James Graham. Photo: MIKE MCGREGOR/Guardian
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Love, Labour and loss: how James Graham became the king of political theatre

He captured the spirit of the Commons at the end of the Seventies in This House. Now, he’s turned his attention to the Labour Party.

London, 8 June 2017, 10.01pm

The minute the exit poll was announced, James Graham knew he had a problem. His latest play, Labour of Love, had been announced on 19 May when the opposition was polling a dozen points behind the Conservatives. The initial press coverage had mentioned plans to tweak the script right up until its opening night in September to chart “Labour’s changing fortunes – and any potential new leader of the party after the election”.

All that was swept away when David Dimbleby announced that the Conservatives had lost their Commons majority. Graham was having a party with friends, but he knew instantly that his script would need a significant rewrite. “I didn’t expect that election to happen, like everyone else. And I didn’t expect that result, like everyone else,” he told me one Friday afternoon in August, in a white-walled office above Wyndham’s Theatre in Soho. “So the questions the play is posing about the Labour Party and the direction of travel are not the ones I wrote in the drafts that the actors signed up to months ago.”

Luckily, Graham, who is 35, is used to working at a frantic pace – he writes early in the morning, before the emails start, and late at night. He hates starting to write, loving the possibility offered by a blank page and loathing the thought of muddying it with an inevitably imperfect script. But once he has begun, he charges through scenes, “so that when one character is responding to another, it’s instinctive and visceral. I don’t over-think it.”

That’s just as well, as there is a heavy weight of expectation hanging over Labour of Love. Not only does it have a starry cast – Sherlock’s Martin Freeman, playing a Labour MP, and Tamsin Greig of Black Books, playing his constituency agent – but there is a tingling anticipation that Graham, finally, might be the one to make some sense of our absurd, improbable, exciting, terrifying political moment. That’s because he writes “political theatre” with as much attention to the second word of that phrase as to the first. You will leave one of his plays bursting with knowledge about pairing MPs, or Einstein’s regrets over Hiroshima, or the Byzantine division of labour demanded by print unions in the 1960s. But you will also have watched an enjoyable play. It seems like that shouldn’t be too much to ask and yet, quite often, it is.

Graham’s breakthrough came with This House in 2012, a big, energetic piece about the whips’ offices in the House of Commons during the last years of the Callaghan government. In its climactic moment, Big Ben falls silent, suggesting that politics might offer the appearance of tumult but is too often grindingly cyclical. His previous work includes The Vote, set in a polling station during the last 90 minutes of an election day; Privacy, which grappled with the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance; and The Angry Brigade, about 1970s anarchists and the police sent to catch them. He has written small plays – The Man has just one character, Albert’s Boy has two – and huge, sprawling ones for the National Youth Theatre, with a cast list extending into the dozens.

Labour of Love is set in a single place – a constituency office in the Midlands – but spans 27 years of the party’s fortunes, from the dog days of late Thatcherism, through the pomp of New Labour, and right up to the present. Like all Graham’s plays, it is meticulously researched. The jargon is technically correct, and the references are contemporary: Tamsin Greig’s agent looks forward, if Labour loses the seat, to leaving the party’s WhatsApp group.

Kate Wasserberg of the theatre company Out of Joint, who directed several of Graham’s earlier plays, compares him to Hilary Mantel in his ability to see “how the follies of the human heart lead to seismic events”. He has, she says, “the soul of a playwright and the brain of a historian”. Harry Davies, his researcher, tells me that the pair conducted 50 interviews for Privacy.

In person, though, James Graham is remarkably unremarkable: average height, brown hair, neatly dressed, good-looking more through the absence of flaws rather than any particularly striking feature. If he mugged you and the case rested on identifying him later, he would get away with it.

Except that wouldn’t happen, because James Graham is nice. He has more than a thousand Facebook friends. He sends thoughtful emails and apologises for not being sufficiently interesting. Everyone in the theatre world likes him; more than that, they feel happy for his success. It’s profoundly disconcerting. (This is partly down to a recognition that he has paid his dues: he must have felt as if he had spent the first decade of his career living inside a perpetual three-star Michael Billington review.) When I ran into him at a bar in the course of writing this profile, he gallantly offered to buy me a drink, despite my only conversation-starter being that I had spent all week trying to get his friends to gossip about him.

Graham is a people-pleaser, something that leads him to accept too many commissions – “He’s always got three more projects on the go than he should,” says the BuzzFeed writer James Ball, who appears as a character in Privacy. As a result, Graham occasionally says yes when he should say no. In 2013, he signed up to rewrite the book for the musical Finding Neverland, a vanity project of the Hollywood über-producer Harvey Weinstein. “The reviews were hideous but it survived because it starred Matthew Morrison from Glee, and it had an advertising budget the size of Venezuela,” says David Benedict, a former London critic for Variety. “A show on Broadway may take a million dollars a week, and if you’re on a percentage, you’re quite happy. I can’t imagine someone as shrewd as him got into bed without knowing.”

