Monday, 30 May 2011

"A Walk on Part - The Fall of New Labour" (Live Theatre, Wednesday 25th May 2011)

(dir: Max Roberts, w: Michael Chaplin)

This adaptation of Chris Mullin's diaries, jointly commissioned by Live Theatre and New Writing North, is an ambitious piece of theatre that seeks to provide a partial but panoramic impression of the New Labour era. Both diaries published to date are covered, spanning 1999-2010; Mullin's words are adapted pretty much verbatim. It could almost be 'epic theatre' with its historical emphasis and use of a small cast of five to play a gallery of 58 characters, including many familiar from recent political history. As adaptor Michael Chaplin states in the programme, the diaries 'will enlighten history students of future generations.'

It has particular resonance being performed in the north-east, as Mullin was a prominent back-bench MP for the Sunderland South constituency, who particularly specialised in Home Affairs and his dogged campaigning partially led to the release of the Birmingham Six in 1991 following a miscarriage of justice. It should also be noted that the sixty year-old Chaplin is the son of Sid Chaplin (1916-1986), that great chronicler of life in County Durham pit villages - a writer of short-stories, novels and several episodes of the TV series, When the Boat Comes In.

This play provides an insight into how an average politician sees the world; how he perceives himself, his political 'superiors' and his constituents. The likes of Tony Blair (referred to as 'The Man'), Gordon Brown, George Osborne, Nicholas Soames, Cherie Blair, John Prescott, Robin Cook, Dennis Skinner and Jeremy Paxman are vividly realised by the small cast.

Mullin is played as a self-deprecating anti-hero; a trustworthy, observant everyman, who documents the complexities of the political scene around him. As he notes in the programme: 'the most successful political diarists are people who have occupied the lower foothills. Perhaps because they have time to look around and observe details that those who occupy the stratosphere often fail to notice.' He is portrayed onstage as the reluctant junior minister, who cannot quite avoid the feeling that he is selling out his principles by being in government and achieving less than in his Select Committee days.

Cardiffian actor Hywel Morgan plays Blair, giving an inch-perfect rendition of the old joker-actor extraordinaire - carrying off the mannerisms and speech patterns just as well as Michael Sheen, if not better. It is a timely portrayal, reminding us just how persuasive and charming Blair could be - but not neglecting the darker side, the lack of attention to detail, the belief in following America "as an article of faith". New Labour is demonstrated at its venal worst through the vignette of a smug Geoff Hoon barely suppressing laughter whilst boasting of the precision of allied bombs. This was a moment in the first volume of diaries that chilled me to the core and it is just as hard-hitting when enacted.

The production is entirely sure-footed, as one would expect of the director Max Roberts, a founding member of the Live Theatre in 1973, which has been based on Newcastle's Quayside since 1982. The theatrical space itself is decidedly intimate; I was sat at one of the 'cabaret' tables near the front, which are on a level with the stage. This proximity avoids the distancing 'proscenium arch' effect that is tangible at many theatres; it is more informal and allows for an 'honest transaction' between the actors and audience.

Roberts has directed numerous plays by important northern playwrights such as Alan Plater, Tom Hadaway, C.P. Taylor, Julia Darling, Peter Flannery and Lee Hall. Probably his most famous play of recent years is Hall's The Pitmen Painters, which premiered at the Live Theatre in 2007, transferring to the National Theatre in 2008 and then Broadway in September 2010. This was based upon the real-life story of the Ashington Group of pitmen who became artists, whilst still working down the mines during the day. Phillippa Wilson, who appeared in that successful play, features here as Mullin's wife Ngoc and gives an uncanny impersonation of Clare Short.

The appropriately named 'recess' between Acts contained a few appropriately bland songs of the era: U2's 'Beautiful Day' - capturing the compulsory positvity of early-Blair era globalisation - and The Lighthouse Family's 'Lifted', as slick and insipid a cultural artefact as the pager, the Millennium Dome and 'Cool Britannia'. The emptiness of this latter song can be seen as symbolic of Blair's uplifting rhetoric, whilst also remembering how it was played in Alan Johnson's car in an early episode of Peep Show. It might be worth noting that Johnson was the sort of businessman whom New Labour were dazzled by, who ended up losing out in the financial crisis of 2008. His Labour Party namesake does not appear in the play, though is briefly mentioned by Nicholas Soames as 'worth around 30 more seats' than Gordon Brown as Labour leader in a speculative General Election.

John Hodgkinson is on stage for the full duration as Mullin and captures the man's crumpled decency; playing him almost as a professorial Charles Pooter, but a Pooter agonised about the state of the world and the compromises involved in government. The actor - veteran of many RSC productions, Sheffield-set film Whatever Happened to Harold Smith and appearances in excellent comedies such as Peep Show and People Like Us - manages an impressive feat of line learning. Hodgkinson's decision to address the audience, not to read the book onstage, allows for a straightforward, rather moving interaction with the audience. His performance suggests that Mullin is the sort of man we need in politics: an idealist open to compromise, but also capable of making a stand on certain issues.  He is redeemed by his principled position on Iraq; one gets the impression that Mullin would not have been able to live with himself had he voted for that disastrous adventure. Hodgkinson's Mullin is endangered, humane Labour incarnate - in all of his wrestlings with his conscience and dealings with the power-seeking Blair.

Mullin despairs of many of his fellow Labour Party people and many voters, even if there is no sense that hope is entirely lost. He comes across on stage as one of that seemingly dying breed - a liberal-left Labourite from the well-meaning middle-classes. He is righteously despairing of the proto-"Blue Labour" tendencies of the Blair government, particularly with regard to asylum and law and order policy. His final speech to parliament implies that Labour were not 'small-s socialist, small-l liberal and small-g green' enough, as he had always sought to be himself. Time and again, Blair and those in power took the path of least resistance: caving in to the media; fostering rather than challenging the public's complacent consumerism.

A Walk on Part is justifiably damning of the local and national media; wistfully highlighting Blair's missed opportunity to regulate the right-wing press and delivering a characteristic barrage of Sunderland Echo headlines to demonstrate local myopia and ignorance. The play indeed captures a paradox at the heart of Britain and Sunderland: greater affluence, but no greater wisdom or happiness - in the media, nor in people's lives: as shown in the encounters with often mean-spirited locals, moaning about asylum seekers and having to pay tax.

There are poignant, sad moments aplenty, such as Mullin's many dealings with asylum-seeker constituents - but also moments of sublime comedy, such as The Man's 'listening exercise', post-2005 election, and far too many more to mention. Its characteristic mix of humour and wistfulness is expressed in a moment early in the second act, as detailed in Alfred Hickling's Guardian review: 'It is election-night tradition that Sunderland South is first to declare its result. In 2005, the country's swiftest counters broke their own record, leaving Chris Mullin, the Labour MP who served the constituency for 23 years, to reflect in his diaries that he was, for 40 minutes, the only elected member of Parliament in the country: "Perhaps I ought to have considered forming a government".You cannot help feeling what a better, more genial place the country might have been if he had'.

A Walk on Part leaves one thinking of how much better things would be if someone with Mullin's intelligence and compassion was at the helm. It is a subtle, nuanced requiem for an era in British politics; an apologia for New Labour, highlighting some of its successes, but also fundamentally depairing of its failures on most issues that mattered.

This is a play for anyone interested in politics, recent history or the north east. Whilst it will no doubt transfer to other theatres and go down well in the capital, I would urge readers to see this while it is on in Newcastle, if at all possible.

A Walk On Part - The Fall of New Labour is on at the Live Theatre, Broad Chare, Quayside, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 3DQ - until Saturday 4th June 2011.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Writers of Influence @ Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

Writers of Influence is open to the public for free until 27th March 2011; it is housed in the Special Exhibitions room on the second floor of Sunderland Museum. This is an excellent collection of mainly paintings and photographs of significant writers - from William Shakespeare to Dizzee Rascal. Poets (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) are juxtaposed with children's writers (A.A. Milne); pop lyricists (Jarvis Cocker) with genre novelists (John Le Carre).

Most of the works are originals courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The literal centrepiece of the exhibition is John Taylor's Shakespeare (c.1610, pictured above), the 'Chandos' portrait said to be the only one of the bard definitely drawn from life. It is great to see this in the flesh: the watchful, worldly looking Will replete with earring and modest attire. This painting is placed right in the middle of the room and is flanked by a plaster cast of John Keats' face (taken from a life-mask) to the right and an angular James Joyce to the left, fashioned from wood:

There are the household names - a selection of Catherine Cookson memorabilia accompanying her photograph (with the caption providing a salutary reminder that a third of all books borrowed from public libraries were hers, at some point in the 1980s), an odd 3D JK Rowling and a drawing of Arthur Conan Doyle, wittily depicting the author, head in clouds and chained by his ankles to an intensely etched impresson of that English legend and eccentric, Sherlock Holmes. Add to these a beaming Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Roald Dahl and a tiny, early photograph of Lewis Carroll.

