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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How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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