DJ Taylor: Hard Labour

The failures of the Bennite left; why mixing artistic genres is a recipe for disaster; ‘tired and emotional’ politicians; and an honourable protest tradition continues
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The Independent Online

The most interesting piece of political commentary I read last week was an article in The Independent by the Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas.

Here Mr Cruddas attacked what he called “rogue elements on the Labour right”, variously stigmatised for “personal attacks” and “confused diagnoses”, but also for a general belief in something called the “Doctrine of Market Infallibility”. It would have been even more interesting if Mr Cruddas had started by defining his terms, for to anyone who remembers the political in-fighting of the 1980s, the old “Labour right” is quite extinct: in fact, its last real impresario was the late John Smith, dead these 15 years. The old-style Labour right is usually remembered these days for flagrant manipulations of the block vote, deals cut in smoky back-rooms and Reg Prentice crossing the floor of the House, and yet most of the things it believed in can seem sadly lacking from our wonderful modern arrangements.

Unlike the Bennite left, which held to equality of outcome and regarded mental or physical superiority as a kind of spiritual halitosis, it favoured equality of opportunity, while appreciating just how difficult that equality might be to instil in practice. Uneasily aware that, human nature being what it is, you can’t stop people trying to better themselves, it was reconciled to the free market while thinking that governments ought to have the power to adjust it.

Conscious that no amount of short-term social engineering will ever rescue the bottom-most social tier, it was keen on the welfare state, while sensitive to the morale-sapping consequences of hand-outs. It believed (again, unlike the Bennite left) that the country ought to be defended, and that traditional moral standards were not a patriarchalist plot but a workable blueprint for the way in which people in a civilised society ought to behave to one another.

Thirty years on from the spectacular meltdown of old-style democratic socialism, most of these beliefs look like positive virtues. Meanwhile, a Labour government that really meant business in the fields of “fairness” and “social mobility” would start by compulsorily purchasing all private homes that have lain empty for more than a year, reserving 10 per cent of the places in every British public school for gifted working-class children and introducing a £500,000 salary cap (who needs to earn more than this? What is the point?) with the lost Exchequer revenue re-routed by way of increased corporation tax. But the chances of this happening are slightly less than getting Tony Benn to admit that the left’s failure to achieve anything in the period 1974-92 was nearly all his fault.


Scanning press reports of the new film project dreamed up by Sir Elton John’s production company, I found myself gripped by a suspicion that the calendar had moved to 1 April without my noticing. But no, there in Variety came confirmation that Rocket Pictures intends to underwrite an item provisionally entitled “Pride and Predator”, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel “which veers from the traditional period costume drama when an alien crash-lands and begins to butcher the mannered protagonists”.

There are two reasons why the sight of some futuristic horror from Planet Tharg gaily dismembering a series of winsome young actresses in muslin frocks is such a bad idea. One of them is that the premise is not new – I seem to recall something very like it turning up on a BBC3 comedy show not long back. The other is that it seems almost predestined to make the fatal artistic mistake of trying to combine two stratospherically distinct genres, while conciliating neither of the target audiences. As it happens I have bitter personal experience of the perils of genre-hopping, having once written a novel substantially set on a west London soccer terrace. It was a commercial disaster, and I can still remember the bewilderment of the reviewer in the TLS, who enquired: would a group of football fans really chant the words “XYZ is a homosexual” and would the stress be on the first or second “o”? Sir Elton will have to put up with a lot worse than this, and would be much better off giving the £20m budget to charity straight away.


Going back to the old-style, Wilson-era Labour Party, the “erratic behaviour” of the Japanese finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa at last weekend’s G7 summit in Rome stirred many a welcome ghost. Mr Nakagawa, who was observed to slur his words, yawn and nod off half-way through a press conference, blamed his difficulties on a heavy cold exacerbated by a glass of wine taken during the 13-hour flight from Tokyo. It later emerged that Mr Nakagawa has repeatedly dodged allegations of drunkenness during his time in office. “He really loves to drink,” the former prime minister Yoshio Mori commented. “I advised him once to be careful about drinking.”

In an age where the public behaviour of most politicians is sanitised to the point of innocuousness, the spectacle of Mr Nakagawa confusing the G7 with the G20 has an odd relish to it. The particular ghost that comes shambling out of the parliamentary closet to join him is the late George Brown, successively Secretary of State for Economic Affairs and Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s first government, and the origin of the phrase “tired and emotional”. In a career characterised by hectic and sometimes lachrymose interventions in public places, Brown’s pièce de résistance came at a diplomatic reception in Brazil. Here, as the band struck up, he approached a dazzling figure in scarlet and demanded the pleasure of a dance. There were three reasons, his prospective partner explained, why Mr Brown could not be granted this favour. One was that he had had too much to drink. The second was that this was not, as Mr Brown supposed, a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem. The third was that he was talking to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lima. Mr Nakagawa, for all his guile and a nice line in excuses, clearly has a long way to go.


It was good to hear that the workers sacked by BMW at their Cowley plant not only protested at their dismissal (as Private Eye noted, sales of Minis, below, which the site manufactures, have risen by 4 per cent in the past year) but threw fruit at their union officials. What might be called the anarcho-protest tradition in British society goes back a very long way, certainly as far as the Middle Ages, when official occasions were liable to end in riot.

As to where the tradition comes from, its most obvious roots lie not so much in that time-honoured determination not to be patronised or hoodwinked but in the belief that there exists a small procedural space in our national life where, for however brief a period of time, the normal rules don’t apply and you can do what you like with relative impunity. Victorian elections, for example, were notorious for their violence, with punch-ups at the hustings and prospective MPs offering to fight bare-knuckle with their opponents or horsewhipping them in the street. My father often used to recall the Christmas Day tea served up to his RAF unit in 1944, when on a winter’s afternoon somewhere in north-eastern France, dishes of celery were set upon the tables. As one, the room rose to its feet and began to throw celery sticks at officers, cooks and waiters alike. Curiously, no one was punished and in the end some other food was brought out as a substitute.


The flight of Sir Allen Stanford, the Texas finance mogul and cricket sponsor, in the wake of an alleged multibillion-pound fraud, has all the makings of a great modern morality tale. Quite apart from the hushed estimates of Sir Allen’s personal fortune ($2.2bn, some pundits suggested) and the amount of money he was supposed to control on behalf of his clients ($50bn), newspapers have been full of sports journalists tut-tutting at the England and Wales Cricket Board’s willingness to accept his money for last autumn’s England vs West Indies Twenty20 tournament. But the real target for finger-pointing, whenever a sport looks ripe to be colonised by some questionable money-bags, is our supine and non-interventionist government. Back in the autumn of 2003, when Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea was in the air, I happened to be watching a Norwich City game with Charles Clarke MP, then Secretary of State of Education, at the invitation of the football monthly FourFourTwo. What did he think of it, I asked. Was this off the record, Mr Clarke wondered. “If you want it to be,” I gravely demurred. “Well then, it stinks,” Mr Clarke insisted.

If Bernie Madoff had put in a bid for Arsenal last year, would anyone have complained? Answers on a postcard, please, to Sir Allen – currently understood to be somewhere in Richmond, Virginia.