It was the Autumn/Winter of 1984 and the Miners Strike was in full effect. In those days I used to work at the shop until 12:30 on a Saturday, and on this particular Saturday I finished on time and walked across the road to get the bus home. As I stood waiting, I could hear music and chanting, and then from the corner of Port Street emerged a march of hundreds, maybe even thousands, in support of the miners. And as they marched up to where I was standing, I could see at the head of the procession the man who was then, and who remains my political hero, Tony Benn. As he passed in his grey raincoat, pipe in mouth, he looked directly at me and I raised my fist in a show of support. He nodded and gently clapped his hands together a couple of times in acknowledgement. It's not often in life I ever get starstruck, but that was certainly one time.
In my own humble opinion Tony Benn is the greatest politician of the last 50 or 60 years. A purist Socialist, he fights tirelessly for human rights, freedom and democracy. He is the very embodiment of 'old' Labour, and quite possibly the greatest Prime Minister that this country never had. He represented the soft spoken, overcoat wearing 'warm' Socialism in a similar vein to Harold Wilson, and appeared the antithesis of Tory bully-boy slugs like Norman Tebbit or Michael Heseltine.
He once said "The Conservative Party is the enemy of Democracy", and protested loudly against the Falklands war, the war in Kosovo and, in railing against *spit* 'New Labour' he decried the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as 'imperialist wars'. A thorn in the side of Tony Blair, Benn lambasted his own party's decision to become a mere lapdog to America, stating "Britain is now in effect, an American colony, seen in Washington as an unsinkable aircraft carrier".
Over the years, I have read his books on political theory as well as his series of Diaries, and have always believed in his views on democracy, the power of the working classes, and shared his opposition to war's class-based injustices. Indeed it is probably because of Tony Benn that I have clung so long to the belief that the Labour Party is still the party of the people and the only political system I would give my life to defend....much to Griff's chagrin it should be added.
The Labour Party now, under Blair, Brown and Miliband does not represent the the views or beliefs of Tony Benn which is probably why he retired from the party in 2001, but he remains an impassioned campaigner on many anti-war, human rights and freedom of speech issues.
As I glumly continue ticking the box for Labour at elections, I know full well that my views and beliefs are not being met the party I 'support', but often I feel that I have no option as there never appears to be any full-on Socialist alternative to the Tories.
I often feel depressed that there are no political heroes any more. In these gruesome 'X-Factor' worshipping days it seems almost ridiculous to have such things as political heroes; but whither this generation's Clement Attlee, Nai Bevan or even Arthur Scargill? Those revolutionary, reactionary days of yore when radical politics were all the rage seem to belong with the dinosaurs.
There are NO political heroes today!!!
Well, except maybe one.....
If the Middle East is currently experiencing an Arab Spring then it could be argued that Latin America is in the throes of a Chilean Winter. The youth of Chile are beginning to find a new political voice having become disillusioned with La Concertación, the coalition which oversaw the removal of the corrupt government of General Augusto 'dinner-guest-of-Thatcher' Pinochet. And that voice belongs to the president of Chile's leading student body, the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (aka FECH), Camila Vallejo.
A mere 23 years old, Camila has already been seen as a new, major political force in Latin American politics, having led demonstrations calling for better and cheaper education for the masses, and for taking part in televised debates on the state of democracy and government within Chile and its surrounding neighbours.
In less than a year, Camila has gone from anonymous Geography student to something of a Latin American folk hero, followed by hundreds of thousands of Chilean teens, adopted by the students of Brazil as figurehead for their own demonstrations, had glowing tributes paid by Bolivian vice-President Álvaro García Linera, and is the recipient of a multitude of songs, odes and visual tributes on Youtube. There's almost no getting away from it, Camila Vallejo is the darling of the politically aware in South America.
And we may as well address the elephant in the room, for there is almost no doubt that a major part in Camila's popularity is that she is unquestionably beautiful. It seems almost ludicrously patronising to suggest that her popularity is the purely down to her attractiveness, but this seems to something that Camila herself is totally at ease with, going as far to comment "You have to recognise that beauty can be a hook. It can be a compliment, they come to listen to me because of my appearance, but then I explain the ideas. A movement as historical as this cannot be summarised in such superficial terms".
And this is exactly the point; Camila's looks are the Wooden Horse in which she hides her (metaphorical) political hand-grenades, by catching the eye of Chile's youth she can spread her message much more quickly and easily.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in left-wing politics of course; take for example the Baader-Meinhof Gang whose very photogeneticity gained them massive support among Germany's radicalised young. Likewise, look at Ché....the very embodiment of sexualised political icon. Would all those red teeshirts bearing his image, those posters in every student bedsit, and all those berets have been sold if he'd looked like Boris Johnston? Methinks not!
Camila's own politicisation no doubt stems from the fact that both her parents were members of the Chilean Communist Party who vehemently opposed Pinochet's dictatorship, becoming involved in the Chilean Resistance. When Camila was 18, she enrolled at the University Of Chile, quickly becoming involved in leftist politics and joining the Communist Youth of Chile whose ideals include better living conditions for those in the poorer regions, as well as strengthening the welfare of students and lowering the cost of further education.
Camila's support among the youth of Chile, and her part in the organising of protests against the government have almost predictably led to threats against her life, yet she remains upbeat and focused and never shirks from public or televised appearances. Her popularity has led to an number of songs devoted to her, as well as video pieces like this charming montage of images set to English-born Spanish language singer Jeanette's early 70s track 'Soy Rebelde'.
In an age of massive worldwide political upheaval there appear to be very few genuine heroes at the forefront, certainly none to rival the likes of Zapata or Ché, or even Attlee, Bevan, Benn or Jimmy Reid. So we look on with eyes of anticipation towards this new voice of the left, this TRUE hero (heroine?), and we hope that Camila is the first of many!
For further reading on Tony Benn, a rather superb unofficial website can be accessed here
And you can follow Camila Vallejo's own personal Blog here