There are personal favourites and inspirations; such as a lovely Patrick Lichfield photograph of Kate Bush, one of this country's greatest artists in the field of popular music:

Then there is Philip Pullman, so eloquent in his recent lecture attacking the coalition's planned library closures - - photographed on the threshold of his secluded writing shed. Northern nature poet (and strong environmentalist) Ted Hughes is accompanied by his excellent quotation on Shakespeare; Thomas Hardy looks especially rueful, looking down over his considerable moustache in William Strang's 1893 portrait. There are two writers I am currently reading: Charles Dickens (in a substantially framed 1855 painting by Ary Scheffer) and George Orwell, photographed in his modest tie-jumper-overcoat apparel, by Felix H. Man c.1947. I am reading Orwell's Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (Penguin, 1970) at the moment, and had just been reading his ambivalent essay on Rudyard Kipling only to be faced with both of them in this exhibition! The Kipling painting is fascinating, showing a commanding, moustachioed Rudyard sat in an ornate study, flanked by musty volumes, a dormant pipe and a nautical painting on the wall. He looks as much like an imperialist administrator as a writer, clerkly glasses perched on his nose...

Further founding fathers of English literature on display as well as Shakespeare include a decidedly portly Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1400) and a young, idealistic looking John Milton (c.1629), captured in paint many years prior to the publication of his visionary religious fantasy, Paradise Lost. In terms of the early novelists, sadly no Defoe, Swift, Sterne or Brontes, but a curious little silhouette in a notebook that is assumed to be Jane Austen.

There are key 20th century figures other than Joyce: T.S. Eliot in an appopriately cubist portrait, a Feliks Topolski impression of the visionary socialist science fiction writer H.G. Wells and a formidably sceptical, bespectacled Aldous Huxley - captured in a 1934 photograph by Man Ray. There is a grandfatherly, slightly condescending looking George Bernard Shaw, appearing in a bromide print of 1943 - with the panel containing some of his rather less than complimentary thoughts on Shakespeare. There is a Bloomsbury-school painting of Virginia Woolf; cannot say I particularly like that style of art, having seen plenty at the Tate Britain last year (I much prefer Stanley Spencer, Walter Sickert and Paul Nash).

The images are imaginatively arranged - many of them in relation to Shakespeare, with the accompanying panels containing the various writers' thoughts on him. Ted Hughes, for example, has this evocative estimation of the bard's power: "In spite of its Elizabethan ruff, Shakespeare's language is somehow nearer to the vital life of English, still, than anything written down since."

Overall, this is a fascinating exhibition; I only spent around thirty minutes in it today, but could easily have spent longer perusing and probably will be back. Much recommended, if you happen to be in the centre of Sunderland with a little time on your hands. The nearest public transport is Sunderland Central station, a mere two minute walk away.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Bryan Talbot - Alice in Sunderland (2007)

Book Review

Given my love of history, it came as something of a surprise to me that I hadn’t given much thought to Sunderland’s own history. Perhaps, not being a born-and-bred Wearsider myself, I may have had that all-too-familiar idea that many around the country seem to have – that it’s something of a second city to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. While this is arguably true in some respects, it certainly hasn’t always been this way. As such, this book, by Wigan-born graphic novelist (okay, comic artist, then) Bryan Talbot was a major eye-opener for me. And yet it shouldn’t have been so, as the clues were all there for me – for three years, I studied in a building right next to the oldest church in England, so I should have been aware that the place had some history.

Talbot’s book weighs in at a little over 300 pages and deals with two major subjects – Sunderland, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The two, we find, are indelibly linked. A third topic also rears its head, which is that of the comic, clearly an art that Talbot holds in great reverence. Not so much linked to the others, but links of a sort can be seen.

Stylistically, the book is a mix of numerous comic styles, some presumably Talbot’s own; others imitated, such as HergĂ©’s instantly recognisable style from the Tintin books. The book opens with the vision of a man, possibly Talbot himself, entering Sunderland’s Empire Theatre. A White Rabbit rushes past him, only to appear on the stage before his eyes – or is this another version of our author, in a mask? This, whoever it might be, is our narrator – and he takes us through various facets of his chosen topics, links them together from numerous angles, with some wonderful surprises along the way – about Sunderland, Alice and comics.

It’s the first subject, Sunderland and its history, that appeals most to me. I’d had no idea of the richness of the City’s past. It links many people to the area – Lewis Carroll, Lawrence of Arabia, Charles Dickens and Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to receive a knighthood for his work. We’re taken through many of the episodes of the past, from the cholera epidemic of 1831 to the reluctant fame of national hero Jack Crawford, whose statue currently stands in Mowbray Park. We find out the origins of the two cannons that flank Sir Henry Havelock on Building Hill in the same park, as well as where the single cannon in Barnes Park came from. We find out much about Sunderland’s landmarks, from Penshaw Monument to the artworks at the Marina. This is the tip of the iceberg, however.

