In a public conversation about political plays with James Graham, David Hare once noted that George Osborne’s liking for the theatre was “incomprehensible to me”. It is a telling assumption, that a Conservative chancellor of uncongenial views must be a philistine. This lack of comprehension is something that Hare has consciously set out to remedy in his new BBC four-part political drama Roadkill, which he described in an introductory essay as “an attempt to take Conservative principles seriously”.
Roadkill charts the ascent of Peter Laurence (Hugh Laurie), a working-class boy from Croydon, with a crisp vocabulary and a libertarian take on the world. Yet, from the beginning, Hare is unable to take Laurence seriously. He is introduced on the steps of the libel court, where the victory he has just won is immediately undermined by his own lawyer. We then watch Laurence wriggle free of financial corruption, a secret daughter, a past as a racketeer landlord and a present as a compulsive liar and vagabond. Though Hare has denied there is anything of the roman-à-clef about this, it is hard to imagine that Hugh Laurie, as he researched the part of Peter Laurence, did not think a little about some young chap who was five years his junior at Eton.
Hare is skilful so the action is compulsively watchable. It is a horror-show of political analysis peopled by cartoon Conservatives who drag down further the already low repute of the trade of politics. There is even an establishment conspiracy. The female journalist who is investigating Laurence’s nefarious deals in Washington, DC is bumped off with the apparent knowledge of sinister arms-dealing Tories who trade in collusive whispers in a bar overlooking the City. The story is then killed by a newspaper proprietor who has been leant on by these tailored Tory bovver boys.
Laurence himself has no values other than money, sex and the private sector. As a junior health minister he sold the NHS to American pharmaceutical companies through Washington lobby groups disguised as think tanks. An inmate dies in a privatised women’s prison because the outsourcing company cares more about money than life. “Justice is not a notion,” he says. “It’s a department of state” – the one he runs.
This is witty but lazy, and writing like that would be better ignored if Hare had not hit on a standard line of critique on the left. Labour has gone into the past two general elections purveying the argument that the Conservative Party had the express intention of selling the NHS, an issue that Labour has been falling out about ever since Bevan and Gaitskell split the party over dental charges in 1951.
Yet these passages of Roadkill are rubbish, as another David Hare can teach us. On the Health Service Journal website, a blog shows that 7.3 per cent of the expenditure of the NHS goes on the private providers, a figure that has been stable for years. The author, the other David Hare, is the chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network. Health Hare doesn’t write as well as drama Hare but on this issue he talks more sense.
This narrow error on the NHS widens into a calumny on Conservatives and a misconceived idea of politics itself. The line between drama and melodrama runs through motive and the Conservatives in Roadkill are all monsters. They are venal and venial at every turn. The aide leaks against the female prime minister while sleeping with the special adviser who betrays the minister who is lying to his family and who is in turn betrayed by his driver.
Rather than portray Peter Laurence as a Conservative with a different conception of the good, he is simply a bad person. The standard critique of the right from the left is that its people are poorly motivated. The left always goes for motive, as Hannah Arendt once said. It is a far better rejoinder to Conservatives to show that they are wrong rather than insist that they are bad.
There are occasional glimpses when Laurence is allowed to explain his thinking and they are the moments he comes alive; he confesses on television to discovering that he has a secret adult daughter to whom he responds with kindness. A man doing the wrong things badly because he is in the grip of an erroneous concept of justice is an intriguing and realistic idea. A bad man carrying out dastardly deeds for private gain is a neat and a simple world, but it is not the world we live in. There have been rascals like that and there will be again. But politics is mostly not like that and most politicians are not like that, not even Tories.
This is, I’m afraid, a shrunken view of politics that Hare has offered before, in The Permanent Way on the rail system and Stuff Happens on Iraq. There is a line in Hare’s Gethsemane, his play about party funding, that can be quoted back against him: “Policies which are nothing but rhetoric, just rhetoric – they bear no relation to the facts.”
This was a lost opportunity because political drama can be subtle. James Graham’s This House is a clever and generous portrayal of the chaos that reigns in a whip’s office. Hare’s own Skylight gave the social issues of the Thatcher years a convincing setting in a love affair. His Neil Kinnock figure in The Absence of War was a flawed man trying his best and simply failing.
Roadkill, though, only betrays Hare’s lack of comprehension that George Osborne could like austerity and theatre at the same time. Ted Honderich concluded his book Conservatism with the accusation that the ideology was a political philosophy that had nothing to say for itself. Sadly, David Hare appears to have nothing much to say about it either.
“Roadkill” is available on BBC iPlayer. Philip Collins is a New Statesman columnist and contributing writer
This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning