The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Playing with Fire at the National
by Peter

I went to see this play for political anoraks while other Lib Dems were still enjoying the Blackpool nightlife. As theatre, I found it pretty disappointing. An unconvincing love affair and local poltical rivalries animate the plot - but not much. As an on-stage essay in the relationships between New and Old Labour, the white working class and asians, and central and local government it was worth sitting through. (I left my anorak in the cloakroom, of course).

The play seems to have been meticulously researched. The Independent fingers Oldham, Burnley and Bradford as the source for the events and I suppose that is correct. In the case of the Oldham at least, Labour have not had such a monolithic hold for a good while - but in the theatre northern industrial areas are always ruled by Labour majorities of the type you get in Doncaster.

David Edgar's sympathies are fairly evident, but the first half of the play is quite evenhanded. One sees the New Labour predicament on centre/local relations. Their electorate - the people they wanted to help - are saddlled with inept local authorities which spend too much and achieve too little. Even though their own party ran them, somethng had to be done. Northern cities could not be left in the grip of Old Labour. So they send in an expert.

Slowly this unleashes a chain of events leading to a race riot (white businesses burned in asian areas, asian businesses burned in white areas), the election of BNP-type councillors, and a renegade Labour councillor as directly-elected Mayor, on a white's-rights platform.

Suspension of disbelief becomes difficult at this stage - not about what is happening, but at why things are meant to be happening. Events and motives are over-determined throughout the play and the characters are generally stereotypes. (The band playing the wedding reception at the height of the riot make a heavy-handed but refreshing exception). Edgar's thesis seems to be that if central government had kept out, then things could have gone on in the old way. Useless, racially segregated through the old whites-only council estates, but not exploding. Arguable, of course, but not convincing.

For me the play asked more questions about (Old) Labour breeding dependency and diminishing the aspirations of their core supporters. Clearly the economic context (the mills have closed in Wyverdale, textile production has gone to Bangladesh and China) plays a big role. But Old Labour must share the blame.
And the play does shed light on (new) Labour's conversion from relative liberalism (incorporating Human Rights into British law) in the first term, to relative authoritarianism (suspending them, and promoting the ID card as the solution to. well, just about everything) in the second term. We donĀ“t know how this story is going to end yet...
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 3:00 pm  
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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.

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