Not that money seems to be much of a motivating factor in Graham’s life. Neverland provided him with the deposit for a house in Kennington, but there is a general agreement that by choosing to keep writing for theatres rather than taking a Netflix or film deal, Graham is losing out financially.

“It’s humility,” says Neil McPherson, the artistic director of west London’s Finborough Theatre, of both Graham’s personal civility and his inability to say no to commissions. “It’s possibly a class thing. I have a nightmare with my job with Oxford graduates who would kill their grandmother to run the National [Theatre] a year earlier. But James is humble before the work.”

Annesley, Nottinghamshire, 9 April 1992

It’s the day of the general election and there’s only one way this part of Nottinghamshire will go – Labour. But the nine-year-old James Graham is dimly aware that his parents, who separated when he was four but still live on the same street, are voting different ways. This is one of his first political memories – apart from seeing posters during the 1990 Conservative leadership election and deciding that Michael Heseltine was his guy, based solely on his hair. “That mane,” he says now. “It was purely on looks.” (When Heseltine came to see This House, he was reportedly unhappy with the wig used by the actor playing him. “He came about five times so he can’t have been that offended by any of it,” notes Graham drily.)

The playwright also remembers the closure of the mineheads in Annesley, the village where he grew up. Deindustrialisation hit the community hard, but it was already riven by the ideological disputes of the late 1970s and 1980s. Soon after Graham returned from university, there was a murder in Annesley: a miner who left the hard-line NUM during the strikes killed another who had not. It felt to him like an echo of the village’s deep divides. “I remember watching the mineheads come down, and the physical geography of my town changing,” he says. “I probably didn’t associate that with politics at the time.”

He is the youngest of three children, with an elder brother and a twin sister. After their parents separated, his brother lived with their father; he and his sister with their mother. The twins were the first in their family to go to university; he went to Hull to study drama and discovered a swath of northern playwrights: Willy Russell, John Godber, Jim Cartwright. At the Hull Truck Theatre, “It was like going to a working men’s club… You’d get a pint and go sit at a table and people would do you a play.” To the community there, watching a performance was an equal choice to the pub, bowling or bingo. “It was part of their experience. That will sound romantic or sentimental, but it just was.”

Accordingly, a fifth of the seats for Labour of Love cost just £10, something Graham calls “almost a socialist experiment”, as the discount is paid for by hiking the price of prime real estate in the stalls. “You can’t kid yourself that what you’re doing is engaging in a national conversation about the direction of the left, or of a party whose roots are in working-class trade unionism, if you’re going to fill your Victorian theatre with people who can afford expensive tickets,” he says, “and have already had the conversation with themselves anyway.”

It bothers him that it’s now harder to find working-class voices and experiences represented on television: his formative influences included Cracker, GBH and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The ITV regional producing bodies have been whittled away, the new English Baccalaureate curriculum discourages subjects such as drama and, Graham says, “With local authority cuts, the first thing that goes is funding to theatres and libraries. So you have to travel to London to see a new show.”

Graham is part of a generation of younger writers and directors who are fighting back against this trend. He gave evidence at a Commons inquiry into working-class participation in the arts, noting that he supported himself through his early days writing for the Finborough Theatre with bar and call-centre work; in his school years, he would go out window-cleaning with his stepdad. When he first moved to London, he sometimes had to walk home from meetings because he couldn’t afford the Tube fare. “Without being a wanker, he’s stayed in touch with his roots,” Neil McPherson says. “A lot of new writers are very middle class. It’s surprising how many haven’t had Saturday jobs.”

When This House was shown at cinemas across the country as part of National Theatre Live, people told Graham that audiences would cheer when their constituency was mentioned: “It’s a tribal thing, I guess, but you don’t expect to hear the name of your shitty town.” When his mum came to see the play, the crowd, knowing where its writer was from, went wild at the mention of the member for Mansfield. “I was so proud,” he says. “No one has ever cheered the word ‘Mansfield’ in a West End theatre.”

At the same time, the more you read of Graham’s work, the more you realise the pain and dislocation inherent in our model of social mobility. Working-class success is often measured by leaving. It’s an idea that crops up in other contemporary writers at the intersection between politics and comedy. Caitlin Moran confesses that she was thrilled to get a job on the Times at 18, as her options in Wolverhampton would have been “literally cheese counter or prostitute”. In How Not to Be a Boy, Robert Webb – a grammar school pupil from Lincolnshire – writes of his guilt at arriving at Cambridge University with his father and brother. “We find my room at Robinson College and Mark and Dad nearly piss themselves when they see a note on the bed, reading ‘YOUR BEDMAKER’S NAME IS ALISON’. Finally, Little Lord Fauntleroy has staff.”

In her 2016 book Respectable, Lynsey Hanley tackles this idea head-on. “It might be argued that another primary aspect of working-class experience, a feeling which most defines a certain way of being in the world, is loss.” That means the loss of jobs, the loss of a sense of place as a local factory or works closes down, and the loss of the environment that formed you when you have to leave it as an adult. “In doing so, you risk creating another disjuncture, another source of loss, in the history of your family. The place you came from, so this new story goes, wasn’t good enough for you.”

