This House, reviewing politics
This week Maitland Political travelled back to the 1970s with a visit to see ‘This House’ at the Garrick:
Smoke curled, spider plants garlanded desks and a huge projection of Big Ben loomed behind the set. Above a stage flanked with the green benches of the House of Commons, the clock-face became an unblinking eye trained on the whips office. The play rowdily exploits the tensions of Labour’s minority government (1974 – 1979) for its absurdist and tragic moments. The whips delight in manipulating and jumping the obstacle course of Westminster’s many archaic traditions. It ends, almost abruptly, with the fall of the Callaghan government and the sombre recording of Thatcher’s speech on the steps of 10 Downing St. ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…’ The play’s constant refrain that ‘no one dies in Parliament’ finally contradicted as Thatcher’s successful vote of no confidence kills forever, the period of post war consensus politics.
We are reminded that the current battle for Labour’s soul began long ago. Consensus based politics and barely changing electoral majorities dissolved before characters eyes. A Liberal MP opined: Conservative Government’s eventually lose power because they feel entitled to rule, Labour’s – because they agree with them.
First performed during the 2012 coalition, the play is deeply aware of pragmatic politics; people from different parties and political beliefs working together. The Labour Government works best when the Whips offices negotiate peacefully, when in the second act that peace ends, Parliament grinds to halt. Exhausted by a four year stalemate, the whips pause and lament the system they animate, wondering if a new era of explicit deals and power sharing may one day come (*hint hint*). A 2012 audience would have compared the Lib Lab pact with the Conservative Lib-dem coalition. However a 2017 audience sees ‘This House’ as the end of a political period, a mirror, as our Parliament closes the EU-consensus of the last 30 years and opens Brexit Britain, time changes relevance.
Thanks to Camilla de Coverly Veale for aesthetic oversight