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Socialist Review, November 1993

Simon Joyce


Identity crisis

From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Absence of War
by David Hare

On the face of it it’s difficult to think of a more boring subject for the theatre than the last general election, when, as David Hare puts it, ‘All the politicians are pretending to be bank managers.’ Nevertheless, Hare succeeds admirably.

The play focuses on why Labour lost and the drama takes place inside the small circle of party leaders and their assistants, strategists and advertising executives. It is a world completely cut off from the mass of the population and the working class is mentioned only briefly as though it were a relic of a bygone age.

In many ways the political scope of the play is quite limited and no great analysis is attempted. The point is a simple one, that Labour lost because it had moved too far to the right, and became too much like the Tories.

The characters in the play are not Kinnock, Hattersley, Cunningham and co, but there is much that is easily recognisable from Labour’s present sorry state. The party leader is called George Jones, from a solid working class south London background, who joined the Labour Party to make life better for working people. As a leader determined to pull together a divided and defeated party he has hammered home a single message – to get elected Labour must be ‘respectable’.

Of course this means dropping any hint of radicalism and any idea of challenging the rotten priorities of capitalism. For Jones himself, as with Kinnock, this means turning his back on the vigour and militancy of his younger days. In particular he drops fiery speeches for the type we heard so often from Kinnock – deadly dull, endless streams of very similar sounding words, going nowhere – ‘like a dictionary on speed’, says an advisor.

Hare has a remarkable understanding of this process and its implications. Partly this is because he had privileged access to the actual Labour Party campaign. He was allowed to sit in on the daily strategy meeting and press conferences, and interviewed many Labour politicians and advisors.

Much of this research is published in the fascinating companion book Asking Around. The evidence shows the Labour campaign to have been completely confusing and disjointed, verging at times on the totally bizarre. For instance Labour’s main slogan for the last week’s campaigning was, ‘It’s time for a change’, so the head of the advertising team instructed all politicians when interviewed to start every sentence with, ‘It’s time ...’ as the way to win the election.

It is Hare’s skill as a playwright which takes this far beyond simple documentary or a dry political lecture with a few actors thrown in.

Through the character of Jones, brilliantly played by John Thaw, Hare shows us both the tragedy of many socialists who join the Labour Party with such high hopes, and the bankruptcy of a Labour strategy based on aping the Tories.

In one immensely powerful scene, Jones tries to make one of his old fiery socialist speeches but finds he just can’t do it anymore. He has worked so long and hard at being ‘respectable’ that his socialist politics have rotted away. Politically he is disarmed, but his defeat tastes all the more bitter because it is self inflicted.

Hare poses the question: who will believe in a party which doesn’t believe in itself? A despairing old member worries that if someone asked Labour the time, the reply would be, ‘What time would you like it to be?’ The strategy of moving further and further to the right not only lets the Tories off the hook, but eventually destroys Labour’s last shreds of self confidence. Hare draws a convincing picture of a Labour leadership which is split, uncertain, jittery and which believes everything it reads in the Tory press.

Not surprisingly the play has proved very controversial. But it is a sign of the times that it went down very well with the audience in the theatre. It is an extremely political play, yet I have never seen such intense concentration in the audience – even more remarkable when you consider that everybody knew the final result. At one point an exasperated character shouts, ‘Look, we’re not the bloody Tories!’, which drew spontaneous applause from several parts of the theatre.

The acting varies from good to excellent and much of the play is very funny (especially whenever the Tories appear). Hare’s understanding of the crisis in British politics is clearly much better than many who glory in the title ‘political commentator’.

The Absence of War plays at the National Theatre in London

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