Saturday, 12 January 2013

Farewell to a rebel with a cause.

On Thursday of this week as a cold front swept in from the East and the weather forecasters did their best to make our collective flesh creep with threats of snow the news came through that a brilliant, sometimes difficult, but, I think, genuinely good man had died.

His name was Mick Williams and he will be unknown to most people outside either the Labour movement or the political scene in Stoke-on-Trent, although readers of the Guardian, Tribune and the Local Government Chronicle may well be familiar with the letters combining informed comment and often surreal humour he contributed to those and dozens of other publications.

I could tick off the achievements of his long career, three times elected to Stoke-on-Trent City Council, a holder of every branch and constituency office in his local Labour Party, a leading light of the WEA and the Trades Council, the list goes on; but I don’t think that explains why whether you knew him or not you should be saddened at his passing. This is because Mick Williams didn’t have a political career so much as a political calling; the difference between the two is important.

Politics, national or local, has always attracted its fair share of charlatans and they fall into two broad categories. There are the determined ladder climbers, ‘back stairs crawlers’ a George Orwell called them’, who believe in very little beyond the inevitability of their rise to greatness; there are also those who style themselves as ‘rebels’, making a lot of attention grabbing noise but taking very few real risks.

There is also another, much rarer sort of person drawn to politics; those for whom it is a sort of faith, providing them with principles they are not willing to abandon in the name of expediency. Mick Williams belonged to this latter group, at times this could make him difficult to work with; but it was also the source of his brilliance.

If he sometimes stood too stubbornly on points of principle or chased lost causes he also had an awkward, for the holders of vested interests, determination to stand up for what he believed was right. Nobody else could have galvanised the campaign to rid Stoke-on-Trent of an unworkable mayoral system or been more shamefully treated by the party he served for nearly half a century as a result.

It was this rejection by a Labour Party he felt had lost touch with its true principles that prompted Mick’s last; unsuccessful attempt to win election to the council in 2010. I had the honour, I don’t use the word lightly, of working closely with him during this campaign and came to be impressed by his remarkable energy and the passion with which he sought to engage a jaded public with political issues.

The energy faded as ill health slowly took hold, but the passion for politics remained undimmed to the end. Just before he went into hospital for the last time I spoke to Mick on the phone and he told me that he was still ‘pushing’ the council on several issues and we agreed to meet and lay our plans when he was discharged. It was not to be and those of us who knew him will miss his wise counsel, his irreverence in the face of pomposity and his untiring commitment to building an honest, open and inclusive democracy.

Dylan Thomas famously wrote that the old should ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ meaning the dying of the light of physical potency. Throughout his remarkable career Mick Williams raged against the dying of an equally important light; that of a democracy threatened by the ambition of cynics with careers to build and principles to jettison the moment they start getting in the way.

Those of us who knew Mick Williams and want to honour his memory could find no better way of doing so than raging in the same cause ourselves.

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