Several of Graham’s early plays are haunted by this idea. In Sons of York, three generations of men from the same family struggle through the winter of discontent of 1978-9. Mark, the youngest, likes the subversive comedian Kenny Everett and remarks on how much Eric Morecambe looks like Philip Larkin; his father, Jim, and grandfather (“Dad”) have no idea what he’s on about. His mother, Brenda, has to do all the emotional labour of the family and most of the practical stuff, too; when Mam dies, the three men struggle to make small talk, let alone share their grief. Dad wants to know who the union rep is at Mark’s work; neither Mark nor his father can bring themselves to tell Dad that he has stayed on for sixth form instead of following the family tradition and becoming a van driver.

Jim wants to be proud, but experiences his son’s social mobility as rejection:

Jim: D’yer’ark at him, eh? Smug little… gi’in it all working-class solidarity.

Brenda: You what?

Jim: When tomorrow he’ll have his nose back in a bloody textbook.

“I feel like there’s stuff in there that’s the best stuff,” Kate Wasserberg says of Sons of York. “It’s not the majestic flying buttresses of This House in terms of ability, but were he to put pain in…” She trails off. “James’s parents are clearly very proud of him but it was always interesting to me that I never got to know his siblings. Their lives are totally different. How many James Graham plays can you think of with brothers and sisters?”

For the record, there are a few. In one, The Man, the narrator even has a twin. His brother has a fatal degenerative disease, which causes injured muscle to grow back as bone. The narrator is racked by survivor’s guilt; haunted by the twist of fate that gave him one destiny and his twin another.

Finborough Theatre, London, 2005

Articles about political theatre have two settings. At any time that we are not fretting about the “death of political theatre”, we are apparently living through a golden age of it. The Iraq War produced the last great flowering, and Brexit now seems to be doing the same. Both are great engines of creativity because they are outrages perpetrated by the political class on the playwright and playgoer class: times when artists and writers have looked at politicians and felt, with a sensation like that sudden falling jerk when you’re nearly asleep, hang on, these people are not on our side.

In the summer of 2005, as hubristic US generals predicted a “fairly substantial” withdrawal of British and American troops from Iraq within a year, a new play opened at the tiny Finborough Theatre. Its author was a 22-year-old who was working as a doorkeeper at the Nottingham Playhouse, 11 miles from where he grew up.

When the script first arrived, unsolicited and unaccompanied by any agent’s recommendation, the theatre’s artistic director, Neil McPherson, was tempted to weigh it. “It was 250 or 300 pages long,” he says now. “He’d basically put in every single historical character you can imagine: Hitler, Napoleon, Pol Pot.” But it was funny – “he can write a zinging one-liner” – and it was ambitious, ending with Hiroshima live onstage. “I said: go away and write the Napoleon play or the Einstein play. He wrote the Einstein play.”

Albert’s Boy was recently revived at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and although Graham found watching it tough – “It was like watching your younger self trying to flirt or seduce somebody, and not getting it right” – it stands up better than other plays that engaged more directly with war and WMD. “I didn’t want to write the Basra play,” is how Graham describes it now.

Set in a single room (to allow it to be produced as cheaply as possible), it has two characters: Albert Einstein and Peter Bucky, the son of a family friend, who has just returned from the Korean War. Bucky, whose nerves are shot from his experiences as a prisoner, has little time for the older man’s recriminations over his involvement in the Manhattan Project. Is it really any worse, he says, to burn instantly in a nuclear fireball than to be bayoneted and left to die in the snow?

There are perhaps too many jokes about how a genius can be terrible at housekeeping (“Maybe the key to unifying your theory is unifying your socks!”) but there is also a light touch with pathos. Einstein’s cat disappears, and his fretting is ended only when he finds the creature’s body in the vegetable patch. It’s both a subtle echo of Stalin’s line about a single death being a tragedy and a reminder of the true danger and temptation of nuclear war: it renders the act of killing distant and bloodless. Death should be messy, never clinical, to stop us getting a taste for it.

Graham wonders if his first produced play accidentally set the course of his career, and whether, “had my first play been a relationship drama in a flat in Leeds… they would all have been that kind of stuff”. But that wasn’t to be. On the first night of Albert’s Boy, Neil McPherson brought in all his books about Anthony Eden. “I plonked them in front of [Graham] and said: get on with it.” The result was Eden’s Empire, which drew muted parallels between the Suez Crisis and the Iraq War. After that, Graham and McPherson spent three hours in a café in Smithfield, “and I talked him into the Margaret Thatcher play” – Little Madam, which dealt with the Conservative leader’s childhood in Grantham. “I didn’t need to give him any ideas after that,” McPherson says. “He had his own.”

Although Graham has since become famous for his big, public plays – and his television work, such as a Channel 4 dramatisation of the coalition negotiations – that doesn’t do justice to the range of his output. Many of his earlier plays are smaller, human dramas. The Whisky Taster, for example, tells the story of a pair of colleagues at an advertising agency trying to win a pitch for a new brand, while struggling to articulate their feelings for each other. A History of Falling Things shows a boy and a girl, both terrified to leave their houses because of their phobia of satellites crashing from the sky, who meet on an internet forum and communicate through webcams. Their bedrooms occupy opposite ends of the stage, with a gulf forever between them.

If you look at these plays, a different Graham emerges from the grand chronicler of political events. “There’s an ongoing theme in his work that is always quite cleverly obscured,” Kate Wasserberg says, “to do with people who cannot form intimacies for various reasons. For someone who everybody loves so passionately, there’s a loneliness… I feel like I’m being indiscreet but it’s all in the work.” (In interviews, Graham will not be drawn on his private life, instead saying things like, “I am not a monk.” He tells me that writing plays is an odd mix of solitude and bursts of public interaction: “I enjoy being by myself, probably a little too much. I have a few friends who live nearby who, if I don’t WhatsApp for while, risk banging on my door to bully me out.”)

Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre describes a similar experience when they worked together on Tory Boyz. The play juxtaposes Ted Heath’s relationship with his childhood friend Kay – who loves him but marries someone else when she realises her love cannot be reciprocated – with the macho, bullying world of young, gay Conservative parliamentary staffers.

Roseby admits that he worked on a political play with Graham for months without ever knowing what “his true political persuasion was”. (It seems unlikely to be Ukip, however; his friends include the Guardian writer Owen Jones.) When he saw The Whisky Taster, which ends with the colleagues failing to acknowledge their relationship, Roseby decided: “The thing is with James, he just needs to go out and shag more. I may have said that to him. Why aren’t these people sealing the deal? They don’t commit. It’s very tentative. But that creates a very interesting tension. Still, I didn’t pry too much. We were too busy trying to put a bloody play on.”

Like other friends, Roseby describes Graham as essentially “private”, adding: “I love that about him. In our world, we are so ready to spill everything, but drama is about secrets and lies. He has some secrets and I’m sure he’s told some lies.”

Almeida Theatre, London, 28 June 2017

It’s the press night of Ink, Graham’s play about Rupert Murdoch’s capture of the Sun newspaper, and as usual he has stationed himself at the back of the auditorium to drink in the mood of the audience. He is worried, because the play is showing just a few weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. As journalists tried to report on the aftermath, they were shouted and sworn at. There’s an amorphous anger in the air, London’s version of the anti-establishment feeling that led other parts of the country – including Graham’s home town, Mansfield – to vote to leave the EU. “Walking out of that press night, I thought… people will accuse it of being completely toothless and being too kind to him [Rupert Murdoch],” he tells me.

The script of Ink had already been heavily rewritten from the first day of rehearsals. “When I brought the script in… I had one of those moments I thought I had got used to, which was the difficult read-through where it’s not quite there yet and you feel vulnerable and exposed,” he says. “It felt like a series of disconnected events – the thing I always hate and warn myself off when doing history, that it just becomes an episode tick list. This happened, this happened, in this order. But it doesn’t seem to amount to anything.”

He left the rehearsal room that night and stayed away for a week, rewriting the whole second act and most of the first. “I had thought the story was so amazing, the world was so vivid, that it would be great. Actually, I had to go back and do some proper play-writing.”

I was at that press night, and two things struck me. The first was the hilarious starriness of the audience, at least in journalistic terms: Kath Viner, the editor of the Guardian, to the right of me; Tony Gallagher, the Sun editor, in the row behind. Journalists love any art about journalism, no matter how brutal or condemnatory: it makes us feel that what we do might echo down the ages, instead of disappearing into chip-wrapping. The second was a feeling of surprise at the interval: hang on, this is Rupert Murdoch, portrayed on a stage in Islington, north London, and he’s… not the Devil?

Graham’s Murdoch is a bundle of contradictions, unsure of himself, still the Australian immigrant stung by being called a “sheep farmer” and on a mission to liberate the working class from what he sees as pointless self-improvement foisted on them by a paternalistic establishment. His key line comes when he marches into the Mirror Group’s boardroom, ready to buy its worst-performing title, and gets tired of the pleasantries: “That’s enough foreplay. Can we get down to the fucking?”

On the surface, it reads like a yahoo deliberately outraging the standards of people he doesn’t respect. But Graham’s portrait of Murdoch suggests another reading: a socially awkward man making sure that everyone else feels uncomfortable, too. “I hope it’s the latter,” Graham says. “And the way that Bertie [Carvel] performed it was the latter.” (I tell Graham it reminded me of my old editor Paul Dacre. I recently discovered a diary entry from 2008, when I wrote about nearly running into the Daily Mail supremo in the newsroom after emerging from behind a pillar into his path. “He looked tortured and mumbled apologies without making eye contact, before moving on. Five minutes later he was calling my boss a c***.”)

