Ed Miliband's Commons tribute to Nelson Mandela: full text

"His extraordinary life calls on us all to keep on trying. For nobler ideals, higher purposes and for a bigger and not a smaller politics."

Mr Speaker, today we remember the incomparable life of Nelson Mandela.

This House traditionally gathers to pay tribute to those who have led our country.

It is unusual for us to meet to honour the leader of another.

Why was it so essential that we should commemorate the life of President Mandela in this way?

For simple reasons.

He is an enduring and unique symbol of courage, hope and the fight against injustice.

He teaches us the power of forgiveness, showing no bitterness towards his captors.

Just the love of a country that could be so much better if all of its people could be free.

And he demonstrates even to the most sceptical, the power of people and politics to change our world.

That is why we gather here today.

So on behalf of my Party, I send the deepest condolences to his widow Graca Machel, the Mandela family and all of the people of South Africa.

We mourn with them.

Today is an opportunity to remember the extraordinary story of Nelson Mandela’s life.

He led a movement - the ANC - that liberated his country.

He endured the suffering and sacrifice of 27 years in prison.

A son unable to attend his mother’s funeral.

A father unable to attend his son’s.

But in the face of such oppression his spirit never bent or broke.

Offered the chance of release in 1985, after more than 20 years in jail, on the condition he gave up the armed struggle, he refused.

“I cannot sell my birthright nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of my people to be free”, he said.

We honour him too because of the remarkable person the world found him to be after he walked out of prison in 1990, in those scenes we still remember today.

As his old comrade, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “suffering can embitter its victims but equally it can ennoble the sufferer.”

There can be nothing more noble than determining not to seek revenge on your oppressors but to seek reconciliation with them.

He truly was, as Archbishop Tutu said, an “icon of magnanimity”.

That is why he became not just the leader of a struggle but truly can be described as the father of a nation.

As we have seen in the tributes and emotion that he has inspired since his death in the black and the white communities in South Africa.

And we honour him too because for him the struggle against injustice was a story that never ended.

Having been an activist who became a President, he was a President who became an activist once again.

Campaigning on causes from debt relief to HIV/AIDS to the war in Iraq.

And we honour somebody too who wore his extraordinary heroism with the utmost humility.

A year after he gave up the Presidency, he came to the Labour Party Conference and described himself as “an unemployed pensioner with a criminal record.”

He famously said to Desmond Tutu who teased him for his taste in gaudy shirts, “it is pretty thick coming from a man who wears a dress in public.”

His empathy led him to seek out not the most famous person in the room but the least.

And his warmth made every person he met walk taller.

So we honour a man who showed the true meaning of struggle, courage, generosity and humanity.

But we gather here in our Parliament, in Britain, also to recognise that the history of our country was bound up with his struggle.

In a spirit of truth and reconciliation: South Africa was, after all, once a British colony.

But later Britain would become in Nelson Mandela’s own words “the second headquarters of our movement in exile.”

The Prime Minister and I and thousands of others went to sign the condolence book at South Africa House on Friday.

But it is easy to forget now that South Africa House was not always such a welcoming place for opponents of apartheid.

So we should also remember today the hundreds of thousands of people who were the anti-apartheid movement in Britain.

The people who stood month after month, year after year, on the steps of that embassy, when the cause seemed utterly futile.

The churches, trade unions, the campaigners who marched, who supported the struggle financially, culturally and in so many other ways.

The people who refused to buy South African produce and supported the call for sanctions.

People whose names we do not know from all over Britain who were part of that struggle.

As well as those who will be etched in history, including the leaders of the movement who found sanctuary in Britain, like Ruth First, Joe Slovo and others.

And, if the House will allow me, those in my own party who played such an important role, like Bob Hughes, now in the House of Lords, my Right Hon Friend the Member for Neath and so many more.

It may seem odd to a younger generation that apartheid survived as long as it did, given that now it seems to have been universally reviled the world over.

But of course, the truth and the history is very different.

The cause was highly unfashionable.

Often considered dangerous by those in authority and opposed by those in government.

The Prime Minister was right a few years ago to acknowledge the history.

It is in the spirit of what Nelson Mandela taught us, to acknowledge the truth about the past and without rancour to welcome the change that has come to pass.

But also to honour his legacy by acknowledging that in every country, including our own, the battle against racial injustice still needs to be won.

So we come here to honour the man, to acknowledge our history, and also for one final reason.

To recognise and uphold the universal values for which Nelson Mandela stood.

The dignity of every person, whatever their colour or creed.

Values of tolerance and respect for all.

And justice for all people, wherever they may live and whatever oppression they may face.

Nelson Mandela himself said: 'I am not a saint, I am a sinner who keeps on trying'.

His extraordinary life calls on us all to keep on trying.

For nobler ideals, higher purposes and for a bigger and not a smaller politics.

Inspired by his example and the movement he led.

We mourn his loss.

We give thanks for his life.

And we honour his legacy.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue