“Peace is not the absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition of benevolence, confidence, justice.”
"To those that have shall more be given: I can never get over the intellectual disgrace of that idea!."
George Jones, The Absence of War
Last night, instead of lobotomising myself via the standard somatic and soporific Saturday night fare TV executives specialise in, I watched the screen version of David Hare’s 1994 play, The Absence of War, on youtube.
This was after reading Hare's absorbing piece in the Guardian Review, which carried more than one or two barbs for the current Labour leader. You can read it here.
Starring the late John Thaw as doomed, unelectable Labour leader George Jones, the play details the closing stages of general election campaign aimed at unseating the Conservatives from government after a period of unassailed hegemony.
The play is a fictional reworking of Hare’s experiences shadowing then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock in the run up to the 1992 General Election - though Jones is not Kinnock.
Despite one or two occasionally stagey, shouty scenes, the play still holds up well (a revival is scheduled for Sheffield’s Crucible theatre this year; Hare remarked in the Guardian piece that “he hasn’t changed a word”).
I was also interested to see that the TV film was broadcast by the BBC in 1995. As an adolescent, my nascent political awakening began in 1995 – the year that I began studying A-Level politics under one John Green, the firebrand subject head at Sandbach School.
Early the following year the BBC broadcast the monumental Our Friends in the North. Both are cut from the same cloth, in terms of their soci-historic focus and moral vision. Both are also stunning testament to the capacity of television to alter the consciousness of the individual.
It has been some time since our supposed public service broadcaster has taken on subjects that are grounded in the socio-political history of our small island. The recent dramatization of the coalition negotiations following the 2010 General electon is a poor relation to these state of the nation addresses.
Doubtless the BBC shoring itself against a major battle against the forces of Conservatism (capital C intended) over increases to the license fee, preferring to indulge in the self-mockery of the anodyne W1A. Save for the odd Jimmy McGovern serial, since Channel Four's Brookside depictions of working class lives are largely consigned to the dustbin scraps of soaps like EastEnders and ITV's Coronation Street, or the faux verite of Benefits Street – none of which make for particularly attractive viewing.
Unhappily, this coincides with a time when the dominance of public school educated writers, actors and artists over British culture has become front page news.
Mass culture no longer does Politics with a capital P: where is our Play for Today, our Cathy Come Home, our Boys from the Blackstuff, our GBH?
The Absence of War raises a wider point, one which Hare addresses: then as now, the Opposition completely failed to come up with an alternative narrative to the prevailing orthodoxy of unfettered free markets, punitive monetarism and the resultant concentration of wealth in the pockets of a super-rich elite. ‘If it is bad for business,’ the consensus endures, ‘then it is bad for Britain.’
But, as Hare states, isn’t the Labour Party supposed to be the party which embodies the notion that there is more to society than the amount of money it is able to make? (As things stand, its thunder is being stolen by the Greens in England, and north of the border by the SNP.)
Earlier in the day, I attended the March for Homes rally in central London. Thousands of Londoners marched (in awful weather) from Shoreditch Church to City Hall, linking up with another group which set out from Elephant and Castle, to protest at the paucity of accessible, affordable housing for thousands of working men and women across the capital.
The cause is just. We must have more affordable homes for Londoners. Housing is a right, not a privilege; and neither should it be a buy-to-let investment opportunity, nor a place for people of a certain age and disposition to park their wealth.
But: the overwhelming majority of the people on the march were white, middle class, well educated (even in the autodidactic sense) and articulate people, carrying socialist worker party placards or waving Green Party banners. I saw very few black, Asian or other minority groups on the march. Representatives of some of the most poverty-stricken and poorly-educated demographics in the capital were conspicuous by their absence.
Their under-representation is the elephant in the room when it comes to our Parliamentary democracy, but it’s also true of political activism. The informed white bread ‘elite’ make the most noise and get the attention, whatever their position on the political spectrum. Four years after the London riots, this section of society remains completely disenfranchised and unrepresented politically.
It is a problem that the Labour leadership has barely begun to address. Not simply because, at time of writing, their leader presents himself a gormless, amnesiac policy wonk with bug-eyes and keyboard teeth who hasn’t got a snowball in hell’s chance of being Prime Minister, but because no one truly knows how to bring these groups to the table to find out what they want.
There is also total reluctance by members of the Shadow Cabinet to stick their head above the parapet to speak out on big issues like these lest they get their brains blown out. Where are the Clare Shorts, the Robin Cooks of Labour today?
They’re too busy keeping mum and carrying on, clawing their way towards the centre ground. But faced with another five years of Cameron, Osborne, Duncan Smith, Gove, et al, and until the Green Party have developed some political nous, for many left-of-centre voters, Labour are the only hope for those who want to see a more progressive politics.
The dénouement of Hare’s play shows George Jones delivering his campaign-closing speech, a heartfelt statesman-like address which will send the party faithful back to their constituencies to prepare for government.
Under the gaze of the party faithful, he falters and fumbles, fluffs and forgets his lines; his fallibility, lack of dynamism and unelectability – his fatal flaws – once hidden in plain sight are suddenly made horrifically real. It’s as if the qualities that brought him the leadership never even existed. The party loses the election, and George returns to the political wilderness.
Miliband has just over four months to get himself in shape and into Number 10. He needs to be bold. He needs to be brave. He needs to stop trying to out-manoeuvre the Tories and UKIP, but transcend their arguments and speak to those who have fallen out of love with our way of doing politics. There are big issues out there that should be grist to his mill. The housing crisis is one such open goal, and he’s busy fiddling with his bootlaces.
To bastardize F Scott Fitzgerald's famous quote, there are no second chances for leaders of the Labour Party. But with a generation of disenfranchised people across the UK, it would be criminal to fail to capitalise the most unpopular Conservative-led Government since the dying days of the Thatcher administration.
No wonder David Hare is paying close attention: this has all the makings of another tragedy. Right now, Miliband's rivals are sharpening their knives, and Hare is sharpening his pencil.