During his research, Graham discovered that the Sun’s first editor, Larry Lamb, had hidden the launch of Page Three from Murdoch. “Whether it’s true or not, books like Stick It Up Your Punter! and Larry’s memoirs suggest he was furious… And you think: my god, what did Rupert Murdoch learn about his anger and piousness about Page Three that he had to unlearn to become the most successful newspaper magnate in the world?”

During the interval, a friend suggested that Ink would inevitably be compared with David Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda, a savage satire of the press from 1985, in which the South African tycoon Lambert La Roux buys a newspaper from a bumbling old aristocrat who wants the money to buy a share in a racehorse. That play is far less interested in the motivations of its Murdoch figure. The last line, spoken by La Roux, is: “Welcome to the foundry of lies.” This is not something you could imagine one of James Graham’s characters saying.

Hare sees the even-handedness of Graham’s characterisation as a response to the prevailing political climate – just as Pravda was ahead of its time. “I remember Howard turning to me at the first preview when the audience started to laugh and [saying]: but they haven’t said anything funny yet. I said: no, but I think they want this play.”

Hare tells me that he thinks Pravda was a rare example of one of his plays “sailing downwind”. “By and large, if you write political drama, you’re sailing upwind – trying to persuade people of something that they don’t necessarily want to be persuaded of.” (Hare’s Iraq play Stuff Happens was written, he says, when supporting the war was still seen as a patriotic duty.)

Ink, which is just about to transfer from the Almeida to the larger Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, sails defiantly upwind by depicting Rupert Murdoch as an iconoclast disrupting a self-satisfied elite, and showing why working-class Britons were so eager to buy the Sun. The most captivating scene is one in which members of the new editorial team interrogate what they really want in a newspaper: free stuff, gossip, football, sex and the weather. The discussion kicks off with Larry Lamb’s confession, delivered in a broad Yorkshire accent: “I don’t like brass bands. There.”

Hare also declares himself to be a great admirer of the way Graham shows “process” – deepening his audience’s understanding of a situation rather than trying to win it over to a cause. “The easiest kind of play to write is the left-wing play which takes an obvious injustice and stirs up feeling against it,” he tells me. Graham, on the other hand, “writes about the real world, not piety”.

None of this matters, though, unless we accept that theatre – and, by extension, any art – can have political consequences. Graham believes that it can, citing the way Tony Kushner’s Angels in America humanised the victims of the Aids outbreak in the 1980s. “Nothing I’ve done ranks on that scale in terms of influence,” he says. “Some people may tell me they had no idea parliament worked like that, say, or that that’s how the Sun newspaper began, and it has made them see things in a new light, perhaps. Oh, and when I did The Whisky Taster at the Bush in 2010, sales of whisky in the O’Neill’s downstairs went up around 200 per cent. So playwrights are good bootleggers, if nothing else.”

National Theatre, London, 2010

As soon as it became clear that there would be a hung parliament, James Graham decided to pitch a play about politics to the National Theatre. He had little hope of success – he assumed that one of the grand eminences would have bagged the subject – but came away with the commission from Nicholas Hytner for This House.

As ever, the research consumed him. He wanted to turn away from the Great Man version of history and show politics as an engine room. To that end, he placed the action in the whips’ office, as Labour and Conservative whips cajoled and sweet-talked their backbenchers into voting with the party line against a backdrop of recession.

“I was very reluctant at the beginning to talk to James or anyone else,” says Ann Taylor, a former Labour whip who now sits in the Lords. Whips traditionally never speak about their work: Gyles Brandreth, a former Tory whip in the Major government, recalls getting a literal black spot in the post when his memoirs were first published in 1999. But something about Graham’s approach persuaded Taylor: “He filled me with confidence that he was doing it for the right reasons – to portray the period.”

This House is a play without an obvious antagonist. The villain, if there is one, is the system, the great shuddering machine of parliamentary democracy, which gives everyone a little bit of what they want but always at a cost. Between the two sets of whips, the class divide is obvious, but the Labour side has what Graham’s other dislocated, upwardly mobile protagonists never have: comradeship. They swear defensively, talk about “birds” and football and regard themselves as a band of barbarians attacking a citadel, using amendments and points of order as their weapons.

Like Ink, This House sails upwind. It was written two years after Laura Wade’s Posh (filmed as The Riot Club) stormed the Royal Court, showing a Bullingdon Club mob trashing a restaurant and getting its thickest member to take the rap with the promise of a parliamentary seat. But in Graham’s vision, the Tories are not the villains, nor are they universally privileged. The central relationship is between the Labour deputy whip Walter Harrison and his Tory opposite number, Jack Weatherill, who left school at 17 to train as a tailor and always carried a thimble to remind him of his background. Jeremy Herrin, who directed This House, says its core is the idea that “dignity and honour are possible in politics… Like the man, [Graham’s] work is generous and humane.”

Once the whips had decided to talk to Graham, they couldn’t stop. The former Labour whip Ann Taylor even suggested toughening up a line of hers, when the team is discussing the recall of Alfred Broughton, a Labour MP who is at home dying of heart failure, because without his vote the government will fall:

Taylor: I don’t understand, we’re one man down, and the Doc wants to come.

Harrison: Ann, it’ll kill him!

Taylor: He’ll die happy.

“It came out in conversation,” Taylor says now. “I said – it’s reality. It was how a few of us felt at the time.” She has been to see This House four times and tells me how on the last day of its revival at the Garrick Theatre, Walter Harrison’s grandson came to the matinee and was so touched that he left one of his grandfather’s lapel badges for the actor playing him that evening. “Labour whips have been to see it, Tory whips have been to see it, and neither felt it was unfair,” Taylor says. “Maybe it’s because he’s so young, he’s so open-minded. I don’t understand how he understood so much.”

Graham attributes his desire to be even-handed partly to his background – “I’m sure the political divides, the split identity between northern and Midlands, the historical fault lines that ruptured through the towns in the 1980s and 1990s, have contributed to my desire to step back, to take in all sides, yes” – and to his natural temperament. “My family often – and not always as a compliment – refer to me as the diplomatic one in arguments,” he says. “There’s a risk, of course, and I’m not unaware of it, that you’re simply not picking a side.”

Among James Graham’s peers in the theatre, there is a general acknowledgement that This House is, technically, his masterpiece. But they want more. “I wonder if there will be a moment when he will come up against a subject that’s fully worthy of all his skill, that challenges him and is painful, and that will pull something out of him,” says Kate Wasserberg. Paul Roseby’s hopes are simpler: “There has to be more to life than plays. I hope it doesn’t pass him by, the emotional stuff.”

David Hare worries that Labour of Love will feel too reactive because it is tied so closely to current events. “That’s what I call ‘chasing the dustcart’,” he says.

Annesley, 8 June 2017, 10.01pm

It’s the day of the general election and there’s only one way this part of Nottinghamshire will go – Labour. And particularly on this night, surely, when the exit poll predicts Jeremy Corbyn making unexpected gains across the country. In Graham’s home constituency of Ashfield, Gloria De Piero hangs on with a majority of just 441. In next-door Mansfield, everyone expects Sir Alan Meale, the area’s Labour MP since 1987, to be returned to parliament.

But something is wrong. Since Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, when Meale’s majority swelled to more than 20,000, Labour’s tide has gone out as old class loyalties have crumbled. By 2015, Ukip was in third place.

Still, no one expects it to go blue. At 4.10am, the returning officer Jacqueline Collins duly announces Alan Meale’s re-election. A few muted cheers, and then a dreadful pause. “I’m so sorry,” she starts again. “I declare that Benjamin David Bradley has been elected and I do apologise.” Mansfield has its first ever Conservative MP.

How did this happen, I ask Graham over email. He says that he knows miners and their children who voted Conservative, some of whom are ashamed to tell their families. For some, the motivation was Brexit; for others, it was a sense that “Corbyn’s Labour Party is not their Labour Party”. He adds: “I’m not saying they can’t be won over – and in fact, maybe [Corbyn’s] performance in the final weeks and post-election has helped. But Mansfield, since the blood spilled in the 1980s, has long had a suspicion, a dislike, of ‘the mob’. That militant side to the left, what they view as fanatics, hero-worshipping, political radicalism.”

He also attributes the Conservative win to a “bigger middle class, moving into estates on the outskirts” – and also to Labour’s fundamental problem in its former northern heartlands, as “young voters leave for education and then as graduates they don’t come back”. In other words, it’s partly down to voters like him, who might once have stayed and prospered in a village like Annesley but now find themselves at the back of an auditorium in London, trying to recreate a home from which they have been severed.

“Ink” runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, from 9 September. “Labour of Love” runs at the Noël Coward Theatre from 27 September. “This House” tours Britain next year

James Graham’s selected work

Albert’s Boy (2005)

Graham’s first produced play featured Albert Einstein and a family friend debating the ethics of nuclear war.

Tory Boyz (2008)

In this sprawling epic, the story of young, gay Tory parliamentary researchers is juxtaposed with that of Ted Heath.

The Man (2010)

In this one-man show (sometimes performed by Graham), a man tells the story of his life through the receipts he has collected for his tax return.

This House (2012)

Graham’s breakthrough play followed the whips’ offices in the late 1970s, culminating in the fall of James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979.

Privacy (2014)

Riffing on the revelations of Edward Snowden about NSA surveillance, this was rewritten for Broadway and starred Daniel Radcliffe as “the writer”.

The Vote (2015)

Broadcast live on election night from the Donmar Warehouse in real time, this followed 90 minutes in a polling station.

X+Y (2015)

Graham’s film debut followed an autistic prodigy (Asa Butterfield) competing in a maths Olympiad.

Quiz (2017)

This play about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s “coughing major” opens in Chichester in November this year.

The Culture (2018)

This commission was written in response to Hull (where Graham attended university) being the 2017 City of Culture. It is a farce in the style of the BBC’s W1A

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move

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Political tribes: why democracy is no match for the visceral pull of “us” against “them”

How Donald Trump epitomises and supercharges white American tribalism.

During the Vietnam War, the US thought it was fighting communism. Afterwards, the consensus was that the Vietnamese had been fighting for national independence. But Amy Chua, in her extremely stimulating Political Tribes, suggests an additional factor: many Vietnamese thought they were fighting the country’s Chinese minority.

Ethnic Chinese made up only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population, yet controlled 70 to 80 per cent of national wealth. They were what Chua calls a “market-dominant minority”. North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was backed by communist China, but when he attacked “capitalists”, most Vietnamese knew exactly which ethnic group he meant.

After the war, many of Vietnam’s Chinese were either massacred or fled: they made up the great majority of the “Vietnamese boat people” of the late 1970s. The story makes the central point of Chua’s book: American decision-makers, both at home and abroad, have tended to focus on markets and democracy while overlooking tribe. The political salience of tribalism only became unmissable with Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Most people, argues Chua, a law professor at Yale University, don’t simply seek to be free or rich as individuals. They want to thrive within their tribe (usually an ethnic one), often while hurting other tribes. Now, the US risks tottering into the kind of winner-takes-all, tribalised polity that we usually associate with the developing world.

Tribe has always been Chua’s topic. Her 2002 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, anticipated America’s debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine years later, she hit fame with her Chinese-American how-to memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about how ethnic Chinese parents supposedly raise their children to be workaholic winners. Then The Triple Package, co-written with her equally high-achieving husband, Jed Rubenfeld, sought to explain (not altogether convincingly) why certain tribes (such as Jews, Mormons, or Nigerian Igbo) tend to succeed in the US.

Chua has a gift for simplicity, sticking to her main argument and homing in on what matters. She is a digger of surprising facts, which she presents in clear if artless prose. Her occasional oversimplifications, and her willingness to plunge into areas in which she is not an expert, only increase her influence on public debates.

The chief tension in US history is between the rhetoric of universalism and the reality of white dominance. As Chua says, the US officially thinks of itself as a “supergroup”, which can accept people of all tribes as Americans. Hardly any other big country sees itself this way. Even in very diverse states, one tribe usually dominates – in China, for instance, the Han Chinese. Yet whenever American decision-makers discover another country – generally after invading it – they tend to impose upon it the supergroup logic. They assume that once the country is given markets and democracy (or at least a pro-American dictator) then any pesky tribal issues will soon fade away. The prescription worked brilliantly in post-war Japan and West Germany, but then Japan had always been unusually ethnically homogenous, and Germany had become so through genocide. In the first half of Political Tribes, Chua argues that things went wrong when the US applied the usual prescription to more ethnically complex states such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, American funding helped create the Taliban. In 2001, the US identified the Taliban as an anti-democratic, demonic force that had to be eradicated. That wasn’t totally wrong, but the Taliban was also a resistance movement of ethnic Pashtuns, who feared that their fragmented collection of tribes and clans was losing control of Afghanistan. The US toppled the Taliban in 75 days. Then it installed a new Afghan regime, which (though the Americans don’t seem to have dwelled on the fact) consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Nearly 17 years later, the Afghan war is the longest-running in American history. Trump has sent more troops, while saying: “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time but it’s going to be a long time.”

In Iraq, too, the US initially ignored tribal divides. Peter Galbraith, in The End of Iraq, tells the famous anecdote of the three Iraqi-Americans who were invited to watch the Super Bowl with George W Bush in January 2003. This was two months before Bush invaded Iraq, yet the visitors soon realised the president wasn’t familiar with the distinction between Shia and Sunni. When they tried to explain it, Bush allegedly blurted out: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” The story would have been hard to credit, were it not for everything the Americans did after the invasion.

In countries with sharp ethnic divides, democracy often just makes these worse. When there’s suddenly a free election, the largest tribe – in Iraq, the Shia – tends to grab power and punish smaller tribes. Islamic State was created largely by disaffected Sunni Iraqi military officers. In Myanmar, too, more democracy seems to have led to greater persecution of the Rohingya. Western countries (not only the US) misread Aung San Suu Kyi as a democratic hero; she is in fact a tribal leader.

While democracy can hurt small tribes, the other American prescription, free markets, can alienate big tribes if a country has a market-dominant minority – and it usually does. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the US understood him as a communist stooge. In fact, the brown-skinned Chávez was backed by most of Venezuela’s non-white majority, who were sick of a white elite controlling the economy. But when Chua pointed this out in her first book, many white Venezuelans insisted that they were colour-blind, and that racism didn’t exist in their gloriously miscegenated country. She got death threats.

At times in Political Tribes, Chua overstates her argument. Whatever the country, her moral is always the same, “the blindness [to tribal identities] has been the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy”. This is broadly convincing but surely exaggerated. Even for the average half-awake layperson, two days in Latin America is enough to establish the centrality of race. Surely American policymakers couldn’t have missed it? But Chua – a canny marketer – makes her points strongly. 

After her tour of American blunders abroad, in the second half of the book she comes home. By now, the reader is primed to see the US as just another messed-up tribal society. Other writers have made this argument over the past two years, but Chua does a better job than most of explaining how the country got there.

We’ve heard a lot since 2016 about how the white working class voted for Trump in a scream of post-industrial economic pain. That is partly the case, but it doesn’t explain why vast majorities of whites in all income groups (and most white women) voted for Trump. He was the candidate of whiteness. Many of his voters were upset by the browning of their country. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the old racist quotas favouring immigrants from white countries. Non-whites arrived and, shockingly, demanded rights.

Perhaps the biggest social change in the West since the 1960s is that ethnic minorities, women, gay people and now transgender people have stood up and said that there are no such thing as second-class humans. Some on the American left have taken their claims to extremes. They ditched Martin Luther King’s dream of a country in which people wouldn’t be judged on “the colour of their skin” (which was also Obama’s ideal); instead they revel in the unique identity and unmatched victimhood of their own subgroup. Chua describes how the acronym LGBTQ has spawned variants including GLBT, LGBTI and LGBTQQIAAP, as “identity groups quarrelled about who should be included and who should come first”.

Still, many members of the former second class have successfully stormed the first-class cabin. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – for centuries, the US’s proverbial first-class humans – are now under-represented at elite universities, in the music charts, and even on the Supreme Court, which was entirely Catholic and Jewish until the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch took his seat last year. Meanwhile, non-whites such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates have claimed a right to retell the national story – helping shift it from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to an account of genocide and slavery.

Just as Iraqi Sunnis lost power after Saddam Hussein fell, American whites now fear decline. True, they remain dominant compared with blacks or Hispanics. They are richer, live longer, and have a police force whose self-understood mission seems to be lethal control of black men. But whites are no longer unquestionably first-class Americans.

Even so, says Chua, most of Trump’s 63 million voters are not white nationalists. If you take “white nationalism” to mean that all non-whites should be killed or expelled from the US, only 4 per cent of Americans admit to supporting it, according to an NPR/PBS Marist poll last August. In another survey for the Pew Foundation, even 56 per cent of Republicans said it was “neither good nor bad” that non-whites will become the American majority in the next 25 to 50 years.

Rather, when Chua tries to explain what racial arrangement most Trump voters want, she describes a video in which the Trumpist TV host Tomi Lahren lays into the black American football player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest at the national anthem. Lahren delivers a lecture on the “patriots” who died for the flag, and concludes: “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that would gladly take your spot.” This video has had 66 million views. Parsing Lahren, Chua argues that Trumpist whites want minorities to be grateful, to know their place, to buy the white narrative of a good America, and not to imagine they are first-class citizens.

Trump now articulates that position daily. He both epitomises and supercharges American tribalism. With him in charge, all other American groups – blacks, women, Mexicans, gays, ad infinitum – feel even more threatened than his base does. Meanwhile, below the radar, new American groups keep spawning. Chua catalogues them diligently: the millions of followers of the “prosperity gospel”, who think Jesus will make them rich; the mostly white, armed “sovereign citizens”, who think they would have been rich but for the federal government’s elaborate scam to rip them off; fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, who aren’t very interested in the reality-fiction distinction, and who embraced Trump years before he went into politics; mostly Hispanic followers of quasi-Catholic “narco-saint” cults, and so on.

Politically, the US seems to have reached the point that the future president John Adams feared in 1780: “A division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.” Meanwhile, the American patriotism vaunted by Lahren is waning. Trump’s own rhetoric is often caustically anti-American. “In these conditions,” warns Chua, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism”.

Chua’s conclusion – dripping with optimism about America, in 20th-century, high-patriotic style – doesn’t sound credible. She describes individual Americans who have reached across the tribal divides, and offers some cheerful vignettes from Yale: “I’ve seen a former Navy SEAL and a human rights activist bond over Trivial Pursuit.” She points out that the US is doomed if the left simply writes off the country as inherently racist since its foundation, and the right keeps dreaming of a white Christmas. If American tribes are to continue their common project, they will have to believe that the US can one day attain its promised universalism. Only non-Americans have the luxury of dismissing this as sentimental claptrap. She closes with lines from the black poet Langston Hughes:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath –

America will be!

Chua admits that her extolling of individual outreach can seem like “a Band-Aid for bullet wounds”. An equally plausible scenario for the US is that Trump loses the 2020 election, condemns the vote as rigged and urges his followers to fight it, unleashing a low-level civil war (possibly while boarding a plane to Moscow to escape money-laundering charges). Then, the Iraq war will have finally come home. l

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times. His books include “Football Against the Enemy” (Orion)

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua
Bloomsbury, 293pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move