Is there beauty to be found in Twenty-First Century politics? It doesn’t seem likely.
There was once an aspiration at the heart of the British Labour Party that life should something more than simple material progress, that a fair and just society demanded more than a redistribution of monetary wealth. There was a desire, which was held much more widely than just within the ranks of the Labour Party, that ordinary people should be able to live lives for more than just wages and purchases. Reading rooms, evening classes, lectures, summer schools, there were movements dedicated to bringing more than bread alone to the lives of working people.
The aspiration was shared by socialists on both sides of the Irish Sea. Jim Larkin, the leader of the Irish labour movement during the turbulent days of the 1913 Dublin lockout, believed a good life for working people required more than improved wages, Sean O’Casey said of Jim Larkin, “Here was a man who could put a flower in a vase on a table as well as a loaf of bread on the plate.”
Jim Larkin would have understood a doctor with whom I once stood in a remote Tanzanian village some two decades ago.
The poverty was absolute, the houses were built from mud bricks and thatch roofs and were without furnishings and without water. To have a home built from concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof would have been a dream for the most of those whom we met. In the midst of the poor houses, there was one house outside of which someone had planted flowers, flowers which were blooming brightly under the African sun.
I remarked to the colleague with whom I had travelled that I felt there was a certain incongruity in planting flowers when one was so poor. My colleague turned to me to rebuke me, “Just because you are poor, it doesn’t mean you do not wish for beauty.” As if to reinforce the point, a local doctor said he would like to take us to the place where he found peace and tranquility, a beach beside Lake Malawi.
On the day that Jim Larkin died, Sean O’Casey wrote,
“It is hard to believe that this great man is dead, for all thoughts and all activities surged in the soul of this labour leader. He was far and away above the orthodox labour leader, for he combined within himself the imagination of the artist, with the fire and determination of a leader of a downtrodden class.”
“The imagination of the artist?” A century on, it is hard to imagine leaders of Larkin’s inclination. How much beauty is now to be found among the politicians?