The Alice in Wonderland angle has much to do with Sunderland. Carroll himself lived in and around Sunderland, as did the influential family of Alice Liddell, the girl for whom Carroll invented his famous daydreamer. That’s not where the connections end, however – Carroll’s fabulous poem, The Jabberwocky, was completed in Sunderland and bears some similarities to the famous local legend of the Lambton Worm.

The Comic angle is interesting. Not content with keeping the idea of the comic to graphic novels or strip-cartoons, he sees it as the idea of telling a story with pictures. He cites Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street as examples of the genre, as well as the Bayeaux Tapestry.

All of this is beautifully and cleverly put together, and it certainly doesn’t require an interest in all of the topics covered to appreciate it. I can imagine that even a born-and-bred Mackem would find much surprising in this book. It goes to show how little we can be aware of our history, and indeed of the wonderful things that can be found in our locality, wherever that might be, simply because we have not taken the time to look. As a result, I don’t see Sunderland as subordinate to Newcastle now, as I might have done in the past.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Martin Wainwright - True North: In Praise of England's Better Half (2009)

Book Review

An interesting book, this. It is penned by the Guardian's Northern Editor, Martin Wainwright; a northerner who returned to live in Leeds in 1987, taking up the aforementioned post after 12 years in London, to be greeted by his new neighbour with the words: "You'll need a cup of tea". Son of a Liberal MP with a social conscience, Richard Wainwright, MW's Methodist background comes across in this vigorous and upbeat appraisal of the North.

Wainwright seeks to dispel the myth that things are 'Grim Up North', with a mix of anecdotes, history and insight gathered from his years as Northern Editor. He portrays the north as inherently industrious and accepting, highlighting in particular the contributions of reforming philanthropists such as Sir Titus Salt and Sir Joseph Rowntree, as well as the beneficial effects of immigration (he claims the region is second only to London in numbers of immigrants). He is forthright in stating that the book is designed to persuade northerners to stay in the north and others to move here.

He does particularly well in highlighting the growth in the heritage and creative industries in the North, highlighting examples like the regional and city organisations of Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle, which have initiated 'regeneration' in those areas. He also highlights the role of European money in creating this perceived Northern renaissance of the arts; something that so many on the left seem unwilling to accept, preferring to denigrate everything to do with Europe. We would not have the Sage or the Baltic, or indeed the Tyne and Wear metro system, without financial support from the European Union.

The book might be criticised on several fronts: firstly, that this is the view of a privileged Baby Boomer, who has had the advantages that those born in the 1980s, say, will mostly never see: free University education and generous post-WW2 Welfare State; an astronomical rise in property prices from the 1970s to today. Reading this book, many might argue: 'well, you would say that, you bourgeois liberal!' One might highlight the lack of spirit in many born into a benefit-dependency culture, whether they are in Rotherham, St Helens or Easington. One might look to films like this - - as representative of a sadder side to northern culture in the post-industrial age.

But then again, Wainwright is persuasive when he highlights a tendency in some to accentuate the negative; he highlights the novels of David Peace - the Red Riding quadrilogy and the excellent The Damned United - and is correct to stress that such bleakness is not the general experience of all, or even most, people living in the north. There is an interesting part where he mentions the Morley Independents who sit on Leeds council, and their mix of local pride in their town and their bloody-minded resentment at their larger neighbour. He could do with exploring this mindset more, as it exists in large swathes of the provincial north, i.e. the less-metropolitan, those not living in the shadow of Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and York. Yet, of course he is right to highlight the tradition and independence of market towns like Richmond, which exist in a different tradition altogether.

The book demonstrates the vast differences that exist in the North; Wainwright's glowing evocation of the philanthropic and business-like North seems a long way from my experience, though I do recognise his positive estimation of Newcastle Upon Tyne as a city. His is a vision that encompasses the Quakers who built humane model villages for their workforces and the bohemian socialist vision of someone like "Mr Manchester", Tony Wilson, the creator of Factory Records. He evokes much of the dry, northern humour that I love: Alan Bennett, The League of Gentlemen and that wonderfully droll scene of Brian Glover et al in that pub on the wild moors in An American Werewolf in London.

