Yesterday, I watched This House, a rambunctious play at The National that charts the last years of Britain’s post-war consensus from within the Palace of Westminster, before Margaret Thatcher boots out Labour with a vote of ‘No Confidence’. The play ends with her first speech as Prime Minister, “Where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
Today, the Iron Lady is dead. With the taste of those last years of pre-Thatcher politics lingering in my mouth, I find myself reflecting a little differently on her demise than I had expected.
The play, rigorously researched by new writer James Graham, takes place almost exclusively on the Commons floor and the whip chambers during the troubled minority Labour government of 1974-9. A gargantuan replica Big Ben overshadows the action, and just as the party seems unable to govern as an already slender majority of three is eaten away by members dying, going insane, and jumping ship, the clock stops ticking. The message? Britain has simply stopped functioning. While ‘the General’, a gloriously pompous Tory MP, nicknames this war of paralysis ‘the Somme’, from Labour members and Tories on both sides of the battle lines the call is for leadership, action, bills to be passed, business to be done. As the curtains close, with Thatcher's Prime Ministerial tones in our ear, Big Ben is ticking again. What a crude metaphor, you might think. Yes, but the clock did indeed break down in 1976, the same year the ill-fated James Callaghan took office.
It would be 18 years before Labour was back in power again. During that time, Thatcher and the legacy of her ideology forged a new brand of capitalism, strangled the labour movement and manufacturing industry and produced and consolidated a neo-liberal Britain centred on the hyper-beating heart of the City.
So Thatcher got Britain ‘moving’ again. But the best way to measure motion is the direction it takes. As Anthony Barnett argues here on OurKingdom, the energy Thatcher released as Prime Minister was powered by the North Sea's black gold: it was this that allowed the high exchange rate and reconfiguration of the British economy. Riding on a wave of oil, the grocer's daughter-turned-oil millionaire's wife took us into a shining new era of free trade and unbridled consumerism, where the idea of the entrepreneur is the face of Modern Britain – not the union leader, the landed gentry or even the small family businessman, in a country with terribly weakened manufacturing.
Well, you might say, we’ve seen how this brave new world has ravaged the country. Let’s turn back the hands of that Massive Metaphor Clock. Ken Loach's film Spirit of '45 is just the latest expression of a nostalgic longing for the pre-Thatcher era: the solidarity and spirit of 'working together' that made possible the welfare state, celebrated with such exuberance in Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony. Anyone tempted by this narrative should go see This House, for a taste of where this peculiarly British brand of post-war consensus gentlemen’s politics had taken the country immediately preceding Thatcher’s ascension.
Graham has evidently chosen 1974-9 to provoke a comparison with our own Coalition era. We see a Labour government struggling in the absence of a proper mandate, forced to wheel and deal, make cross-party pacts and pacify unruly backbenchers. It was also a period of great uncertainty for the economy, as Britain wrestled with a balance of payments deficit that sent Labour begging to the IMF. The play’s heroes/villains (depending on which flag you fly) are the Deputy and Chief Whips, and we see parliament’s paralysis through the knock-about battle between the suave Chief Tory Whip Humphrey Atkins and his counterpart, Labour’s highly-strung Michael Cocks. When Atkins reminds Cocks that while Labour may be wooing the "Odds and Sods" (the Liberals, Scottish Nationalists, Welsh and Irish), Britain would always be a two horse race, the gap between government and opposition benches being 'exactly the length of two drawn swords', we cringe.
This, some have argued, is the play’s real message: a loud plea for the overhaul of our current system, a warning from the past to the present. As we watch a scene in which a senior whip explains that “we British” don't have a written constitution, so must do “what we do best”, that is to “muddle through”, we see a system that is corrupting, archaic, and degrades the business of representing the people in government to the kind of tug-and-war buffoonery that takes up most of the three hours of stage-time.
I didn't need convincing on that front. However, I took away another warning: an insight into the tone and texture of a pre-79 politics built upon 'gentleman's agreements', how Labour’s cockney alphas and Tory toffs were two faces of the same stultifying macho elite, propped up by hierarchical Union power. The one scene where Graham allows himself to speculate decides the long battle that Thatcher won. The Tory Deputy Whip offers to 'pair' with a chronically ill Labour MP (based on the real Sir Alfred Broughton, whose one missing vote allowed Callaghan’s defeat). Labour’s whip refuses, and so hands the government to Thatcher. We are left wondering as to his motive. Could it be that brotherly rivalry is allowed to override the future of the British people? That the rules of the game have trumped its goals? `
It's not that our current politicians aren't manipulative, power-hungry, Westminster-bound, inbred and patriarchal. But a look back at the Wilson/Callaghan parliament usefully muddies a narrative, too often accepted by the Left, that paints a golden image of the force for good that built the welfare state, whose forward march was rudely halted by the Lady and her Iron Reign. Without casting judgment, This House asks us to look again at the reality of the pre-Thatcher years, where a Labour with scant self-belief struggled even to pass a bill, where a woman's candidacy for PM was roundly laughed at in backrooms on both sides, and the Tory Toffs and Labour Louts were two sides of the same broken machine that had been 'muddling through' for generations.
The clock has stopped ticking for Thatcher. I can't say that I'll cry at the funeral. But neither will I buy the fairy story that Britain was a socialist powerhouse before the Lady sunk her fangs into the body of the state. The post-war consensus, what was left of it, was in dire crisis in ’79. I wish it had been another, but this country was in need of a radically new direction, no less than we do today. So, on the day that Thatcher died, I won’t celebrate her life or death. It’s clear that we must build something better, beyond neo-liberalism. One thing I know: this does not mean turning back the clock.