‘This House’ – a play about our yesterdays

I have waited some time to see it, but the dramatisation of the days of the 1974-9 Labour government, ‘This House’ at the Olivier National Theatre, which we just caught on the last night, was well worth it.  It took us back to those heady days when we had a radical Labour government and a strong trade union movement.
I was then a very junior, but deeply committed, official in the mighty Jack Jones’ T&GWU at Transport House, Smith Square (we celebrated 2million plus members at the Festival Hall in 1976).


Although I had joined the Labour Party, my head was still full of Marxist dreams and so I didn’t appreciate what was going on in the real world across in Parliament. But ‘This House’ has captured the parliamentary side of the real thing. Its by an amazingly young new playwright, James Graham, who has talked to almost all the key players on both sides of the House then and ransacked Hansard for gems. Like the fact that ‘Big Ben’ stopped working for the first time ever (not even during the Blitz), during a critical part of the Party battle in the Chamber. This conflict at times came to physical blows and Members falling dead (though not in the Chamber, of course)! This unprecedented Big Ben stoppage is used by Graham very effectively to symbolise the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.


The play starts with the downfall of the Heath Conservative government in February 1974, when he went to the country with a ‘who governs – us or the unions?’ election question. The Coal Board – a nationalised industry since 1948 – had to cave in to the miners’ union in 1972 at ‘Saltley Gates’ in Birmingham. Heath’s attempt to ‘reform the unions’ with a fairly mild but over-legalistic framework – like Wilson’s Labour government before him-  became a dead letter by 1973. This was in the face of one of the biggest TUC campaigns of civil disobedience ever. He had to release the ‘Pentonville Five’ London dockers or face a General Strike. In 1973\4, another national coal dispute and his attempt to counter a power workers strike, with a 3 day working week imposed on everybody, didn’t work either. Unsurprisingly, he got the ‘not you’ answer to his question from a bemused electorate. It was this that started the move, by a relatively unknown Tory woman MP from Finchley,  to remove him as Tory leader in 1975. [See my 'We Made Thatcher' blog]


Although we never get to see ‘the Iron Lady’, her brooding presence is always there in the Tory Whips’ office and at the end, as her voiceover intones, ‘Where there is strife, may we bring harmony’ etc!!


As the new minority Labour government of Harold Wilson takes over, most of the action takes place in the respective party Whips’ offices.  First one, and then the other, group of fixers in the ‘engine-rooms’, scheme, investigate and exploit every foible and weakness of their own ‘flock’ of MPs, to keep them voting for or against the government on all key issues eg a Bill to nationalise the Shipbuilding and Aerospace industries – would that we had one today! Scottish devolution was then but a Labour promise to keep the Scot Nats on board.


The action and dialogue is fast and furious, as the Whips in both parties, argue, curse (the bad language is choice but effective in recreating the torrid atmosphere), cajole, ‘bribe’ and generally lean on the self-interested, unfortunate or pig-headed MPs (about 30 ‘odds and sods’ Liberals, Scot Nats, Irish Nats and Unionists and a  hard-core of far Left Labour MPs.) The dour but committed  ‘hard-left’ ‘Audrey Wise of Coventry South West, is  wonderfully portrayed.  As is the headstrong Michael Heseltine,  with his golden mane, as he removed the sacred mace and swung it around in the Chamber to the horror of all true ‘parliamentarians’. This was an outraged Tory reaction to an alleged Labour Whip flanker, calling one ‘paired’ MP to vote to save the government’s skin, again, the excuse being that they had not paired a minister, delayed elsewhere.


Events rush on to the breakdown of the ‘Social Contract’ in 1977, as unions return to ‘free collective bargaining’ in response to Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan’s insistence on a well-below inflation level pay increase limit. That imaginative, but too ‘top-down’ initiative of Jack Jones and the TUC, worked for a while, giving pay restraint/lower inflation in return for many of the core employment legal rights which workers still enjoy – despite their severe erosion today. However, the big union battalions at Ford’s and then the road haulage drivers, quickly drove ‘a coach and horses’ through Callaghan’s 5% limit with the connivance of the employers. Where are those battalions now? – depleted in numbers, non-unionised and far more poorly paid!  Soon, the low paid local government and health service workers were getting in on the act in what became a most indisciplined affray.  Rubbish piled up in city streets, hospitals ran short of vital medicines and the dead remained unburied in the winter of 1978/9 (‘the Winter of Discontent’). Callaghan had hung on to the summer of 1979, failing to call an election that Autumn, before the proverbial had hit the fan . Soon the Whips were packing their bags after losing a vote of confidence by one vote. The rest, as they say, is history.


If you get a chance to ever see,’This House’ (the final night was filmed and broadcast to twenty cinemas around the world – a new innovation for the Olivier, so it should be available on disc), make sure you do. Though a bit depressing at the end, as the Iron Lady emerges as Prime Minister, the ‘might have beens’ of that tempestuous decade continue to inform our debates in the trade unions.  A very different relationship with today’s new Labour Party, has still to be hammered out. ‘This House’  is a reminder of what happens when the unions and Labour fail to get it right, as we have been doing ever since.


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