Wainwright is admirably careful about eulogising the trade union movement, making the good point that it was perhaps another kind of dependency - people taking for granted the good deal that their card-carrying membership gave them within their communities, leaving them adrift when that was taken away by Thatcherism. He prefers to praise others over Scagill, whom he characterises as nice in person but damaging in his political tactics. He hails the likes of Elinor Brent Dyer - South Shields-born writer of the anti-Nazi Chalet School series of books - Sir Ken Morrison, northern founder of the supermarket chain, and Barrie Rutter, actor-manager of the Northern Broadsides theatre company, who perform Shakespeare and classical plays in broad northern dialect. I have had the pleasure to see several of their plays - including Victorian melodrama The Bells in Richmond and Othello with Lenny Henry at the West Yorkshire Playhouse - and meet the man Rutter, a great northern character. He might also have explored the literary legacy not just of Wordsworth and the Brontes, but of profoundly 'local' writers like Ted Hughes, Basil Bunting and Alan Garner.

The book will be especially useful in combatting southern ignorance about life in the north. Wainwright does accept that things are not entirely rosy up north - nor are they in the south, of course - but that he feels a one-sided case is required to counter many of the lazy stereotypes that many London journalists employ. It should go without saying that we have magnificent, evocative countryside - the Peak District, the Lake District, the North York Moors, Northumberland - on our doorsteps, but maybe it does need stressing to the ignorant! He does well to emphasise lesser-known beauty in close proximity to the industrial connurbations: the countryside cpatured in Kes, the evocative industrial landscape of Weardale that so enthralled the poet W.H. Auden. He points to Manningham in Bradford as 'a monument to social inclusion in stone', seeing the riots there as exceptions to the rule and argues that areas like Chapeltown in Leeds are misrepresented by the media.

It should also be mentioned that there are many superb photos from a variety of photographers, which form an instructive illustration to many of his points.

Ultimately, this is the sort of book tailor-made for someone like me; a relatively privileged northerner and Guardian-reader, who is fascinated by culture, society and history. I am not the unabashed optimist that Wainwright is here, but I can recognise much to be proud of in northern culture. I have in actuality lived all but one and a half years of my life in the north, and plan to live many more here. I am in complete agreement with MW's central argument that we should embrace a common Northern heritage and focus less on petty local rivalries and resentments. Thoroughly recommended to northerners and southerners, alike.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Richard Seymour - The Meaning of David Cameron (2010)

Book Review
The language of meritocracy is, or so I will argue, a language of class rule. I would also propose that the term, as applied to the present state of affairs, is a kind of collective insult on humankind. To imply that those currently at the top - the Warren Buffets and Roman Abramoviches of this world - are the very best, the nec plus ultra of humanity, is a kind of hate speech against the species. Dignity demands that we refute it. (pp.45-6) 
Cameronism is just another symptom of our democratic malaise rather than a cure [....] He eschews the crass populism of his predecessors, which dismayed bourgeois liberals. And he has excelled in the art of delegating nastiness. (pp.16-8)

Before they would extend the franchise, the British ruling class had to be repeatedly placed in mortal terror, and even then it required five separate pieces of legislation over almost a century before it was fully won. (p.22)
Richard Seymour's book is the latest in a series of entertaining, short and incisive political books published by Zero Books. Others have included a look at the 'market Stalinism' of post-industrial capitalism (Mark Fisher's Capitalist Materialism), post-WW2 cultural modernism (Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism) and how feminism has been co-opted by consumerism (Nina Power's combative One Dimensional Woman). In addition, they have published a fascinating look at the cultural meaning of Michael Jackson and a superbly funny satire of the English football mentality (David Stubbs's Send Them Victorious: England's Path to Glory 2006-2010), published in timely fashion just as our latest World Cup farce began...

In this particular book, Seymour sets out to explore the current state of our politics, analysing the neo-liberal economic and political consensus that has shaped British politics for the last 31 years (and last 16 at least in terms of the 'main parties'). Our elections have, in his words, become 'rarefied [...] spectacles in which the most important questions have already been decided'. (p.17)

He covers this vast topic by focusing on three concepts crucial to neo-liberal politicians' success in marginalising opponents: Apathy, Meritocracy and Progress. He pitches into the debate that Compass and other such vaguely Centre-Left groups have had regarding a possible return to pre-Blair social democracy, as well as examining the 'philosophical underpinning' of Cameron's conservatism, most tangible in the works of Phillip Blond, author of Red Tory.

