Parties and People: England (1914-51)

A hundred years ago, we seemed about to witness the strange death, not of Liberal England, as George Dangerfield suggested in his book, but of Conservative England. The hold of the Liberals on government, buttressed as it was by the Irish nationalists and the infant Labour Party, seemed unshakeable. It was not easy to see how the Conservatives could ever displace them. After the 1914-18 war, however, everything changed. The Conservative century began. In every election between the wars, the Conservatives secured more votes than the Liberals or Labour. Indeed, until the advent of Tony Blair in 1997, there were just two governments of the left with comfortable majorities - in 1945 and 1966.

How did this transformation come about? Scholars have disputed the causes endlessly. Many years ago, the Oxford historian Ross McKibbin found the answer in the huge increase in the franchise generated by the fourth Reform Act, which gave the vote to men over 21 and most women over 30 in 1918. He now says that this answer was too deterministic, and suggests that we should look instead at the changing political culture of England during this period. Parties and People is a model of careful scholarship that serves to summarise recent research, rather than suggesting any controversial reinterpretation of accepted views.

Liberal predominance before 1914 was based, McKibbin now thinks, on the notion of a "Progressive Alliance". This alliance was grounded socially in the culture of nonconformity that united the Liberals with Labour, and ideologically in a commitment to free trade, social reform, free collective bargaining and constitutional change.

The 1914-18 war shattered this alliance - perhaps it was always destined to be impermanent. The war split the nonconformists, weakening if not destroying them as a political force. Ireland achieved independence and a new socio-economic agenda displaced constitutional issues. The Liberal social programme receded into the background. Labour became the dominant party of the left.

Before 1914, most Labour supporters had been prepared, in the absence of a Labour candidate, to vote Liberal. After 1918, however, Liberals proved unwilling to reciprocate. They were too frightened of the social threat that they thought Labour represented. The Liberal vote in the 1920s swung roughly 2:1 in favour of the Conservatives, making any renewal of the Progressive Alliance impossible.

Proportional representation might have remedied this situation, but it was defeated in 1917 - not solely by the Conservatives, as Mc-Kibbin suggests (indeed the Tories in the Lords favoured it), but, paradoxically, by the Liberals and primarily by the Liberal prime minister Lloyd George, who later regretted it. Indeed, the Liberals did not come to support proportional representation until 1922, when they were in opposition, and by then it was too late.

The culture that sustained the Progressive Alliance collapsed with startling suddenness during the First World War. The culture that sustained its successor, Labourism, has been in steady decline since 1951. In a series of essays in the London Review of Books, McKibbin has revealed his nostalgia for that Old Labour culture. Yet, as he points out, Old Labour, unlike the Liberals, accepted the institutions of state quite uncritically, and it was for this reason that "the decline of the Liberals vitiated England's political culture. The Liberals, as the party of nonconformity and Celtic Britain, to some extent stood outside the hierarchies of the English state and eyed them in a rather jaundiced way."

The Conservatives and Labour, on the other hand, "disagreed about the economic functions of the state, not about the state and its institutions as such". Old Labour never thought seriously about constitutional reform. Indeed, Herbert Morrison was happy with an upper house based almost exclusively on a hereditary peerage, on the grounds that "we should try to maintain continuity and not set up something new and different from the past".

Part of the reason for Labour's decline after 1951 was, McKibbin argues, that its "postwar electoral base, though much larger than in 1939, was not a broad-based democracy but one over-reliant on trade union membership, 'heavy' manufacturing and mining, and council housing, a base which, with the exception of council housing, was shrinking, even in the 1940s". Labour's failure to reform the state created a legacy of "a society with powerful democratic impulses but political structures and habits of mind which could not adequately contain them. It was an unresolved tension which was to dog England for the rest of the century." That tension remains. It is no doubt unfair, though sometimes irresistible, to draw "lessons" from a work of historical scholarship. Perhaps the lesson of Parties and People is that the unresolved tension to which McKibbin draws attention can be resolved only through the creation of a new Progressive Alliance.

Parties and People: England (1914-51)
Ross McKibbin
Oxford University Press, 202pp, £20

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University and the editor of “From New Jerusalem to New Labour: Prime Ministers from Attlee to Blair", published by Palgrave Macmillan (£20)

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.