The Milibands’ enduring rivalry, Gladstone’s example and Antony Sher plays Falstaff

It’s almost as if we are yearning for politicians of greater and diverse experience who know something of life beyond Westminster.

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One day, surely, a good play will be written or dramatic film made about the rivalry of the Miliband brothers. When David left the Commons to go into self-exile across the water in New York as chief executive of the charity International Rescue Committee it was widely assumed that this was the end of his political career. Ed had not only beaten his brother but forced him out of the Commons and out of the country. I was not convinced.

The public is growing tired of the career or professional politician who only politics knows and who, after a long apprenticeship as a special adviser or policy-room wonk, becomes leader of his party in his early forties. (So far it is always a he.) It’s almost as if we are yearning for politicians of greater and diverse experience who know something of life beyond Westminster. The kind of experience, in fact, that David Miliband, who is 49, is now acquiring in his present role.

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The older Miliband was profoundly hurt by his defeat. When I worked with him on a guest-edited issue of the New Statesman in 2012, I was struck by just how much he had changed from the man with whom I had travelled to India in January 2009 on an official trip when he was foreign secretary. Defeat had humbled him but it had also made him wiser and more interesting. In an interview with the Financial Times on 13 December, he said: “Tony Blair and John Major have said that they wish they’d done their post-premiership jobs before they became prime minister.”

What was he getting at? He was un­derstandably reluctant to talk about his brother but, asked if he envisaged returning to British politics, he said: “You just don’t know, do you?” During Ed Miliband’s recent leadership crisis I spoke to several senior Labour figures who still referred to David as if they expected him to return one day. What they could not answer was by what means or when.

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Many of our prime ministers in the 19th and 20th centuries were older and had much greater hinterlands than those who presently lead our main parties. The pace of life was slower, of course, and this allowed many of them the opportunity to read, write and reflect. Gladstone, a prolific author, was 58 when he first became prime minister, and 82 when he held the office for the fourth time. Disraeli was 69 when he became prime minister for the second time. Margaret Thatcher was 53 when she won the 1979 election, and had worked as a chemist as well as overcoming considerable class and gender disadvantages to reach the top of the Conservative Party.

Alex Salmond, in many ways, is much more of a late-19th-century-style politician for whom defeat is not an end but merely the next stage in a long, relentless journey: he has twice led the Scottish National Party and, in spite of losing the independence referendum, and his subsequent resignation, he is intent on returning as an MP to the Commons. There he will surely find himself in the company of another big, erratic character: Boris Johnson, who is 50, a good age for a politician of serious ambition to return to the House.

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One recent evening I went to the Barbican in the City of London to watch Antony Sher play Sir John Falstaff in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed production of Henry IV Part II, directed by Gregory Doran. Sher’s Falstaff is in appearance a cross between Worzel Gummidge and Uncle Albert in Only Fools and Horses. He has a Father Christmas beard, a high forehead and wild, deranged white hair. He is short and fat, holds a stick and walks with a pronounced limp, the cause of which is most likely gout. He is one of Shakespeare’s happy souls, and Sher plays him with wide eyes and a fixed smile, as if every sentence he utters is a source of self-delight.

Orson Welles, who directed himself as Sir John in his late, neglected film Chimes at Midnight, described Falstaff as a “glori­ously life-affirming good man”. For Welles, Falstaff was an English innocent, and his clownishness and hedonism were ways of coping with turbulent change in a kingdom riven by “inward wars” and by the end of the chivalric ideal. But Sher captures something else in Falstaff: for all his good humour, he is manipulative and ruthless. He knows what he wants and how to achieve it.

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I was fascinated to see how Doran would represent the moment, one of the most celebrated in all of Shakespeare, when the newly crowned Henry V publicly spurns Falstaff, formerly his close companion in the wretched taverns of Eastcheap. Prince Hal has slowly matured over the course of the two plays, so that by the end of Part II he is resigned to his fate and accepting of his destiny. One day soon we know he will lead his men at Agincourt.

In Welles’s film the king has his back turned to Falstaff when he speaks the devastating words: “I know thee not, old man.” We see straight away the horror on Falstaff’s face. But Doran makes us wait. Sher’s Falstaff stands facing the king but with his back to the audience. The new king looks straight at and over him, as if he is addressing the very nation he now leads. When Falstaff finally turns to face us his expression is one of simple bewilderment.

You feel the poignancy of the moment while being aware of the overall artifice as well as the artistry of Sher’s performance. For Falstaff and for England, a “poor kingdom sick with civil blows”, it’s a case of never such innocence again. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014