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Riyadh: Sunday 18th December, 2011

Czech President Vaclav Havel

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Vaclav Havel: Relevance of legacy:

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Czech statesman Vaclav Havel dies (

The death of former dissident, President of both Czechoslovakia and, subsequently, the Czech Republic, Nobel Prize Winner, founding signatory to Charter 77 and playwrite, Vaclav Havel at the age of 75 is likely to be mourned amid deserved plaudits.

In a remarkable life, Havel, not a natural politician, never-the-less rose to become a statesman who will be remembered far beyond his nations borders. There are very few people who can marry unrelenting moral courage in the face of persecution with dignity and leadership, while retaining a reputation for compromise and competence.

To have presided over a bloodless revolution (the so-called Velvet Revolution) it is all the more remarkable that he was able to guide his nation through the break-up of the nation of Czechoslovakia in such a way as to avoid long-lasting animosity (the so-called Velvet Divorce).

But, then this is also a tribute to the people of the former Czechoslovakia. As with the Prague Spring of 1968, the Czech and Slovak people proved dignified and intelligent and brave.

In the years that have followed, the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union has led to a world often defined as being uncertain and characterised by growing cynicism over our political leadership and democratic way of life. The single remaining Global Superpower, can seem to have squandered the legacy bequeathed it by the self destructiveness of 20th century political ideologies while Europe appears powerless to prevent its eclipse by Asia and its own decadence.

Yet I was 12 when, in a matter of days, Communist State after Communist State toppled and then fell. My family had always been politically engaged and while I was young, the significance of this moment, was not lost on me. Only years later could I comprehend the idea of ‘The End of History and The Last Man, expounded by Francis Fukuyama. At the time, while it was clear to me that this was a watershed in History, it’s true significance was essentially lost on me. The collapse of The Soviet hold on its European satellites was rather, it seemed to me, an unalloyed (if transient) good.

To often in the intervening years, it is the standard, pigmy politician who has occupied my thoughts. Even those who can be considered to be successful, cannot claim greatness. Havel was undisputable great, however.

It is perhaps, too much to expect that Cameron, Miliband, Osbourn or Clegg might rise to such heights of statesmanship. Havel benefitted from having faced a corrupted and doctrinaire system and countering it with simple dignity. Our politicians will never be able to demonstrate personal courage or unimpeachable authority, simply by standing for their beliefs.

Yet Havel is an example which they can all follow: a man who not only countered a system but stood for a progressive alternative which embraced individual freedom, conservative economics and at the same time, a compassionate state. Charter 77 does not read like a revolutionary document today. It is barely ideological when viewed from our own time. Yet it was exactly that.

Politicians of all political colours can find sorely needed inspiration in the example of men like Havel and in remembering that sometimes, simple dignity can be far more powerful than the macho demonstration of power politics so often aspired to by our leaders.


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