The man who briefly held the title of Viscount Stansgate, before resorting to the much plainer and more socialist sounding Tony Benn, has been a fixture at these sixth form politics conferences in Westminster Central Hall for a few years now. In fact, though, he has been an occasional fixture at this magnificent building - established to praise a deity Benn respects in the abstract but doesn't believe in - for nearly half a century, as he was keen to remind us. He was there in 1945 when Clement Attlee won the General Election - Labour's first majority win. He remembers the first meeting of the UN General Assembly in those hallowed portals. And so began a day when some of the speakers seemed keener to repeat each other's significant historical memories than to pester us with new and original political thinking.
Rabble Rousing George Galloway wanted to remind us that it was 50 years to the day that Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus - the bit where black people had to be in far off America. Would-be rabble rouser Nick Clegg also had a bit of history to tell us - did we know it was 50 years to the day since Rosa Parks........ Clegg also wanted us to know that the UN General Assembly had met here for the first time. Well, I guess if you are speaking in the afternoon session, and you can't think of any original lines for your sixth form audience, there's a chance you may end up repeating the morning speakers' bon mots. But at least in endorsing a reduction in the voting age to 16 Clegg was putting forward a unique and cutting edge idea to this receptive audience of, er, 16 and 17 year olds. If you don't count Tony Benn. Or George Galloway. Or Lembit Opik. Actually, let's not count Lembit Opik, but more on him later.
Then there was the hovering presence of an MP who we'd never heard of before the weekend, who was never booked to speak, but whose name was invoked by every speaker as if they were intoning the arrival of a new political martyr. Nothing has become Damian Green's career as much as the 9 hours spent under arrest at the behest of an over-zealous police force. Perhaps nothing will again. But he can at least be proud that he has united such diverse figures as George Galloway, William Hague, Tony Benn and Nick Clegg around the hallowed cause of parliamentary self-importance.
So perhaps today wasn't much of a forum for new ideas, but it gave us all a chance to hear some big names and reflect on what it is that gets people to the top in politics - or at any rate, fairly near the top; or at least, nearer the top than the bottom, where some of us languished before abandoning the whole idea.
I'll post some more detailed thoughts on some of the participants in due course, but a quick summary can suffice here for now. Tony Benn - the People's Tony - remains a winning speaker whose passionate idealism has never, over a long and rumbustuous political career, translated itself into effective practical action of any sort. He got lots of cheers from the assembled youths, many of whom would have had trouble picking him out in an identity parade, but he reminded us that idealism is still a powerful force. His message? "Have confidence in yourselves". Not a brilliantly original message, but it met a positive response.
Rhodri Morgan, Wales' First Minister, gave a thoughtful speech about the impact of devolution - probably the only speech of the day that actually dealt specifically with a key component of the AS level course. As such, most students lost concentration, and I was a bit worried he wasn't going to get any questions at all until some weird, uber confident student with glasses made a bit of an anti-Wales rant. Brought the house down, that one.[CORRECTION: The consensus from attendees is that this was not a student but a teacher, which might also explain the strange first comment in the Comments section!]
Then William Hague. He's good. He earns thousands for his after dinner routine. This gig was a walk in the park. He gave a few non-partisan thoughts before launching into a vigorous attack on the government as "the most incompetent government of modern times". Given the rush of students to the microphones to ask him questions, you might have thought one or two googlies would be bowled but not a bit of it. There was nothing Billy the Kid couldn't handle with his arms tied behind his back and his eyes shut. The nearest we came to anything remotely challenging was a sad looking individual who told Will that "I would never waste my vote on you". So that's clear then. Excellent.
As William cleared off to another, presumably more lucrative, engagement, onto the stage, relishing the mixed reception, came the much anticipated George Galloway. He's a monstrous figure; a charlatan of the first order; a man whose principles can be summed up as the furtherance of the ego of George Galloway. But he is entertaining. He brings political theatre to new levels and enlivens lacklustre proceedings. We didn't really care what he thought - he's against most things in this country and for quite a lot of things in other countries so long as they're not called Israel. He can rant against the war in Iraq as well as anyone - better than most, in fact, as we could judge today, since several speakers were keen to do it, and not just because it goes down well with a young audience. No, what we wanted was to hear how George woud use his legendary offensiveness to put down any student who dared mention the two blasphemous words - Big Brother. He didn't disappoint. He was casual, callous and ruthless. Even more so to the cerebrally challenged idiot who raised it a second time, immediately after the first. Galloway didn't always condemn repetitious and stupid questions though - he positively fawned over the nice but dim girl who asked what he thought about Barack Obama, just after he'd told us what he thought about Barack Obama. But then, she did at least say he was great on Big Brother after which he was mere putty. He's just a big pussy cat after all.
Nick Clegg did better than I thought, but since I thought he would be about as impressive as a leaking gas pipe that wasn't difficult. Some of the SGS contingent thought his political ideas were simplistic and superficial but honestly, what do they want, the moon on a stick? He was aksed, eventually, about the notorious plane conversation. Apparently he didn't say it. Not all of it anyway. And the bits he did say were distorted. And no-one believes the media these days do they? So there we are. Nick Clegg - a bit better than you thought, but not much.
Finally there was Lembit Opik. I had been hoping the organisers would give him a rest for a year or two. It's not that I mind that a university contemporary is much better known than me, and far more successful politically. It's just that I sort of despise him. I really don't want to. There's a sense of Bristol loyalty that wants me to like him, but he makes it so difficult. Yet again, we had the Lembit Opik Show, a fatuous combination of false, pally comments coupled with some heinous political incoherence and a lamentable level of crappy populism. Are you a student? Attending a political day conference? Then come and hear Lembit agree with you. He'd love to take on the BNP. He hates the war with Iraq. He wants to lower the voting age to 16. He wants to legalise cannabis. He's a libertarian. He hates the nanny state because it locks people up. He wants you to be his speech writer because you're brilliant, you really are. Hell, wait around afterwards and he'll go clubbing with you. He's a serious guy who knows how to have fun, even if he can't win Liberal presidential elections, and as if to emphasise what a fun guy he is, he'll end his performance with a quick rendition on the harmonica. My, what a card.