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The June 20 Group: Antonia Fraser’s time in opposition

On 20 June 1988, a group of left-wing novelists, playwrights and thinkers gathered at Antonia Fraser’s house, determined to do something about the lack of opposition in British politics.

The sofa in Antonia Fraser’s sitting room is a crowded space. A cat named Ferdinand, one half of a pair clearly named by the 84-year-old historian (the other, Isabella, is licking her paw over by the window), must be displaced before I can sit down. There are less tangible presences, too: Margaret Thatcher once sat in this very spot, Fraser informs me as I settle down into the cushions.

A decade after the Iron Lady attended a meeting of the Conservative Philosophy Group at Fraser’s house in Holland Park, London (her first husband, Hugh Fraser, was a Tory MP), a different kind of gathering was held in this room. On 20 June 1988, the first meeting of what came to be known as “the June 20 Group” took place. As many as 25 prominent novelists and thinkers, including Germaine Greer, Salman Rushdie, David Hare, John Mortimer, Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Drabble and Peter Nichols, as well as Fraser and her second husband, Harold Pinter, were present.

“We had a sort of buffet supper. There weren’t enough chairs,” Fraser tells me when we meet. “I think some people had to sit on the floor. The room looked roughly the same. It’s rather too heavily furnished to have a meeting.”

Empty now except for Fraser, myself and the cats, it isn’t hard to imagine Greer stretched out on the hearth rug and Rushdie sprawled on one of the two sofas in front of the fireplace. Built in the 1820s, this room has the high ceilings and broad windows typical of the Georgian period, as well as the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and tastefully expensive furnishings one would expect Fraser, a daughter of the 7th Earl of Longford, to have selected.

The idea for the meeting originated with John Mortimer, the former barrister and author of Rumpole of the Bailey. At dinner a few months earlier with his wife, Penny, along with Fraser and Pinter, Mortimer had spoken angrily about the growing irrelevance of left-wing thought in British intellectual life and his frustrations with the poor quality of both journalism and political debate. “Do you realise what you’ve been saying? What are we going to do about it, then?” Pinter interjected, according to his biographer Michael Billington.

The result of Mortimer’s ire was the meeting at the Fraser-Pinter house on 20 June – a date selected because it lay between the birthdays of Salman Rushdie (on 19 June) and Ian McEwan (on 21 June). A myth subsequently repeated by some right-wing critics surrounds the group’s name. It has been suggested that it was named after the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, and that the purpose of this meeting was a plot to bring down Margaret Thatcher (whom Rushdie called “Mrs Torture” in The Satanic Verses, which was published a few months after the first meeting).

Fraser laughs at the notion of her guests as von Stauffenberg-esque plotters. “Absolutely not. I find it humbling, as a historian, that should be said, because it means I’ve made mistakes like that.”

In reality, she explains, the purpose of the first meeting was to see if the idea of the group was viable, and whether they would meet again. The political journalist and former New Statesman editor Anthony Howard read a paper that evening that Billington records as being about the “decline of the left in Britain and the inconceivability of Labour ever winning another election”. In her diaries from the time, Fraser writes that Howard spoke for 40 minutes – “a bit long”. Other topics, including whether a writer of conscience could justify working for the Murdoch press (Greer, then a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, argued yes), were debated. The date for the next meeting, in September, was agreed upon.

After the second meeting, several journalists (including Peregrine Worsthorne at the Daily Telegraph) got wind of the group and wrote derisively about it. The attendees were ridiculed as “champagne socialists”.

“The slightly hysterical reaction to it in the press was very interesting,” Fraser says. “It was as though there was something wrong with the whole idea, as though philosophy groups could only be conservative.”

This often vitriolic criticism made the members feel rather self-conscious. “It was simply a place in which we might be able to thrash out ideas about what was happening in the country,” Rushdie told Billington in 1996. “It was never meant to be a pressure group or an intellectual support system for the Labour Party.”

Fearing that their association with the group was harming its aims, Fraser and Pinter stepped back from its organisation and the two subsequent meetings were held at the River Café in Hammersmith, west London, and then the Groucho Club in Soho. At that last gathering, held just before the 1992 general election, the members of the June 20 Group were addressed by the soon-to-be Labour leader John Smith.

Looking back, it was the hostility from the press to the idea of a left-wing intellectual society that Fraser found most instructive. She wrote in her diary: “It is difficult in retrospect to see that [the group] achieved anything at all except some hot-air balloons rising.”

Brexit makes it hard to compare today’s political situation with that of the 1980s, Fraser feels, but she hopes that an equivalent group is meeting today.

“I do feel a bit like, ‘Hello, where is the noble opposition we used to have?’ This is a democratic country and there should be an opposition. Maybe I think that more than I did then. Then, it was a belief: we are free to think and explore ideas – let us do so.”

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”