A revival of David Hare’s 1993 play, The Absence of War, seemed an enticing prospect. A drama portraying the Labour Party as lost in ideological confusion, drained of vitality, and unable to mobilise public support or present a vision or values in any compelling way promised to be highly relevant in present circumstances.
But at the Liverpool Playhouse the other night I found Headlong’s revival an uninspiring disappointment. The production seemed drained of energy, suffering from lifeless acting and direction which did little to overcome a script that suffered from flatness of dialogue and shallowness of characterisation. It was as airless as the meeting rooms in which most of the action took place and the arguments that were batted back and forth in them.
The play is inhabited exclusively by members of the political class who appear to have no sense of the country that lies beyond Westminster. In that, at least, the play speaks to the present mood. But it makes for lifeless drama. Maybe we’ve been spoiled in the interim since it was first staged by having been exposed to the visceral machinations of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It.
The Absence of War first came to the stage in 1993, when it was interpreted as a fictionalised account of Labour’s doomed 1992 election campaign, which ended with John Major still in No 10, followed by Neil Kinnock’s resignation as party leader. Kinnock was replaced by John Smith who died from a heart attack after less than two years as leader. The leadership election of July 1994 was won by Tony Blair, who inaugurated the New Labour project. David Hare has said of his play that it is about the roots of New Labour.
In 2015, with Labour again intent on ousting a Tory Prime Minister, this production of The Absence of War is on a tour that will finish two days after the election. Hare has pointed up the relevance of his play:
Yet again the Labour Party has got itself into a situation where it daren’t speak, and once again they seem to have in Ed Miliband a leader who can’t seem to connect with the majority of people. They’ve had to buy into the Tory agenda, and support an economic agenda, but they’ve also had to try and deal with the things that stem from old Labour Party ideals, like the NHS.
Back in 1992, David Hare was friends with Neil Kinnock, who gave the playwright privileged access to Labour’s 1992 campaign. Hare attended Labour rallies and press conferences, and private meetings involving Kinnock and, among others, Roy Hattersley (Shadow Home Secretary), Gerald Kaufman (Shadow Foreign Secretary), and strategists Philip Gould and Patricia Hewitt.
Just as Kinnock’s closest advisers pressured him to jettison the direct, passionate language that had won him a following, fearful that he might not stay ‘on message’, so in his play David Hare has the party leader George Jones’s advisers insist that ‘George… learns his lines and he sticks to them’.
The party has brought in a new publicity advisor, Lindsay Fontaine, a member of the party for two months, who comes from the world of advertising and focus groups. In one of her first briefings she reports that 70% of voters believe that the Labour Party ‘no longer stands for anything distinctive’. Later Lindsay suggests that George reverts to his old barn-storming style of speaking without notes at an election rally.
George begins with a Bevan-style attack on the wealthy, and continues, ‘My socialism is concrete. It is real. It is to do with helping people’, before faltering, wordless, and reverting to notes.
This terribly awkward scene might have been brought off more successfully with better acting, though I doubt it. In The Cambridge Companion to David Hare, Richard Boon emphasises the importance of this scene:
The importance of this moment in the play is considerable, as George is granted one last chance to summon common socialist inspiration; however, his stammering, along with the drift of the audience, indicates that the old language will not work. It suggests that there will be no going back, but only forward into a future where new ideas and language must be fashioned.’
In the end, George stands as the personification of the Labour Party and all its troubles – its disjointed message, its squabbling and back-biting, its lack of confidence and conviction. As Boon goes on to observe:
George’s defeat is more than a personal disappointment; it signifies a historical marking point – the death of a viable socialist alternative.
No wonder, then, that Hare’s portrait of a Kinnock-type Labour leader resulted in a furious response from Kinnock and others in the party leadership who felt the playwright had betrayed the trust placed in him. As the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington observed:
Although Hare took pains to differentiate his hero, George Jones, from Labour leader Neil Kinnock by making him a London-born bachelor, it seemed like a careful smokescreen. In the event, Jones loses the election because his spontaneous warmth and wit are smothered by spin doctors, he lacks forensic incisiveness and his shadow chancellor reveals Labour’s tax-raising proposals.
In this Headlong production, director Jeremy Herrin has cast a Yorkshireman, Reece Dinsdale, to play the Labour leader as Sheffield born and bred, creating further distance from Kinnock.
In 1994, David Hare responded to the criticism he had received from the Labour Party with an article in the Independent:
The decision of the Labour Party in the Eighties, for all the best tactical reasons, to give ground to an apparently triumphant Tory party and to remodel itself as a paragon of sobriety, has not only left the electorate wondering why they should vote for the imitation when they might as well vote for the original; it has left a Labour Party terrified of controversy, terrified of internal argument, and in my own tiny corner of interest, terrified of a play that asks what has happened to its own ability to give voice to its great passion for social justice.
The irony of the reaction to this play has been that the reaction is itself a demonstration of the play’s thesis: the Labour Party has become convinced that for its own electability it must not let people in on the arguments it is having with itself. Loyalty to the leadership involves loyalty to pretending that the questions the play raises are not important at all. Whereas clergy, lawyers and police all welcomed open discussion of their professions, it is only the political class which is threatened by a dialogue it does not control. What this says to me about the state of British political life is deeply dismaying.
Since then, of course, matters have only got worse – New Labour, the Iraq War, the MP’s expenses scandal, and an ever-deepening divide between voters and the polticos who inhabit the Westminster bubble.
Hare’s play does, therefore, deal with some very pertinent issues. And it is not all bad. At the moment I am a waverer, torn between voting Labour because, as someone once remarked ‘there may be less than an inch between Labour and the Tories, but in that inch we survive’ – and casting in my lot with the Greens as a desperate wake-up call. Hare’s play touches on the sort of messages that political advisers reckon will win over floating voters like me.
The general election has just been called, and the Labour leader, George Jones, is confronted by his staff with the long-planned daily schedule:
Tuesday, health; Wednesday, education; Thursday, health; Friday, health.
‘Lord, do we ever do anything else?’ Jones wails. ‘Health is the lever,’ his chief of staff replies. ‘Health is the knife that’s going to detach voters from their primary loyalties and get them churning.’
In an echo of that scene, on the same day that I saw the play, Ed Miliband launched Labour’s election campaign with the announcement that an incoming Labour government would impose a profits cap on private health companies operating in the NHS. The vacuous bubble-speak of the apparatchiks was still present though:
We say: Britain can do better than this. The health service going backwards and the threat of deeper cuts still to come. The Tories say: this as good as it gets. We say: Britain can do better than this.
Good, but could have been better. Why have any private companies inside the NHS at all?
This example highlights a problem about which Hare’s play offered an early warning: as Labour tacked to the right, steered by focus groups and consultants, the party threw its founding values overboard. In the case of the NHS, where we are now is largely the result of New Labour’s mission to inject private market forces into an organisation whose founding values represented the rejection of any link between profit and the care of the sick.
A central problem with Hare’s thesis is that it isolates a very real problem about how politics is conducted (focus groups, tight messaging and spin) from the deep social and economic changes that have eroded the traditional support base of the Labour Party. The only hint of this comes in the prologue scene in which James Harkness, George Jones’ Glaswegian minder, comments on the disappearance of the industries, working class communities and trade unions that gave birth and heart to the Labour party.
Another weakness is that there is no mention of Thatcher, as Dominic Cavendish pointed out in his review for the Telegraph. (Should it be necessary to go to that source for a perceptive remark?) For Thatcher represents the forces which have swung the wrecking ball through the communities that once endorsed Labour, to which Labour’s response has been to concede acres of political ground to neo-liberalism. In the play George describes the party as ‘the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people’s lives for the good’. If Hare – and the Labour Party itself – had tackled the question of Thatcher’s legacy more decisively, George Jones’ line would might ring more true.
The overarching theme of The Absence of War is the demise of socialist politics, a study of the Labour Party ‘in a state of fracture and fatigue, a ghost of its former self’, in the words of Richard Boon. The key to the play’s title refers comes in the two Armistice Day scenes at the Cenotaph that frame the drama. Hare’s point seems to be that the generation of politicians who came to the fore in the 1990s, having never fought in a war, feels untested, and unproven – reduced to battling among themselves, unable to recapture the memory of a nation bound by common sacrifice and mutual purpose (a view very similar to that of the Ken Loach film, The Spirit of 45).
This view is expressed by George Jones’ minder, James Harkness, in these words:
‘I have a theory. People of my age, we did not fight in a war. If you fight in a war, you have some sense of personal worth. So now we seek it by keeping busy. We work and hope we will feel we do good.
Hare seems to pose the question: what can unite people in a common purpose once again, in the absence of war? One voice in the play recognises that while the Tories are united by money and profit, the Labour party are unable to find common unity of purpose, led by politicians who can no longer relate to the general public.
The staging of this production places great emphasis on the communication technology of the period: political news flickers on Ceefax, Labour MPs are kept on message through pagers, and everyone wields chunky mobile phones. For this is a study of the onset of the micro-management of the political message that has become so commonplace in today’s political landscape.
‘Shouldn’t there be something on the economy’, asks the leader’s press secretary about an upcoming speech. ‘No’, says her boss. ‘What he mustn’t do is… remind people that when he’s elected he’s going to be in charge of their money.’ While in another scene someone says, ‘Never use the word ‘equality’. The preferred word is fairness.’
