I was in the middle of a very heavy drinking period at the time of my university graduation several decades ago, so I have no actual memory of the ceremony. The official pictures show that I was the only one from my college not wearing a tie – ooh, rebel! – while the family photos show my parents looking proud, my then-girlfriend looking a bit cross, and my friends looking as hungover as I was.
Last week, I got a sense of what I missed out on, as I watched several hundred students from King’s College, London, graduate as doctors and dentists. Southwark Cathedral was a beautiful setting, and the pride and energy of the graduates, and the joy of their friends, families and teachers, were a delight to witness. The fact that a few miles away, in another iconic place of worship, Westminster Abbey, the great and the good were celebrating the 75th birthday of the NHS, added to the sense of occasion.
One NHS veteran connected with King’s, who had rushed from the Abbey to the Cathedral to be part of both events, cheerily informed me that Rishi Sunak had been met with something of a chill when he did his reading about helping the poor and marginalised (excellent Bible trolling) whereas Keir Starmer was warmly received.
I noticed that in his speech on education last week, as Starmer set out the reality of a failing schools system, and promised a series of reforms, he made a point of reminding people: “The last Labour government had the best record on education in the history of our country – without question.”
To those of us who were working for the Blair-Brown governments, it was nice to hear a Labour leader state that proudly and unequivocally, following years during which Starmer’s predecessors have sought to distance themselves from, rather than embrace and build upon, the New Labour record.
The same comparison between 13 Labour years and 13 Tory years applies to the NHS. As Labour left office in 2010, the NHS had the highest satisfaction ratings in its history. Waiting times down. Staff morale up. Today, both ratings and morale could barely be lower.
The current health secretary, Steve Barclay, is, judging by my conversations with senior NHS people, despised in a way that even Andrew Lansley couldn’t match. I hear too that the normally mild-mannered chancellor Jeremy Hunt, himself no idol among doctors and nurses, has been known to utter the occasional four-letter word to and about his successor.
It is an astute move by Starmer to reclaim the New Labour years. It comes as Rishi Sunak seeks, for obvious reasons, to distance himself from his predecessors… Cameron’s austerity. Johnson’s Brexit, lies and corruption. Truss’s Kamikwazi wrecking of the economy. Thirteen Labour years v 13 Tory years is not a bad way to frame a debate about who is placed to shape a better future than the current broken present that we have in a country that feels stuck.
Those new doctors and dentists were barely in their teens when the Tories came to power. As they set out to save and improve lives, and save and improve the NHS, they deserve a better government than the one they have grown up with.
If you’re wondering why I was at a medical students’ graduation, it was because King’s made me a Fellow in recognition of my campaigning on mental health. I have never been a fan of the honours system, nor of the habit of collecting them in order to have lots of letters before and after one’s name. But I must confess I might make an exception for Fellow of King’s College, ie FKC. Malcolm Tucker would be proud.
My handful of awards and honorary this and thattery, most for work related to the peace process in Northern Ireland, are very small fry set alongside the degrees awarded to Nobel prize-winning scientist Paul Nurse, an upcoming guest on The Rest Is Politics Leading. I mean, where do you put SEVENTY degrees, and all the scrolls and framed citations that go with them?
Though he continues to make important contributions to current debate, Bill Clinton spends much of his life these days travelling the world and being feted for things he achieved in the past. We saw plenty of such feting when the former US president was in Belfast a few weeks ago for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. I ended up in a folk music bar with him, where he had a queue of people wanting to shake his hand, get a selfie with him, or buy him a drink.
There was a whole lot more feting in the Albanian capital of Tirana last week, where huge crowds turned out to thank the former US president, who played a pivotal role in the fight for Kosovar Albanians against Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslavia almost a quarter of a century ago.
As Clinton sat in the front row at the open-air gathering on a lovely sunny day, waiting to be awarded the country’s highest honour by prime minister Edi Rama, he was clearly moved as a succession of young men strode to the microphone and just gave their names. “My name is Clinton Berisha, thank you Bill… My name is Clinton Fredisi… My name is Clinton Goshe…” On and on they went, then a young woman: “My name is Clintonita,” then another… “My name is Hillary, thank you Bill.”
Clinton, who has still got it when it comes to finding a great soundbite, thanked them with these words: “Today you gave me a great gift. You let me see the future working in a place where the past could have killed it.” Nice.
At the risk of this week’s column becoming a New Labour Tribute Special, in the Kosovo and Albania name stakes, my old boss can go one better… look up “Tonibler” on Wikipedia… the name Clinton already existed as a first name, even if few Albanians used it. Tonibler was a completely new name given to lots of children, in honour of his role in the Nato campaign of 1999. TB met some of them on a visit to Kosovo in 2010.
As both former leaders know from these living, breathing young people bearing their names, legacy comes in many forms.
Not least because of my love of travel and beautiful landscapes, my commitment to following Burnley FC, my participation in many nationwide campaigns, and invitations to speak all over the country, I thought I knew just about everywhere in the UK. Yet less than two hours from my home in north London exists somewhere I did not know existed until I went there for a festival-cum-conference. Osea Island in Essex. Very few of the friends and colleagues I mentioned it to had heard of it either.
You can get there by car at certain times of the day, when the tide is out and a rough causeway opens up. When the tide comes in, it becomes a 500-acre island, a wonderful place to swim, and to see why filmmakers making movies set in the past like to work here. We stayed overnight, and it was fabulous to wake up to something as close to silence as I can ever recall.