Court of Cameron

Seymour rightly identifies David Cameron is a product of neo-liberal times, who seeks to learn from his forerunners Thatcher and Blair; who intends to deliver unpalatable policies through deploying his media savvy, developed initially via his former job in public-relations at Carlton television. Seymour makes the telling point that DC will never allow himself to be seen as the bearer of bad news; he prefers to appear 'above the fray', a reassuring rector of the good church blighty, delegating the delivery of harsh announcements to the likes of Chancellor George Osborne or even the hapless Lib Dem Danny Alexander (replacement for the erstwhile David Laws). This book was published a month or so before the General Election and is remarkably predictive of what was to happen, regarding the Coalition: 'So it is with Cameron, who is not short of fall guys when a Tory attack goes awry.' (p.18) In this sense as well as in media presentation, Cameron echoes 'Teflon' Tony - who tended to ruthlessly dispatch any minister attacked by the tabloid press whose name wasn't Mandelson. The Liberal Democrats are being used as human shields to deflect blame for the unprecedented austerity package. 

Be under no mistake, there is no mandate for the centre-right Con-Dem coalition: against a heavily unpopular incumbent, Cameron's party could only muster 36.1% of the vote - lower than Churchill in the landslide Tory defeat of 1945. In a 2007 poll, only 8% of LD voters described themselves as 'right of centre' compared with 33% 'Left-of-Centre', a 25% difference that widened to 34% during the GE campaign with YouGov recording that 43% LD voters were L-o-C: It will be interesting to see what view the 'Beveridge Liberals' - a group committed to the Welfare State who make up around half of the parliamentary party - take when the ideological cuts start biting, with jobs and services lost.
Personally, I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism.
Friederich von Hayek (quoted, p.32)
In the same YouGov poll, more of the public classed themselves as LOC than ROC, 29% to 24% This is not an instinctively right-of-centre country, and we need to be watchful of a liberal-conservatives acting as malign dictators, imposing potentially damaging cuts without a mandate.

'Never Had it So Good': The Tantalising Mirage of Social Democracy

Seymour's analysis of British politics in the 1945-79 period is deeply instructive; he argues that it would be folly to use Labour politics of this era as any sort of template for future policy direction. He seems to advocate the sort of democratic, libertarian socialism as embodied various by the likes of George Orwell and Tony Benn with his ideas of industrial democracy - which he contrasts with the corporatist consensus of Attlee-Wilson-Callaghan. He rightly sees the centre-left politics of this era as too top-down in general - the state dictating and not fostering active citizens. One can agree with this analysis in that there was little of the collaborative workplace democracy seen in countries like West Germany or Sweden.

There is a sense that the politics of the 1945-79 allowed complacency to set in; lasting social advances gained but not appreciated by all, making it relatively easy for Thatcher to change course towards free-market dogmatism. Seymour makes the excellent point that working people in Britain had - as in the famous words of 'One Nation' Tory PM Harold Macmillan - literally never had it so good as in that period: with levels of trade union membership at their historical height in 1979 and the majority of the public actually benefiting materially from a period of unprecedented growth and low unemployment. The Labour Party was popular in this Keynesian period; every election saw them gain more actual votes than in the 2001-10 period of New Labour rule, and in 1951 they garnered 13,948,883 votes (48.8%) - historically speaking, second only to John Major's Tories in 1992 (and then with a 7% greater share than the Grey Man achieved).

That Labour was supported by an increasingly prosperous and somewhat more vocal working-class in 1945-79 is beyond doubt; the problem is that relative prosperity did not in itself mean more power for working people. The establishment remained in charge, even if it appeared to be a more benevolent, paternalistic ruling class than today's yuppies and bankers. Seymour makes the key point that around a third of the working-class still tended to vote Tory in this period; a division which Thatcher went on to ruthlessly exploit by offering home ownership (selling council houses to their tenants) and exploiting very English fears over collective action shared by many small-c conservative workers: as seen in reaction to the Winter of Discontent and the Miners' Strike.

Seymour goes on to argue that, however well-meaning, Labour played its part in 'containing pressure from below', and did not transform society, even to the extent of the Swedish social-democratic experiment. (p.24) I would reflect that some things from that era are worth fighting to retain - idealistic institutions such as public libraries, the NHS and secular state education. Other Zero writers have rightly spoken up for the BBC - particularly as it existed prior to Thatcher's Broadcasting Act (1990) which de-regulated our media, to incalculable cost. Before then, the BBC generally acted as an enlightening influence, forcing the rest of television to raise its game. Compare the centralised, moribund ITV of today with the period prior to 1990 when it consisted of diverse regional companies producing programmes of real quality: can one imagine ITV or Sky executives commissioning Ways of Seeing, World in Action or Seven Up today, or even new equivalents of Inspector Morse, The Prisoner or Coronation Street?

