Election drama

Playwrights stay up past bedtime to produce instant political theatre.

The play's the thing: as politicians stayed up way past bedtime on 6 May, a group of playwrights were also pulling an all-nighter to script five brand new dramas. Whilst politicos struggled with squaring the circles of government by Venn diagram, the "first five plays of the new parliament" were cast, rehearsed and produced by the Supporting Wall theatre company in just 24 hours. The resulting show was Election Drama, a one-night-only, rapid response to the election, which was staged at the New Players Theatre barely 48 hours after polls closed. Truly a breathtaking feat of theatrical chutzpah.

There was a palpable party mood amongst the youngish, probably leftish spectators, even if the party had overtones of the ship's band on the deck of the Titanic. Election metaphors flew everywhere: when someone was given a seat number in a non-existent row B, it was suggested by the man next to me that she "enter into negotiations with Rows A and C".

Staged just round the corner from where the "Take Back Parliament" protest had begun only hours before, this was a rare opening for dramatists to engage directly with unfolding events -- and to take the piss out of Ukip. Would they seize the opportunity to hang a tale on a hung parliament, or would they bottle it?

In truth, aside from some last minute on-trend references, carbon dating the moment of performance, as it were, the playlets could have been written at any time over the past year. But there was no doubting the authentic rawness of the performances as the actors struggled, scripts in hand, to deliver these newly-hatched dramas. At times, it was like watching a rehearsed reading; at others, the performers managed to deliver substantially more.

Our compères for the evening were the producers Ben Monks and Will Young, and in the spirit of making it up as you go along, they were standing in for an unknown celeb who couldn't make it (praise be). In fact, they were in danger of upstaging the actors in the likeability stakes, and their "back-room boy pushed to front of stage" personae worked like a charm.

The plays themselves were a varied bunch. Most eschewed actual politicians, perhaps confirming their irrelevance in everyday affairs. As might be expected, given the exigencies of rehearsal time and brevity, the most successful were those with sensibly curtailed aims, and the sort of broad-brush strokes that an audience can grasp quickly. That said, there was at times a real flexing of ambition.

Understandably, two of the playwrights scavenged off existing texts: Rex Obano's The Wrong Party reworked The Birthday Party and reproduced the surreal Pinteresque menace pretty well. A dishevelled and stringy Brown -- looking absolutely nothing like Brown -- is browbeaten by thuggish apparatchiks, the reincarnations of Pinter's Goldberg and McCann, who wring the requisite ambiguity and threat from the word "Party". The second overt hommage was Phil Wilmott's Act IV, which was a resetting of Uncle Vanya. And although there simply wasn't time to get it in full colour, the Chekhovian mood of disconsolate lassitude was spot on. The Russian gentry are transformed into a political dynasty on its uppers, sitting amidst the remains of the night's takeaway feast.

Just as in politics, women tended to be sidelined in these plays, with the notable exception of Megan Ford's Human Interest, which took this very marginalisation as its theme. A light gloss on the political WAGs, with cursory name changes (Brown to White; Sam Cam to Shabo), it was also the vehicle for the performance of the night. Sian Robins-Grace pulled off an inspired turn as a self-seeking TV presenter, and brought the house down as she leered, simpered and winked at the camera, all pertness and no pertinence.

The other short that I thought worked well was Anders Lustgarten's Bang Up, which dealt with the definitively disenfranchised -- prisoners -- on election night. A black crack-dealer's perception of himself as a true Tory (pays no tax, is self-reliant) was first class mischief. However, the final moments, when the Afghan prisoner is deported, slightly over-stretched this neat, diagrammatic piece. The final show, Che Walker's Two Thousand and Twelve, seemed to be pulled in many directions, from Greek mythology to post-Afghanistan stress, via a bleak dystopian near-future. Despite its eye wateringly brutal language of "single slut mums" and "cage fighter daddies", it never really rose off the page.

So a patchy but passionate evening, during whiche not every word counted. Just like the election, then.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.