The less we remember about Nelson Mandela, the more we love him

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

‘‘Free Nelson Mandela with every large public building,” my wife wryly observed one evening as we trudged up the stairs to the Royal Festival Hall, passing a particularly dreadful outsize bronze head of the world’s most famous former prisoner. For some readers it might seem a little de trop to be taking a tilt at the almost wholly bogus iconisation of the former leader of the African National Congress, even as he lies dying in a Johannesburg hospital (and indeed, by the time you read this, he may well be dead), but I say: you’re not the sort of readers I want, so if what follows looks likely to offend you just get back to balding, or reading Clare Balding’s memoir, or whatever else it is that you do to ease the stricture of your conformity.
There are actually only two big public sculptures of Mandela in central London – the aforementioned head and a life-size bronze in Parliament Square that depicts the father of the new South Africa either arguing passionately or possibly milking an invisible cow. But if Mandela has a political significance in this country it is that he symbolises more than anything else the woeful behaviour of the bulk of the British political establishment during the apartheid regime.
In the mid-1960s it was the Labour government of Harold Wilson that kicked sanctions against South Africa into the long grass, and as late as the early 1980s Margaret Thatcher (remember her, of the recent quasistate funeral?) was referring to Mandela as a “terrorist”. It took a student-led campaign in the late 1970s in the US to begin a serious British squeeze on the economic underpinning of a regime that kept the vast majority of its population disenfranchised and in semi-slavery – and that was only a decade or so before Mandela finally walked free, almost 27 years after his conviction at the Rivonia trial.
Not that you’d think this from the comprehensive rewriting of their memories that so many Britons have indulged in. Nowadays everyone did, does and always will love Nelson Mandela. He has become a cuddly and unthreatening black manikin to be propped up at the end of the collective bed. Many white people revere Mandela not because of his principled co-founding and leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC, but because when at last the ANC gained power, he restrained those of his comrades who would cheerfully have buried that spear in the dark hearts of their former oppressors.
Many black people, by contrast, revere Mandela because his political activism lies safely in the past, and the memory of it can serve to mask the uncomfortable present of South Africa, a country led by a man who has yet to answer a raft of accusations – including rape and extensive corruption – as he hides his own face behind the mask of power. And if Jacob Zuma’s leadership is a parlous business, then how much more troubled is contemporary South Africa itself, with its stratospheric murder rate, its rampant inequality and a resurgence in the superstitions that always dance attendance on poverty and impotence.
Meanwhile, we have Mandela Way and Mandela Close, the Parisians have an Avenue du Président Nelson Mandela, and there are umpteen Mandela stadia, bridges and sports centres the world over. Mandela is one of those “icons” (ghastly expression) that acquire an ever bigger following purely by virtue of their recognition factor, and in the process what was genuinely remarkable and noteworthy about the person is forgotten in favour of this bowdlerisation. Of course there are those in British political life – step forward, Peter Hain of the perma-tan – who did play a principled part in opposition to the apartheid regime, but then Hain, too, was a South African before he mysteriously became a Welshman (a transmogrification that always reminds me of Christopher Logue’s poem “When all else fails,/Try Wales”).
The idea of replacing the statue of the revered Mandela in Parliament Square with one of the rather less well-loved Hain may strike many as being deranged, but I’m all for it. Such a move would confront us regularly with the reality of our political system, which specialises in turning youthful iconoclasts into middle-aged placemen. We should leave icons where they belong – in places where they can be worshipped by crowds of the utterly credulous.
Free Nelson Mandela with every public building - a Mandela statue outside London's Southbank Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.