In the Critics this week

David Priestland on popular history, Anthony Horowitz interviewed and Sarah Churchwell on Henry James.

In the Critics section of the New Statesman this week, historian David Priestland argues that “the struggle to interpret our history has been won by a complacent liberalism”. He warns that this “is a triumph with serious consequences.” A new form of Whig history has developed, practiced both by those on the centre-right and centre-left, in which “history is seen as a battle between liberalism and totalitarianism.” Andrew Marr’s BBC series History of the World is representative of this trend in that it “assumes, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, that “there is no such thing as society””.

In Books, Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, reviews James Mann’s The Obamians “which seeks to paint a portrait of the 44th president’s foreign policy through the prism of his relationships with his closest advisers.” Mann explains how Obama and his “Obamians” wish to develop a doctrine of “low-cost leadership”, the “apotheosis” of which is Libya: “The conflict revealed [Obama’s] willingness to use force and his commitment to humanitarian goals and multilateralism.” Leonard sees Mann building the book up “to a description of a 'pivot to Asia' that could be the beginning of a new era of bipolarity.” If this is so, Obama could come to be seen as “playing a similar role to that played by Harry S Truman in the early stages of the cold war. In that case – like his predecessor – Obama may yet have a doctrine named after him”.

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire speaks to children’s author Anthony Horowitz who has just published Oblivion, the last book in the Power of Five series. Horowitz tells Derbyshire that the book was written in the midst of the phone-hacking scandal. As a result, “the three main characters are heavily influenced by the Murdochs.” The author explains that the danger of broaching big issues such as this in children’s literature “is that you forget that your first duty is to entertain, to write books that are page-turners”.

Also in Books: Sarah Churchwell reviews Michael Gorra’s book Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece; Talitha Stevenson reviews Songs of Innocence: the Story of British Childhood by Fran Abrams; and Andrew Adonis looks at Douglas Carswell’s The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy; PLUS: “The Descent”, a poem by Emily Berry.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke on A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss; Ryan Gilbey gives his verdict on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and the US cut of Stanley Kunbrick’s The Shining; Rachel Haliburton on a London-bound production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya; Kate Mossman reviews the album Gonwards by Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge; and Antonia Quirke denounces the BBC’s cuts to its arts programming. PLUS: The Madness of Crowds by Will Self.

US President Barack Obama. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution