Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Monday 22nd January 2018 | Manchester, UK

Death of a stateman

After the sad loss of Tony Benn last month, the media-led marking of his passing once again demonstrated the political dimensions of remembrance. Given the extent of media bias, this process is unique in its treatment of leaders from the left of the political spectrum.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Benn described this process of the sentimentalisation of himself as a national treasure, through which he would be transformed into ‘a kindly, harmless old gentleman’, as ‘the worst corruption’ a political career can suffer. He was at least partially a victim of this, painted by some as an irrelevance to contemporary British politics, just a pipe and a cuppa, rather than a continual plague to the establishment.

This too, was present last year following the passing of Nelson Mandela; a truly revolutionary leader of the struggle against the injustice of Apartheid, selectively reduced in some media circles to a relic of history, little more than his characteristically garish shirts.

The ideas and values of stalwarts of the left are often deliberately absent from the coverage offered by elements of the press in a manner complicit with a re-writing of history.

This was demonstrated best by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, while interviewing Rick Santorum on air when the news of Mandela’s death broke. His confusion was evident as he seemingly struggled to reconcile the apparently oxymoronic terms ‘good man’ and ‘Communist’.

There is a marked contrast when it comes to leaders from the right of the political spectrum. Thatcher stands out as being remembered for her policies, to the extent that many working class communities showed significant vitriolic distain for said ideas after her passing.

This perhaps also reflects in part on the mediatised dichotomy of living statesmen and women as being either personality or politics and thus style or substance. This form of politics has been prevalent since the advent of TV during the Wilson administration and has been further amplified in our digital age.

The strategically engineered personas of our time are testament to this. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are, despite being anything but, characterised as non-establishment figures by virtue of their hairstyle, demeanor, or pint and thus have their political persuasions shielded from many. This has undoubtedly had the effect of rendering statesman and women as objects of history, remembered as distinct from the politics which defined them and the contexts which shaped their careers in governance.

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