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Long Form

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The brightest and the best

This is the concluding part of a two-part article on the legacy of the greatest Britons and Bengalis

Jamil Majid n

The ultimate choice of Sir Winston Churchill, as the greatest Briton in history, was not entirely unexpected or a surprise. He exemplified, perhaps better than anybody else, Britains eccentricity, bigheartedness, and strength of character

n 2002 BBC organised an elaborate programme, spread over weeks, to determine whom the British public considered the greatest Britons in history. Over 30,000 people were polled to identify persons who epitomised greatness to the public. A list was compiled of the 100 individuals who received the highest votes. The top 10 were then profiled in a series of hour-long TV films, in which eminent presenters argued for their favourites to be named the greatest Briton in history. The grand finale of the programme was a live 2 hour TV debate where the presenters argued for their choices ahead of a final vote by viewers to choose the greatest Briton in history. Mo Mowlam, who served in the cabinet of Prime Minister Tony Blair, argued for Sir Winston Churchill, while former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Michael Portillo, made the case for Queen Elizabeth I. Over 1.6 million viewers participated in the final vote to choose the greatest Briton in history, Winston Churchill, who polled 28.1% of the votes, was adjudged the winner. In second place, the surprise choice, with 24.6% of the votes, was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a distinguished engineer who lived in the 19th century. Brunel was the creator of the Great Western Railway, and had designed ships, tunnels and bridges. Others in the top 10 were, in descending order, Diana, Princess of Wales, Charles Darwin, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I, John Lennon, Admiral Horatio Nelson and Oliver Cromwell. The nature of the whole exercise was such that the results were less an objective assessment than a reflection of public perception and sentiment. Former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley, described the programme as an artificial contest and a trivial exercise. One expert observed with gentle irony that the results showed a healthy respect for scientists and writers, and an equally healthy disrespect for politicians. It is in any case not easy or simple to compare the contributions of highly gifted individuals of different eras across multiple disciplines.

Greatest Britons of history, Sir Winston Churchill (left) and Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Wikimedia Commons

No 59, but Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh did not find places. Richard Burton was included, but not Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud. Guy Fawkes, who was executed in 1606 for trying to blow up Parliament, was in the list at No 30 as was James Connolly, Irish nationalist, who was executed in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising. Henry VIII and Thomas More were both included. Henry II was placed at No 90; Thomas Becket, however, did not find a place. Queen Victoria was at No 18, two places behind

the political divide, were in the list. Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison, musicians John Lydon, David Bowie, Robbie Williams, Freddie Mercury and Boy George, singer Cliff Richard, and writers JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen all found places. Brunels place at No 2 in the list has been attributed to a vigorous campaign by students of Brunel University, who wanted their institutions namesake to figure high on the list of all-time great Britons. The ultimate choice of Sir Winston Churchill, as the greatest Briton in history, was not entirely unexpected or a surprise. As Mo Mowlam put it, he exemplified, perhaps better than anybody else, Britains eccentricity, big-heartedness, and strength of character. Churchill certainly possessed extraordinary qualities of leadership, and, incidentally, was a Nobel Laureate for literature. Some of his comments over the years, though, would suggest that there was also a less savoury, almost bigoted, aspect to him. A few examples of his more outlandish observations: 1. India is a godless land of snobs and bores. In a letter to his mother, 1896. 2. I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade of race ... has come in and taken its place. To the Palestine Royal Commission, 1937. 3. I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes. Writing as president of the Air Council, 1919. 4. I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. Comment to LS Amery, secretary of state for India and Burma, 1942. Churchill, as some scholars have noted, believed in some form of social Darwinism. In 2004, BBC Radios Bangla language service conducted a survey of its listeners estimated to be 12 million to determine who they considered the greatest Bengali of all time. The programme was a simpler version of the one that chose the greatest Britons in history. Listeners were invited to submit 5 nominations each, in order of preference. They responded enthusiastically, by e-mail and post. Of the more than 100 nominations received, a short list of 20 was compiled, based on points awarded according to the order of preference of listeners. On March 26, the National Day of Bangladesh, BBC began to announce through a countdown spread over 20 days the names of the 20 great-

Greatest Bengalis in history, (clockwise, from top left) HS Suhrawardy and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Rabindranath Tagore, and Jagadish Chandra Bose
Wikimedia Commons

Former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, Lloyd George, Tony Blair and the Duke of Wellington were in the list of the 100 greatest Britons, but Gladstone, Disraeli, Attlee, Pitt the Younger and Harold Wilson were not. William Blake was at No 38 in the list, but not included were Milton, Wordsworth, Keats and Byron. Julie Andrews was at

Mrs Thatcher; the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, was at No 24, and the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was at No 61. Footballers David Beckham and Bobby Moore were included, but not cricketers WG Grace or Jack Hobbs. Aneurin Bevan, Tony Benn, and also Enoch Powell, on the other side of

est Bengalis, as per the results of the listeners poll. On April 14, the Bengali New Year, the name of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was announced as the greatest Bengali in history. In second place was Rabindranath Tagore. The others who made it to the top 20 were, in descending order, Kazi Nazrul Islam, AK Fazlul Haque, Subhas Chandra Bose, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Maulana Bhashani, Raja Rammohan Roy, Titumir, Lalon Shah, Satyajit Ray, Professor Amartya Sen, the 1952 language movement martyrs, Dr M Shahidullah, Swami Vivekananda, Atish Dipankar, General Ziaur Rahman and HS Suhrawardy. Atish Dipankar was the only name from ancient times in the list of 20 greatest Bengalis. There are, of course, a few others who could have found places in the list of 20, but did not. Nawab Sirajuddowla, for example, is an iconic figure of history. Opinions may differ though as to whether he would qualify as a Bengali. Sirajuddowla was born and brought up in Bengal, but almost certainly did not speak Bangla. The ancestors of the Nawabs of Bengal were from West Asia. There is also the instance of Professor Satyendra Nath Bose, who collaborated with Einstein in important areas of research. Professor Burton Feldman, in his book, The Nobel Prize: A history of genius, controversy and prestige, describes Bose as truly exceptional, a rare example of an eminent scientist selfless enough not to crave priority. Boses name, as Feldman put it, is perpetuated in the important Bose-Einstein statistics and the messenger particle named the boson. Satyen Bose taught at the University of Dhaka in the 1920s. In 1974, the university introduced the Bose Professorship in the Department of Physics, and also established the Bose Centre for Advanced Study and Research in Natural Sciences in his honour. CLR James, who wrote felicitously and with great insight on cricket, believed that art, science, philosophy are modes of apprehending the world, history and society. Great people are, almost by definition, few and far between, and of them not all wear a halo in their own lifetimes. Trying to compare and assess them is an academic exercise that is both challenging and fun, but does not serve any obvious constructive purpose. It does add though to ones perspective and appreciation of history. It also affords a pointer of sorts as to how historians, scholars and also the laymen of the future will look back on great events, and the movers and shakers of present times. l Jamil Majid is a freelance contributor.

Great people are, almost by definition, few and far between, and of them not all wear a halo in their own lifetimes. Trying to compare and assess them is an academic exercise that is both challenging and fun, and adds to ones perspective and appreciation of history