from someone with Louis's dry wit, encyclopaedic knowledge of British light entertainment, and passion for the subject.  It presented Dawson as a warm and generous man, with little of the "dark side" that haunted so many of his contemporaries.  It was an uplifting read, but what struck me with unexpected profundity was a mention on the very last page of Dawson's philosophy of life.  It was just two words: "Be kind."

Simple.  Obvious.  Almost trite in its simplicity.  But it really struck a chord.  I am lucky to have had some wonderful role models in my life - people whose generosity and love have shone through as an example to which I could aspire.  But I would struggle to summarise the many things I admired or sought to emulate about them.  But there, in a book about an earthy northern variety comedian, of all places, I had found it: "Be kind."

The power of the phrase only becomes apparent after some reflection, when you've applied it to a variety of scenarios and examples in your everyday life.  In a bad mood and ready to snap at someone?  You know you shouldn't, but hell, you're having a bad day and...no, no... it's not their fault- be kind.  Found some dirt about a colleague you don't like and tempted to cause some trouble with it?  Been riled by an email and about to respond with a passive-aggressive riposte?  Seen a commentator on TV you can't stand and about to send a tweet saying how you'd probably punch them in the throat?   Don't.  Not just because it's a negative and counter-productive way to spend your time.  Not just because it's silly and likely to cause you more trouble than it's worth.  But - in all those examples - because it's just unkind.

Politics in particular needs a hefty dose of Dawsonism.  The Michael Fabricant tweet was rightly deemed unacceptable by all sides, but there are plenty of other examples of meanness of spirit and plain nastiness that seem to pass without comment, or a shrug of "That's politics".   The political journalist Isabel Hardman made the point very well last night, tweeting: "I do find political tribalism really, really weird when it gets all 'ooh, your side want to kill babies' rather than just 'you're wrong'", adding "Life's too short to get all angry.  Eat some cake and then tell your political opponent they're wrong."

It's a simple lesson - but (cake aside), it's one that can be tough to follow, as all the best ones are.  Passions inevitably rise high in politics - as they should on issues of importance where deeply-held convictions are at stake.  But even fundamental disagreements don't have to spill over into personal animosity.  There are too many people in politics willing to demonise their opponents and slur their motives, rather than their policy.  "Tory scum";  "Evil socialists" - derogatory prejudice that we would abhor if based on religion or ethnicity are tolerated too often in the underlying culture of political discourse.  The main parties' messaging can too often slip into personal attack mode, refusing to concede an opponent could possibly be well-meaning if their favoured solutions differs from their own.

It is depressing, and it is unnecessary.  Those who entrench personal animosity alongside political differences are missing out on a lot, and making their own lives a bit more sad.  I get on well with many people whose politics I will never share, but whose company I enjoy.  And when I genuinely dislike or am annoyed by someone - for whatever reason - I try to pause before giving vent to my irritation.  When I do pause, I now have my two-word mantra to mull over.  So my advice to the political classes (and not just on Twitter) is to do the same:  Take a deep breath, think about what you're about to do, and listen to Les.

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