Gandhi and the Red Dean

How the Mahatma won one schoolboy's gratitude

As the world, led by President Obama, celebrates what would have been the 140th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, I offer readers a short anecdote that an old acquaintance with a long memory told me in my teens. In 1931 the great man spent 12 weeks in Britain, and while he was here he paid a visit to the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, later to become infamous as the "Red Dean" over his support for the Soviet Union and opposition to nuclear weapons. You can find a rather atmospheric photograph of their meeting here and here.

During his time in Canterbury, Gandhi took the time to chat to some of the pupils of the King's School, which is situated in the cathedral grounds. On one occasion, however, this caused one of them to be late for a lesson -- not an event that would go without notice in the disciplined environment of a 1930s boarding school. "Where have you been?" demanded the young teacher (none other than the friend who was to relate this incident to me over 50 years later).

This produced what my friend reckoned was probably the best excuse for tardiness he was ever given. "Sir, I've been talking to Gandhi, sir," replied the boy.

"Pretty unbeatable," remembered my friend -- and I think you'd have to agree.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.