Reminding ourselves of the impact of politicians & famous people from the past


On the spoken words of Robert F Kennedy (Former Attorney General of the USA and JFK’s brother), and on the importance of making the video & audio clips widely available

If you don’t read the rest of this blogpost, please take 30mins of your time to listen to RFK below:

(And just in case you don’t get to the end of this blogpost, if you’ve not contacted your local MP or local councillor about a local issue you care about, start with

Make no mistake – the questions that he got certainly weren’t easy. The tone was set by the first two questions on whether he was using New York State as a springboard to a presidential bid or whether he’d serve the state as a good ‘constituency senator’ (for want of another term). It chimes here in the towns and villages surrounding Cambridge because they are safe-as-houses Conservative constituencies. (So much so that one of them was seen as a possible seat for Boris Johnson for his expected bid for the Conservative leadership and as a possible prime minister). Kennedy dealt with the questions head on.

“I could have retired…”

It’s worth remembering he made the speech not long after the assassination of his brother, and shortly after his resignation as attorney general. This part of his speech sort of reminds me of the position Zac Goldsmith MP is in as Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. Doesn’t need the title, doesn’t need the money, doesn’t need the office space. With that in mind, the similarities of situations for both of them is having to convince doubters that they want to do something positive with elected public office, rather than seeing it as some sort of ‘entitlement’. What makes Mr Goldsmith a strong potential adversary for newly-announced Labour candidate Sadiq Khan MP is that Mr Goldsmith has a reputation for having an independent mind. Remember Mr Goldsmith is on the green side of the Conservative Party, and is vehemently opposed to the expansion of Heathrow airport.

An extremely talented politician – but human like the rest of us?

This video biography of RFK highlights some of the decisions that, with the hindsight of history we might see as questionable. From backing the Bay of Pigs Invasion & repeated failed attempts to overthrow Castro, to authorising the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, there are a number of decisions he took that remain controversial to this day. As someone with a passion for history, I always try to picture what the situation was like at the time – and what information decision makers had at hand when they made those difficult judgement calls.

‘Big democracy’ in action – the powerful scrutinising the powerful

This piece of video is electric – RFK with JFK in the background on the McClellan Committee about corruption & organised crime in trade unions. The WikiP page is here for the Committee. This clip alone illustrates how electric some of our parliamentary select committees could become if we had counsel attached to them and able to cross-examine witnesses. For me, this reflects the role Parliament should have, but doesn’t. In the UK, Parliament is still too much under the thumb of the executive – reaching its low point under Gordon Brown in the ‘duckhouse parliament.’

This piece from the civil rights movement is particularly striking

Note the comments by Charles Evers, a civil rights activist whose brother was murdered. Note how he said that RFK as a politician changed because he listened, and was consistent in what he spoke out about. ie not changing his principles to suit the audience or people he was in conversation with. Note Nelson Mandela in this clip:

“He who changes his principles depending on who he is dealing with, is not a man who can lead a nation”

(Listen through to 56-59mins where Mandela leaves the hostile host speechless!) The whole of the above-linked clip is fascinating from an historical perspective. At around 22 mins Mandela also talks about the support the ANC received from countries considered international pariahs in the 1960s-80s.

The links here with contemporary UK for me are comparing a driven attorney general ensuring that the constitutional rights of citizens and the rule of law are both upheld – in the face of extreme intimidation, with our current set of secretaries of state (thinking DWP’s Iain Duncan Smith & Home Secretary Theresa May) who have been accused in their policy areas of undermining UK citizens’ human rights – even when the High Court rules against them. Readers with a legal background, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the differences in roles & duties between RFK as attorney general vs the relatively low profile their UK counterparts have.