"Ways of Seeing" - episode on advertising: never timelier

Jonathan Meades: iconoclastic, eccentric

We need accessible, intelligent broadcasting of the Play for Today, Monty Python's Flying Circus or Steptoe and Son calibre; the BBC (with the possible exception of C4) is the only broadcaster accountable enough to be able to do it. It does sometimes manage it: see the formidable documentaries of Adam Curtis or the absurdist travelogues of Jonathan Meades. To extend this good paternalism, I would argue that the state and local authorities have to act in some areas; for example, providing green public transport and reducing car and plane usage. Ken Livingstone's London congestion charge was pilloried, but since its application has worked and is here to stay.

The Post-WW2 social democratic dream could not last; built into it were the seeds of its own destruction. Whilst we had three times the deficit of today in 1945, we were heavily underwritten by US aid: the post-war Welfare State was contingent upon Keynes getting a good deal from the Americans - which he did, to the extent that positive domestic spending came at the expense of an independent foreign policy. A green perspective on this period has to balance the unquestionable social advances achieved - the programme of liberal reforms made when Roy Jenkins was at the Home Office, the decreasing gap between rich and poor - with the impact upon the planet of greater material prosperity.
Do not get me wrong. Social democracy - regulated, mixed-economy capitalism - is preferable to unrestrained capitalism of the Thatcher-Reagan-Clinton-Blair-Cameron kind. There should be an emphasis on limiting the gap between rich and poor, protecting valued public services from destructive 'market forces', but we need to avoid the obsession some socialists have with measuring the worth of a society in terms of % GDP growth. Consumer booms tend to undermine socialist and ecological values. We need a 'steady state' economic model, designed to put human activity more in proportion to the earth we rely upon. The greatest sacrifices will, of course, have to be made by the rich, but the majority will also have to scale back their activity and perhaps even aspirations; it is the Left's folly if it prioritises abundance for all - if higher consumer growth is their raison d'etre.

The state serves Kapital: neo-liberal ideology

The idea that populations could vote for, say, high redistributive taxes and see that implemented is excluded by the founding tenets of the neoliberal state. (p.32)
Seymour identifies with the ecological arguments, describing the neo-liberal consensus in Britain as 'founding state legitimacy on its ability to generate economic growth' (p.32). He also exposes the absurdity of the Coalition's position on cutting public services hard now - 'the number one priority' according to frenzied government memos - rather than regulating the banking system to ensure that society is protected from the rapacious financial services. Cameron has claimed that the crisis is of the state; he is correct only in the sense that the state is having to deal with the likely £trillions deficit primarily caused by bailing out the banks. The state should never have allowed the bankers to act as they did, but nor should it use the crisis to prioritise cutting jobs which are manifestly more useful to British society than City of London gambling, sorry, 'banking'. Seymour quotes an independent report from the New Economics Foundation (published in December 2009), which - after factoring in relevant impact on society/the economy, the bailout included - calculated that 'while a childcare worker created an average £9.50 for every pound she was paid, a City banker would mange to destroy £7 for every £1 earned. The irony of calling such people 'wealth creators' is hard to miss.' (p.57) (well worth a read - the NEF have also suggested we use other measures than the tunnel-vision of GDP growth)

This is empirical evidence to support the moral and practical arguments for putting our public services before the maintenance of a discredited economic policy. Seymour also quotes the IFS, who found that despite supposed 'equality of opportunity' New Labour's policies led to greater inequalities. This same relatively independent entity was also very critical of George Osborne's 'progressive' first budget:
The Budget looks less progressive – indeed somewhat regressive – when you take out the effect of measures that were inherited from the previous Government, when you look further into the future than 2012–13 and when you include some other measures that the Treasury has chosen not to model. Conversely, looking at the impact of the Budget on households with different income levels overstates how regressive it is in comparison to an analysis based on households with different spending levels, which should give a better guide to their lifetime living standards.
In BBC documentaries such as The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap, Adam Curtis has focused on how the state has been used, since the days of Reagan and Thatcher, to turn citizens into consumers; expecting people to act selfishly, according to a selfish model of human nature that American PR man Edward Bernays derived from a reading of Sigmund Freud:

They have done this in order to negate the possibility of citizens organising or challenging the distribution of power; a new tactic for an establishment that has always regarded the mass as akin to a dehumanised mob. Seymour makes the point that earlier rulers such as Earl Grey were 'reforming to preserve, not to overthrow'; come the 1980s, those in power decided that no more concessions would be made - and we live with the consequences.

