The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
August 31, 2005

Death and the Politician: the problem with obituaries

Posted by Jeremy Black

Edward Heath, Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam all received near universally positive obituaries. But do hagiographic obituaries of politicians serve us ill? Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - argues that they might and, furthermore, that they are a symbol of our sentimentalised culture.

Maybe it was the death of Mo Mowlam that did it, following, as it did, so swiftly after those of Edward Heath and Robin Cook. Yet again, there was the challenge for the obituarists. How far should death lead us to abstract individuals from the controversies and problems of life, and, instead, to depict them in largely sunny terms. Not a subject to touch you may well think. After all, grief should be allowed its latitude. Indeed, my wife advised me not to write on this subject.

But, as an historian, I feel that it poses a problem of how best to present the past. Put simply, at what stage does a political figure, someone indeed who has courted publicity during their life, merit objective consideration? One hopes that they receive it during their life as part of the cut and thrust of political debate and comment. One also assumes that they will receive such consideration after death as part of the process of historical assessment. But when should the latter start, and, in particular, what should the position be after death?

One approach is to say that death suspends the process of discussion, that, indeed, praise for the deceased is part of a necessary process of catharsis, and that this is necessary in order to alleviate grief. Maybe that is appropriate for private individuals, although it does not describe the dynamics of many families. But, is this an appropriate course for public figures, first because they have always been in the public eye, indeed have sought to be so, and, secondly, because their death is habitually treated with praise?

This praise takes the form in particular of favourable comments from former colleagues. Frequently doubtless it is rehearsed and designed to reflect praise on the donor, not least of the "we were all jointly involved in this glorious project" type, but, however self-serving, and often hypocritical, there is a measure of sincerity in the approbation. Yet, precisely because the legacy in the public mind will be this praise, it is worth asking whether the process of obituarising has become too much that of eulogy. Is this healthy for public politics and, indeed, is it appropriate from the perspective of historians?

The answer to the first is no. It is not healthy for politicians to feel that whatever their mistakes they will be spared obloquy. Public service is a heavy burden and many who undertake it richly merit our sympathy, not least in the face of near-continuous criticism. But sympathy and understanding should not extend to whitewash. Yet, that has been largely the case as far as politicians are concerned.

If Enoch Powell was correct, and all political careers end ultimately in failure, then that was not underlined in the treatment of Heath, Cook and Mowlam. Yet, each was a conspicuous failure. Unsuccessful in power, Heath was rejected not only by the electorate but also by his own parliamentary colleagues. His misleading assurances about the EEC, as it then was, led to him being memorably described as not the sort of man you would want as your solicitor.

Like many politicians, Cook, helped by a sympathetic media, found it easier to shine in opposition than in office. Not a great success as Foreign Secretary, he was demoted by Blair, and then made his name by the manner of his departure as Leader of the House. His comments seemed singularly prescient, not least in light of Blair's mendacity and the serious problems that were to engulf the Iraq policy, but it is worth considering whether Cook's approach offered much in dealing with, say, North Korea or Iran or Zimbabwe. They revealed, instead, that he was most comfortable in opposition. Possibly his tragic early death saved him from the compromising of his reputation that would have followed inclusion in a Brown government, and, maybe, even from a further resignation on an issue of principle.

Mowlam seems to have been a bridge too far. Alongside the praise, there was discussion of the extent to which her mishandling of the Unionists led Blair to take over Ulster policy, and also of the hubris that led her subsequently to seek one of the senior posts in the Cabinet.

It is also worth asking what the public post-mortems said about the nature of contemporary political culture. In part, most obviously with Mowlam, we are in the world of public emoting first expressed after the death of Princess Diana. Irrespective of achievement, it is ability to empathise with a character that leads to a favourable public response. Thus, there was a stress on Mowlam's willingness in Ulster to kiss all and sundry as part of a positive body language designed to advance her political goals; and this is presented as sympathetic and a welcome contrast to her more stuffy Conservative predecessors. This modus operandi did not work with the Unionists, and it is reasonable for an historian to locate it in terms of a particular political moment that has weaknesses as well as strengths.

Obituaries indeed are a form of public record. To see them simply as opportunities for praise or soft-ball criticism, is to serve not only posterity poorly but also to prefer a sentimental response to the present to the duty to offer a "warts-and-all" portrayal. It is a sign of our culture, that, all-too-frequently, this challenge is avoided.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement