Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party

With Labour hauling itself back from the brink of electoral catastrophe, Martin Pugh's history of the party could hardly have been more timely. There are no fireworks in his Speak for Britain! - the turmoil and heartache that have marked Labour's astonishing progress from marginal sect to governing party barely appear. Yet there are riches beneath the surface.

Pugh's treatment of Labour's early years makes nonsense of what the late historian Denis Brogan once called the "mandate of heaven" theory of Labour history - the assumption that Labour was bound, sooner or later, to displace the Liberals as the main anti-Conservative party in the state. He shows that its achievement was far from inevitable: that character and contingency had more to do with it than fate. Had Lloyd George not split the Liberal Party in 1916, or seemed bent on war with Turkey in 1922, Labour's breakthrough might have been indefinitely postponed. But for Herbert Morrison's organising ability, the London Labour Party might never have become a formidable election-winning machine; but for Ramsay MacDonald's combination of soaring oratory and tactical skill, he might not have displaced Lloyd George as "the man of the people" when opinion turned against the postwar coalition.

More intriguingly, Pugh also shows that, in any case, Labour was not just the heir of liberalism and the Liberal Party. It also drew on a long line of working-class Toryism: a rollicking, rambunctious, fiercely patriotic and earthy tradition, at odds both with the preachy nonconformist conscience that saturated the culture of provincial liberalism and with the patronising, "we-know-best" preconceptions of metropolitan intellectuals. Working-class Tories were against the "lily-livered Methodists" excoriated by the arch-Tory socialist Robert Blatchford, whose Merrie England (1893) was perhaps the single most effective work of socialist propaganda published in Britain before the First World War. They were for cakes and ale, and they could see no reason why the working man should not bet on the horses or enjoy his pint.

“Church, beer, Tory," respectable Liberals and self-improving socialists used to sneer. Pugh shows that there has also been a submerged strand of "church, beer, Labour" (though without much of the first) in the political culture of the British working class - and that, without it, Labour would have found it even harder than it did to be anything more than an appendage and client of the Liberal Party. The railwaymen's leader J H Thomas, with his trademark cigar and uninhibited enjoyment of the good things in life, was as potent a symbol of the early Labour movement as the lantern-jawed hero of Red Clydeside, James Maxton, or the teetotal lay preacher Arthur Henderson. In more recent times, George Brown, David Blunkett and John Reid have come from the Thomas stable. Even Ernest Bevin, the greatest trade-union leader in British history, had at least a touch of working-class Toryism about him, not least in his astonishing consumption of alcohol.

Another great strength of Pugh's account is his focus on the low politics of constituency organisation, trade-union affiliation and rank-and-file activity that helps to explain the extraordinarily variegated character of the party on the ground. Labour was never the party of the working class - not, at any rate, if the working class is seen as the proletariat of Marx's imagination. Not surprisingly: in Marxist terms, Britain has never had a working class. It has had a number of different working classes, spawned by the sporadic and unsystematic evolution of its industries.

As a result, the Labour movement was an extraordinary patchwork quilt, defying logic and making nonsense of tidy generalisations. Moderation in some places went hand in hand with militancy in others. Generous idealism coexisted with narrow sectionalism. Some local parties were remarkably active and politically adventurous. Others were sunk in parochial torpor. The name "Labour Party" conjured up an image of working-class solidarity and organisational efficiency. Image and reality could not have been further apart. The working classes were never solidly Labour. Had they been, the Conservatives would never have won an election after the suffrage was extended in 1918. And though the Labour machine was quite impressive in some places, it barely existed in others. Just as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman, nor even an empire, the Labour Party was neither truly labour-based nor truly a party.

Pugh is less comfortable with doctrines and values, but his account sheds unexpected light on the confusions and paradoxes that have
always marked them. He rightly insists that the notorious Clause Four of Labour's 1918 constitution, committing it to "common ownership" of the means of production, was more a symbol of its new-found determination to break with its Lib-Lab past than a signpost to future practice. Clause Four was a brilliant fudge - the brainchild of that master fudger, Sidney Webb. It meant everything or nothing, according to taste. To J H Thomas, it meant nothing. To Ramsay MacDonald, it meant a kind of nirvana, located in a far-distant future. To Herbert Morrison, it meant a quiverful of publicly owned corporations, managed and operated as if they were privately owned. To the authors of the party's 1945 election manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, it meant a stepping stone to a planned economy. To Ernest Bevin, in at least some of his moods, it meant worker participation in the running of industry. To almost all Labour people, it meant an economy driven by the public interest instead of by private greed.
Behind these ambiguities lay a deeper one.

To most of its votaries, socialism was not primarily a system of economics. It was an ideal, an ethic, a set of values; central to it was the third term in the revolutionary triad liberté, égalité, fraternité. But how widely did brotherhood extend? How could the value of fraternity, or community, or solidarity, be realised in a world where trade unions had to screw the highest price they could get for their members' labour power out of a distinctly unfraternal market, and where the norms of community and solidarity had little purchase?

At first, these ambiguities and confusions scarcely mattered. Labour formed only two governments between the wars, neither of which had a majority. Nasty questions about the meaning of its socialist ethic and its commitment to public ownership did not arise.
But after 1945 they forced themselves on to the agenda of practical politics, with disconcerting results. Labour fought the 1945 election on
the double ticket of extensive nationalisation and economic planning. The party honoured its commitment to nationalisation, but trade-union opposition to a long-term wages policy made economic planning unfeasible. In another masterly exercise in fudging, the government redefined planning to mean Keynesian economic management.

Solidarity, it turned out, had rather narrow limits. The unions were willing to accept a temporary wage freeze at a time of economic crisis, but they baulked at a permanent wages policy. With trivial variations, this was also the story of the Wilson government of the 1960s and
(in spades) the disastrous Wilson-Callaghan administration of the 1970s.

Against that background, the triumphs and traumas of the past 13 years fall into place. Devolution in Scotland and Wales, the innovative settlement of the Irish question and the Human Rights Act testify to the enduring vitality of Labour's liberal inheritance. The Iraq war, the infringements of civil liberties of the past ten years and the growth of the database state prove that the party's working-class Tory inheritance is also alive and well. But that is not quite the end of the story. During the bubble years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, greed triumphed over solidarity. Now that the bubble has burst, solidarity may be coming into its own again. If so, and if Labour can catch that tide, the dream encapsulated in Pugh's title may yet have a new lease of life

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD

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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.