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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.