All three party leaders paid eloquent tribute to Nelson Mandela in the Commons. But by far the most powerful speech came from Gordon Brown. His speech, which combined wit with a string of serious points, was a reminder of the qualities that made many in the Labour party prepared to overlook his flaws.
Brown, the timbre of his voice so suited to these occasions, spoke movingly about the Mandela he knew. He gave us a sense of the man as well as the statesman. He recalled how at the concert for Mandela’s the 90th, the former president had to sneak off to have a glass of champagne as his wife thought his poor health wouldn’t be helped by drinking.
Peter Hain, a former anti-apartheid activist, reminded the chamber of the sheer racial prejudice of the apartheid system. On Robben Island, coloured prisoners received more food than black ones. But Hain’s speech was let down by ad hominen attacks on those who were not present to respond.
David Cameron’s remarks were solid. He talked about the grace with which Mandela won’ and declared that ‘eradicating poverty and conflict in Africa’ would be a fitting legacy to him. Clegg’s was the most internationalist speech of the lot, arguing that the lesson of Mandela’s life was that we should stand for human rights everywhere and urging Britain to support women in Afghanistan and the like.
Miiband, for his part, once again demonstrated that he has mastered how to speak on these occasions. Slowly and deliberately, he used Mandea’s life to make the case for his romantic view of politics, ‘for a bigger not a smaller politics.’
Today was not all about consensus. Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman vigorously shook their heads as Malcolm Rifkind offered his view of Mandela, the ANC and the armed struggle. But there was no division on Mandela’s greatness, of his ability to heal wounds that seemed bound to go septic. We can only hope that we shall see his like again.