Archie Bland: It feels like we are missing some British heroes

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With such monumental figures as Aung Sun Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama in town – along with Nelson Mandela, the boilerplate inspirations of a thousand insipid celebrity Q&As over the years – it'd be easy to leaf through recent British history and wonder, with regret, where our own legends are. The heroes we do have are, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill, hated by as many people as love them. Not even Margaret Thatcher's greatest admirers could call her a unifying force.

With our serious public life so divided, the only available repositories for uncomplicated adulation come in the lesser category of national treasures (who are, correspondingly, a notch above mere celebrities). David Attenborough and Victoria Wood aren't quite epoch-making titans like Suu Kyi and his Holiness, and 'hero' would be the wrong word for either in any but the most vapid analysis.

Still, I would have thought most of the British public would see them as closer in spirit to our two venerated visitors than any political leader you'd care to name.

It feels like we're missing something. And it seems a little sad that that hallowed triumvirate – Mandela, Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama – is probably the same group you would have named a decade ago as the world's leading unchallenged good guys. But actually, I'm not so sure that it really is so bad.

The thing is, true heroism is inevitably formed in the crucible of oppression: those three are only so obviously saintly because their nemeses have been so unstintingly and indisputably wicked.

Thatcher doesn't make it because the argument is too complicated, too subtle, too marginal. But it doesn't take a political sophisticate to see that a woman locked up by a junta because of her fight for democracy is on the right side of history, or that a pacifist who preaches tolerance and inspires such devotion amongst his Tibetan followers merits our admiration. Now the picture is changing in Burma and Suu Kyi's purity might be challenged by the mucky reality of political compromise. Maybe one day we'll forget to think of her as a hero, because we'll see she's getting some little things wrong.

But that'll be good news. Because the more she's getting wrong, the more her erstwhile enemies will be getting things right. And if we ever yearn for more idols of our own, we should bear this in mind. We might have to settle for Attenborough et al, but at least they didn't have to spend years in prison to win our admiration.

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