Both Mandela’s comments & Evers’ comments about RFK make me think about the recent Labour leadership contest. (Writing this a few hours before the result is announced). Irrespective of policy merit, many a journalist has commented that they know where they stand with Corbyn, & that he hasn’t changed his principles to suit different audiences. That said, he’s got his work cut out to convince the doubters – as Fleet Street Fox explains here. There’s some truth in Foxy’s comment that Corbyn’s success is in part down to the utter failure of Blair and Brown to nurture a cohesive and talented group of politicians and future ministers to succeed them. Although Liz Kendall has on mainstream and social media shown herself to personable and likeable – especially in the face of online hate, her big name supporters could come up with little more than platitudes. Her campaign website is astonishingly policy-lite – as is her rival Yvette Cooper’s website here.

The historical context of the 1960s – it wasn’t that so long ago

Here’s a clip of John Lennon making the point about educating young people regarding substance abuse. Listen further to hear his point about his & Yoko Ono’s fight with immigration – and his detailed explanation of legal processes they faced.

What fascinates me about the video footage that people are uploading is that it is the historical figures talking about their experiences as they lived them, in their own voices. It’s all too easy to forget just how big some of the institutional barriers they faced at the time. What’s also striking is how persistent problems don’t seem to go away. Take the short clip below:

The opening remarks by RFK could easily be applied to the world of today.

“Where are the great, titanic political figures of today?”

I’ve been looking around for quite some time and I’m not seeing many of them in mainstream politics. Our institutions still concentrate too much power into the hands of too few people. When we look at the scale of the problems we face today, both the ministers in power and the institutions that they are heads of continue to demonstrate a feebleness in the face of catastrophe. On one side of the Commons we have a Government whose ministers talk about fences and security guards as a means to solving a huge refugee crisis, and on the other a political establishment absolutely blind-sided by the scale of what’s going on inside its own institution – something that won’t be resolved overnight whoever wins the Labour leadership election.

This brings me back to RFK here – his final remarks.

“It’s going to rest with those who are educated, those people who are trained, on whether they are going to participate or whether they are going to say this is the problem or the responsibility of somebody else.”

I never studied the ancient greeks or the great philosophers – RFK above citing his brother quoting Dante. Yet RFK was able to make the link between the ancient Greeks & the problems in our democracies not just of the 1960s but of today. The above quotation about participation was spoken by RFK over 50 years ago – but remains relevant today. I’ve chosen to apply it to my home town of Cambridge – making the future of my city my responsibility. Converting that responsibility into actions in my case is about getting others involved.

With that in mind, next week I have three tabled questions that the Greater Cambridge City Deal Assembly have to respond publicly to. They are:

“What assessment have Assembly members made of the Board’s communication strategy for the city deal, with specific focus on social media and community outreach?

“What views do Assembly members have for improving how the people of Cambridge & its institutions communicate with each other?”

“Following my question on 28 Jan 2015 to the City Deal Board re: the Haverhill Rail Campaign (see, what assessment have Assembly members made on the follow-up made by the Board, and their own scrutiny of the plans and work the Rail Campaign has done?

There’s only so far one individual can go. But given we’re now at a stage where several people & campaign groups are now talking about the future of Cambridge, (see, isn’t it time the institutions with the money & power took responsibility for involving us, the people of the city? Isn’t it now time that we did something far more exciting & dynamic than the current set up of staid meetings? Some of them have been so dull & weakly chaired that I’ve refrained from uploading them, instead only uploading questions from the public and the responses back.

On a wider scale, as we’ve seen from the grassroots response to the refugees crisis, people have become so frustrated at the response from governments that they’ve taken action directly – which has helped force the hand of ministers in the face of tabloid hostility. But I can’t help but think that the likes of RFK would be appalled at the weakness of the international response. Laudable as the collections & fundraising actions are, the problems are political.

My end-of-blogpost recommendation? Pick a local issue close to your heart and ask one of your elected representatives some questions about it. Start with and just as importantly, continue the dialogue/conversation with them. You might be surprised how quickly some of them (but by no means all) will start listening to you – especially if it’s a small group of you raising similar issues.


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