In the Guardian, theatre critic Michael Billington wrote:
One thing Hare got absolutely right, aside from Labour’s urge to become more like the Tories to make themselves electable, was the extent to which modern politics is governed by carefully controlled images. George’s tragedy is that, in private, he is articulate, funny and authoritative but is forced to suppress his real self in order to look prime ministerial. A process that Hare detected in 1992 has got even worse since.
However, it’s unclear what alternative Hare visualises – whether in terms of a revivified Labour Party united behind a positive and distinctive message, or some new political formation emerging from beyond the confines of the party. His position remains unclear in this interview in Scotland’s The Herald this month :
The big difference between when the play first appeared and what’s happened twenty years later is the contempt for politicians that exists now. That came out of the expenses scandal, and when Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind are caught on camera saying the things they said that just exacerbates feeling towards politicians. When the play came out politicians were still felt to represent society at large, and you certainly can’t say that of Rifkind and Straw.
I think one of the things the play is about now is history. It begins and ends at the Cenotaph, and the industries and the profound need that the Labour Party was founded on no longer exist, so if the industries don’t exist, do the sentiments behind it? If the Labour Party is made up of people who’ve been to university and sip Cappuccinos, how can they share the same values which the party was founded on? Where is the common experience?
Other writers of David Hare’s generation have dramatised such questions about the Labour Party. Coincidentally, I’ve just begun watching Trevor Griffith’s 1976 TV series Bill Brand. I have always wanted to see Griffith’s drama again, and recently it surfaced on DVD. Griffiths explores many of the same questions as David Hare, depicting the election of a young left-wing Labour MP to parliament, where he encounters the full weight of party discipline and struggles to maintain his ideals. I’m only four episodes in, but so far – despite some inevitable dating – the depth of characterisation, the quality of the writing, and the seriousness of Griffith’s interrogation of the issues knocks Hare’s play for six.
In The State in Capitalist Society, written in 1969, Ed’s dad, Ralph Miliband wrote:
In an epoch when so much is made of democracy, equality, social mobility, classlessness and the rest, it has remained a basic fact of life in advanced capitalist countries that the vast majority of men and women in these countries has been governed, represented, administered, judged, and commanded in war by people drawn from other, economically superior and relatively distant classes.
Ralph Miliband’s argument in that book and his earlier Parliamentary Socialism, was that historically the Labour leadership had always subordinated socialism to the dictates of parliamentary politics. As a result, Labour had come to stand for social reform rather than socialism. Specifically, this meant that Labour always failed to challenge the power of the ruling class:
The ‘dominant class’ is not a figure of speech: it denotes a very real and formidable concentration of power, a close partnership of capital and the capitalist state, a combined force of class power and state power, armed with vast resources, and determined to use them to the full, in conjunction with its allies abroad, to prevent an effective challenge to its power. The new revisionism does not seem to me to take this power seriously enough: most of the relevant literature is remarkably short on the factual acknowledgement and analysis of its nature and meaning, and its implications for a realistic socialist strategy.
Whenever there was a possibility of more extensive change through extra-parliamentary action, the party always deliberately damped it down. Trevor Griffiths dramatised this in Bill Brand, as did Jim Allen in his 1969 Wednesday Play, The Big Flame (directed by Ken Loach), which foreshadowed Britain’s massive industrial unrest of 1973-4 and the clash between workers and the state in the miners’ strike of 1984.
In The Absence of War, labour leader George Jones insists that ‘the Labour Party is the only practical instrument that exists…for changing people’s lives.’ But these days, far more people are involved in extra-parliamentary action than are members of the Labour Party, or any political party. Whether it’s working-class Londoners resisting expulsion from their homes by international property dealers, anti-fracking protesters, climate change activists, or anti-cuts campaigners – all are examples of engagement in political action at the same time as people turn away from party politics.
In 2013, trade union leader Len McCluskey delivered the annual Ralph Miliband lecture at the London School of Economics in which he said:
Let’s not pretend that we are ‘one nation’, or that we will become one without the conflict that Ralph Miliband placed at the heart of politics. […] We cannot create common interests across a society that is now more unequal than for generations simply by wishing for it.
In The Absence of War there’s a particularly desperate gag that draws a belly-laugh from the audience. After his defeat at the election, George Jones suggests that their best chance is to join the Tory party and ‘fuck it up’.
We filed out of the theatre to D:Ream’s ‘Things can only get better’, the song that heralded the arrival of New Labour and the intensification of the processes identified by Hare in his play.
- The Absence of War review – David Hare on message about political spin (Guardian review)
- David Hare’s defence of his play: Independent, 1994