A Hoon for hire: lessons from the recent past

Labour certainly has gall if it regards itself as an egalitarian party. It will be tarnished by the 'liberal interventionist' foreign policy in the Middle East, illiberal measures such as ID cards and by the self-serving likes of Patricia Hewitt, the insufferable Hazel Blears and Geoff Hoon. As Seymour demonstrates, there is arrogance in these people, lecturing others about apathy and meritocracy when they are milking the system themselves, becoming ever more distant from the constituents they are supposed to be representing.

He recounts the Channel 4 documentary where GH spoke to a journalist posing as a representative for an American lobbying company, and claimed he could change government policy if paid £5,000 a day to do so: 'the fee discussed here was actually more than one of their unemployed constituents would receive in Job Seekers Allowance in a whole year. In the arithmetic of meritocracy, this means that Geoff Hoon is worth more than 500 of his unemployed constituents.' (p.57) I would exclude the principled likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Chris Mullin from this analysis, of course, but Labour has to purge itself of such greed and hypocrisy if they are to be taken seriously as a potential ally. It should also be stressed how Gordon Brown cosied up to The City, ironically lauding the financiers as 'wealth creators'; furthermore, how Labour was apologetic about its 50p top-rate tax for the highest earners during the election campaign - portraying the measure as a temporary evil.


The Meaning of David Cameron is a quick and enlightening read, marked by its strong marshalling of evidence, pithy humour and righteous, controlled anger. Do not expect an in-depth dissection of Cameron the man; that would be beside the point. Instead, we get an analysis of some of the buzzwords which the establishment use to quell dissent - buzzwords largely unchallenged politically or in the media. Unlike many writers of the left, Seymour does not completely ignore or denigrate the ecological viewpoint; he inches towards a steady-state solution. We also get a persuasive underlying argument that we need to re-claim the state as a positive agent, rather than as a tool of neo-liberalism.

Books should not just be designed to please or placate; they should make us question underlying assumptions and develop our ideas and arguments. Seymour's tract is certainly useful in both senses.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Robert Tressell - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914)

Book Review

Socialism is not a term I've always been able to understand. I've tried, certainly – but dictionary definitions, in their concise nature, are too vague. Encyclopaedic definitions, in their academic nature, are too biased toward academic language. Comprehensible, perhaps, but not necessarily engaging. And Socialism is a subject which, in a society where Capitalism is what most people know and have grown up with, needs a patient and engaging explanation.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists does much to meet this demand. The picture painted by Robert Tressell, himself a workingman, of working-class life at the beginning of the 20th century, has enough pathos to allow people even a hundred years later to identify with his characters, their tribulations, and their exploitation – all for the sake of profit.

Tressell's story is set in the fictional Musgborough, a name that typifies the subtle irony he employs throughout the book. It depicts the lives of a group of workers employed by a painting and decorating firm in the South of England. We see the conditions under which the men have to work, often oppressed by their profit-minded masters – forced to work as shoddily and cheaply as possible to maximise profits. We see the men’s home lives, and how their poverty affects their wives, parents and children – very little to eat, or indeed to wear. We see the opposite side, the corrupt, yet affluent, lives of the masters – affected Christianity and corrupt control of the means of production and of council business.

Throughout the book we are treated to the vision of Frank Owen, one of the labourers, trying to convert his fellow workers to Socialist ideals. The workers themselves, by and large, dismiss these ideas, despite the obvious benefits they’d reap from such a system. Such is the indoctrination of these people that they believe that the status quo should remain because it’s simply the way things are. This is something we see all the time – workers will often happily accept the status quo because they don’t think that they have the authority, or the right, to question it. And it happens in other spheres of society, too. How long have people repressed homosexuality for fear that it wasn’t normal – and how many women have stayed at home to look after the kids and do the housework, because “that’s what’s supposed to happen”?

The book is therefore, a very clear Socialist manifesto, which, through Owen's lectures, gives us a picture of the Socialist ideal that is neither too simplified, nor too academic to understand. By placing it in a perfectly recognisable context, Tressell has made Socialism accessible to the working person. Granted, there is a difference between the book’s world and the world of today. The two are very different, so perhaps the vision of Socialism presented to us by Tressell might not be fully workable in this day and age, but that’s no reason to simply give it up as a bad job. Its core arguments still prevail - some things have not changed, yet some have changed and regressed. For instance, the workers back then didn't have the protection of trade unions. These days, such protection is often very weak or non-existent.

However, the book still makes enough of a good narrative to be entertaining. Though serious in its overall nature, it has a good sprinkling of comic moments, it has its tragedy, and its human interest. A worthwhile read for its political message – but also if politics has little appeal.