England’s self-obsession unwittingly revealed

Jackie Kemp's opinion piece on National Theatre show "this House" from "The Scotsman", published Friday 12 October 2012 

 A CRUCIAL period for Scotland has been virtually erased from history in a play about Labour’s bid to stay in power in the 70s, writes Jackie Kemp

David Cameron’s “decline or do” speech this week contained some important insight. He is arguably already the least influential British Prime Minister for 300 years – on the margins of world affairs, sneering at Europe from the restricted-view seats at the far-right of the European Parliament, and swapping the corridors of power for the green room when he appears on silly chatshows in the US.

Saving the Union is his number one priority, apparently. He first announced this earlier in the week to Scottish delegates at the Tory conference, apparently concerned that a rump UK could lose its voting rights in the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the European Union.

That story did not make the Today programme. And, despite printing roughly the same number of words as were contained in Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – including several hundred on Oliver Letwin’s hairstyle, the Guardian didn’t find room for it either. The Times found it of less interest than the breathless news that Boris Johnson had arrived at the conference by taxi. Cameron mentioned Scotland again on Tuesday – but weirdly his number one priority merited just a single sub-clause in a paragraph about the Olympics. The word “Scotland” did not appear once, although the word “Salmond” did.

What are we to conclude from this less-than focussed attention? Perhaps that England is in the process of turning in on itself, retreating from any attempt at global or even local influence. Bathing in a narcissistic post-Olympic glow, England has turned away from the world to look into the mirror where it is consoled by a Danny Boyle-inspired fantasy of itself.

Certainly, post-Olympic London is looking magnificent. If the streets have not actually been paved with gold, the road surfaces have definitely been covered with top-quality, glittering asphalt. New rail stations, new Tube lines, new light railways, all linking together like clockwork have cost untold billions – sums which make Scotland’s handwringing over the comparatively modest cost of a tiny tram system for Edinburgh look positively miserly.

Each evening this season, as the autumn sun sets over the sparkling Thames, the crowds walking across Waterloo Bridge can read the flashing neon sign on the National Theatre advertising a new play.

This House – a take on the minority Labour government of 1974-79 inspired by The Thick of It – will no doubt be popular with those who have acquired a taste for watching cursing politicians rushing around frenetically behind the scenes.

The Cottesloe Theatre has been remodelled to resemble, with uncanny accuracy, the interior of the House of Commons .

The play, set in the Whips’ office, tells the story of what it casts as the heroic efforts of Deputy Chief Whip Walter Harrison and his team to keep the minority Labour government in power.

It was a dramatic period – a pivotal moment before the advent of Thatcherism, which even now has left its mark on the political, economic and industrial landscape of Britain. But despite the fine acting, great set and lively dialogue, for a Scot the play was disappointing. Or, perhaps, illuminating.

This period of British politics was a crucial one for Scotland. It is a period that I have studied recently as I put together an anthology of the journalism of my father, Arnold Kemp, who was at that time deputy editor of The Scotsman and deeply involved in the struggle for devolution. The dramatic unfolding of the story of the first devolution bill is told in the book “Confusion to our Enemies: selected journalism of Arnold Kemp”.

But despite the fact that it was the SNP group of 11 who first tabled the motion of no confidence that led to the fall of that government, the Scottish stuff does not really make it on to the stage, with only one or two concessions to the “odds and sods” as they are frequently called.

Moreover, there are a couple of howlers – the night I was there featured a crack about the Tories not having any Scottish seats in 1974, whereas in reality they had more than 20 and were still the second largest party.

Another clunky error was that the SNP group apparently decided to vote with the Tories against the government in order “to save their seats”. Really?

In Kemp’s account it was quite otherwise. Below is his report of the fatal vote, which is the climax of the play.

(SNP MP) “Hamish Watt told me that he spent an absolutely miserable evening. His constituency party had mandated him to vote with the Government. He had been elected in Banff by Labour voters and knew they would reject him, as indeed they did, should he help to bring Mrs Thatcher to office.

“Watt had the impression that Walter Harrison thought the Government had sneaked through and did not so much care what the SNP would do. After the division some SNP and Labour members thought the Government had just won. A teller gave a misleading thumbs up. When Watt realised the truth, it is said he tried to cancel his vote – permissible if you can get to the other lobby in time.

“He made a dash for it but it was locked just as he reached it. According to the folklore, he beat despairingly at it, demanding entry in vain. In conversation he told me this was not true; he did discuss reversing his vote with the Labour whips but the lobby door closed before any conclusion could be reached.

“John Stradling Thomas, Number Three in the Tory Whips office, apparently dined out an anecdote from that night. Using a pre-arranged code he indicated to Mrs Thatcher that they had won by one vote by raising a finger. He used to remark that he was forever grateful they had not won by two.”

Perhaps even more startling is the failure of the National Theatre to tell the Irish story faithfully. Gerry Fitt, the founder of the SDLP, was the member for West Belfast in that parliament. The speech he is given to account for his failure to vote with the government in the play is a short one (to Labour whip Michael Cocks). “Well, a lot’s changed. Michael. I can’t ever forget this is an imperial parliament. And that just won’t do anymore. I’m sorry, Michael. I truly am.”

The reality behind the decision of Fitt and his fellow Irish MP, Republican Frank Maguire, to abstain was darker – and more dramatic. Kemp recalled: “According to some accounts, the real explanation for Maguire’s failure to support the government was that he was intimidated by terrorists. So the reality, as is often the case, was more dramatic than the fictional account.

But there was something else this Scottish theatre-goer left London pondering – if this is the level of interest in Scottish affairs that self-obsessed England can muster the week a historic vote on independence is agreed, what will things be like for us if that motion is heavily defeated, as the current polls suggest?