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)

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.