My mother’s life taught me the value of political moderation and to be distrustful of radical change and big ideas
A couple of weeks ago I received in the mail a copy of a book called Survivor. It contained stunning portraits of Holocaust survivors taken by the photographer Harry Borden. And one of them was a wonderful picture of my mother, standing by the open door of her dining room at her house in Hendon.
Accompanying each portrait were a few words from the subject in their own handwriting. Next to hers, Mum had written: “I think of myself as a person, a wife and mother first and a survivor last.”
Last week, after a long illness, she died. And I have found myself standing by the same open dining room door and thinking about what she had said. Here’s my attempt to make sense of it.
Whenever my mother told of her arrest and being taken to a concentration camp by cattle truck, she would always add that my father had spent much longer in such a truck when exiled to the Siberian borders by Stalin.
Partly this reflected her natural modesty. She found nothing more ludicrous than competitive stories of suffering, and was keen to undercut her own. But partly it was to emphasise the way in which the enemies of liberty, however different they look, produce the same misery and death.
Even as a child it wasn’t hard to absorb the simple political lesson. It was to be resolute in defence of democracy, free speech and the rule of law. When I was a student I was often offered dope, but refused it because Mum and Dad taught me never, ever to break the law. If you don’t respect the rules laid down by a freely elected parliament, where next? My friends remind me that I refused to tape records for them because it breached copyright.
As an adult, however, I began to understand better the subtlety of my parents’ politics. Actually, more than their politics, their way of looking at the world.
My mum’s favourite joke was “Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the theatre?” Indeed, when my father died, I returned in a hurry from watching Chelsea play Norwich City and my mother looked at me and said: “What was the score?”
The reason she found the Lincoln joke funny was that she thought nothing so absurd as a lack of a sense of proportion. It would have been a perfectly reasonable response to Belsen and exile for my parents to have had a hair trigger, to see the next Holocaust in every event, the next Stalin in every bumptious leadership figure. Instead, they went the other way.
My mother’s view was that if she lived her life as a “survivor”, she would be granting Hitler the ultimate triumph. She would live as a person, a wife and a mother. She would note not how similar events were to a fresh disaster, but how dissimilar they were.
My parents never involved themselves in a hedge (or any other) dispute with a neighbour, it was out of the question to disapprove of their children’s partners, they never took sides in rows on the synagogue council. It isn’t quite true that we children were never admonished, but they were remarkably tolerant. Even when I failed to realise that the Copydex glue for carpets was intended for the underside.
The only time I remember being properly told off was for claiming, just before dinner, to be starving. Justly, my parents found my failure to appreciate what starving really was offensive.
Inevitably, this all had an impact on their politics and on mine. It isn’t just that we find unbelievably stupid people who put the Nazi emblem on the European Union flag or call it the EUSSR. It’s broader than that.
The great figures of history are often seen as those who are unreasonable in circumstances where reason no longer applies. Take Charles de Gaulle, for instance. He was stubbornly, almost insanely, unreasonable about small things as well as big ones. And his pettiness was his greatness. Through it he preserved the rights of France and secured its independence.
No one would argue that Winston Churchill was always reasonable or acted proportionately. Nor that, in different circumstances, Margaret Thatcher was either. There are moments in history for people willing and able to be incredibly bloody-minded and to appreciate that great acts of change or resistance are necessary.
But not every moment is like that and not every circumstance requires it. There is greatness too in the ability to compromise, to moderate, to accept with generosity the eccentricities and obsessions of others. It can be an achievement when nothing much happens.
America’s first president had his wars and his monument. America’s fifth president, James Monroe, cannot boast a great cathartic moment, or a spectacular military victory. Only a period in office known as “the era of good feeling”. But I know which president I would rather have lived under. There would be no Monroe without Washington, but what would be the point of a Washington if we were never able to enjoy the era of Monroe?
And not every political event requires courage and resistance. Sometimes acceptance and understanding are the right response. I notice the imprint of my parents’ politics on my view of leaving the European Union. I wanted to remain, but you know what? We’ll live. Even if the worst predictions of the economic consequences are correct, which they probably aren’t, we will live.
My parents thought political moderation was a virtue in itself. They regarded grand conspiracy theories as bizarre, and sweeping big ideas as unconvincing. My dad liked Harold Wilson precisely for the reason some of Wilson’s colleagues despised him, because he was a pragmatist who adapted to circumstances. I think politically Mum was happiest when she supported the SDP, though she admired John Major.
My mum didn’t want to live all her life as a survivor. She wanted a country that was free, but also safe and stable. She didn’t want a turbulent politics that sucked in every citizen. She wanted reason and moderation and a sense of proportion so that she could do more than survive.
So that she could live, and love, and nurture and prosper. And, in the end, so that she could die in peace and tranquillity in her adopted home.