A Walk On Part with Tony Benn

A few days ago, I was fortuitously invited to an event at the Soho Theatre by one of the organisers who happened to visit St Paul’s looking for suitable candidates while I was manning the info tent at Occupy LSX.

Without hesitation I volunteered myself. The event was a discussion on politics and the arts between a panel of “experts” and the audience. What I didn’t realise was that before the panel discussion I had also been invited to the theatre adaptation of Chris Mullins’ critically acclaimed memoirs, A Walk On Part. I was invited to ask a question as a member of Occupy London and was hoping to give a better account of the meaning of the Occupy movement than had been given in the media and in the world of politics.

My good fortune at being invited to this critically acclaimed play was multiplied tenfold when I was told, as I found my front-table seat, that Tony Benn would be joining me on my table. I think with anyone who has any leftwing leanings, Tony Benn would be up there as a leading inspiration, a man who has consistently spoken up for human rights and against imperialist wars of aggression. Yes, I was pretty chuffed at how well my evening was starting to turn out.

As I took my seat the audio on the PA was a recording of Tony Blair debating in parliament. My instant reaction was one of contempt until I realised that the debate was one of his first as prime minister, the debate on the windfall tax. This seemed at the time a genuine move by the new prime minister to make the privatised utilities pay a one-off tax to help the disadvantaged.

As I listened to his passionately delivered speech about how his policies would help the less well off, I was struck at how convincing he sounded in those early days. He sounded fresh and full of vitality and earnestness as he faced down John Major’s objections and I mused on why it is as a public we are so wary of politicians and reasoned that we are rightly wary, through bitter experience, of those who, through charisma and charm can seduce the public and convince us of their integrity while making decisions that negatively impact on the poor, weak and vulnerable in ways that are not always immediately obvious to the majority at the time.

Tony Benn arrived and we engaged in conversation about politics, the Occupy movement, and the fact that as someone who works in the media, I can be looked at with suspicion by both activists and journalists. I couldn’t help but be a bit overawed at sitting next to this great man, a politician who, alongside my MP Jeremy Corbyn and one or two other MPs, I have a huge admiration for. But as he was so affable and engaging as a human being, any anxieties were soon dispersed and it has to be one the highlights of a memorable year.

As for the play, well, it is nothing short of a tour de force. Chris Mullin is one of that rare breed of politicians who has a moral compass and the integrity to stick to the political ideals he set himself.  This is the MP who was instrumental in championing the cause of the unjustly imprisoned Birmingham Six, a man who wrote an acclaimed novel, A Very British Coup, about a leftwing government (a real leftwing government) that gets into power and is undermined by the secret services.

As well as a politician, Mullin gained respect as a former journalist on the 1970s programme, World in Action (which used to be one of my favourite programmes as a child, a programme which also helped launch the careers of Nick Davies and David Leigh, two of the Guardian’s and the country’s top investigative journalists). As a child, programmes like World in Action gave me the impression that this was what journalism was supposed to be about. Somewhere along the line that idealism has been tarnished, not just for me, but I would suspect for many people.

The play starts with Chris Mullin retaining his seat in 1997, as the first Blair government is swept to victory on a tide of sentiment and a huge majority. We watch his political trajectory with a collection of assembled television screens behind the stage detailing notable moments in time, stopping most poignantly at the tragedy of 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings, pivotal moments that changed the course of politics and Tony Blair’s own political trajectory from modernising socialist to neoconservative puppet.

The play is brilliantly acted throughout, and the cast offer some fantastic impressions of Gordon Brown and John Prescott as well as Tony Blair. It is humorous and riveting and shows how politics is basically nothing more than how human beings interact with each other, compromises that have to be made in order to attain the power to influence events and how a man of principle, who hopes to succeed in his career, can find himself at the foothills of the great peaks of power because his principles were a greater priority.

Chris Mullin has managed to get a positive response to his memoirs because, unlike the vainglorious exercises of Messrs Blair, Brown and Campbell, Mullin’s words speaks to the underdog that British people instinctively warm to, his memoirs speak of a man to whom political power is always just out of reach, a man who comes across as genuinely wanting power so he could make a difference, but who recognises that those who attain power often have other less endearing qualities in their character that allows them access to these higher realms of office. The continual reference to Tony Blair as “The Man” is amusing but, as the play develops and we see Blair wriggling out of commitments to tackle the rightwing press and particularly Rupert Murdoch, as well as his decisions to go to war, the nickname is also a way of politely mocking the great leader.

It wasnt that Chris Mullin was held back by his ideals. In fact, he seems to have been promoted despite his opposition to the Iraq war and 90-day detention for terrorist suspects. It is more that the principles on which he stood were not valued enough in a political landscape where careerism took over and where decisions about the markets, free press and geopolitical strategy were to be followed unquestioningly, rather than discussed openly. Tony Blair was instrumental in creating a House of Commons filled with carreerists and, while Mullin is respectful of “The Man” throughout the play, as he is with many other leading figures, he reserves his opprobrium for Labour lickspittle Hazel Blears and, with a groan, the audience at once understands why.

There are other examples in the play of pivotal moments in Britain’s recent political history and wonderful impressions of the characters that helped shape those moments. Who could forget Robin Cook’s great speech from the backbenches taking apart the official reasons for a war with Iraq? And there was also a reminder of the humorous and provocative words of the Labour MP, Tony Banks. Hearing Banks’s description of the Conservative MP and well-rounded personality Nicholas Soames voiced by one of the cast  is worth the entrance fee alone. It’s only now, surveying the bland morass of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory MPs that one can appreciate all the more the kind of man Tony Banks was, certainly not anybody’s lickspittle.

In the end, after three Labour victories at the polls, Mullins retreats from politics as Gordon Brown is seeking to get elected, and it reminds us of the 2008 financial crash and Brown’s chance for a snap election, which he foolishly let pass and how Mullin saw Cameron as a bright young man who could be good for the country, unlike George Osborne who was despised by all on the Labour benches from the outset. I’m sure that the impression of David Cameron is one view that Chris Mullin is no doubt happy to revise.

Politics is all about perception, and media commentators can make or break careers depending on who they like or dislike. No one really disliked Mullins, but very much like the former Labour leader Michael Foot, a perceived dishevelled appearance and disregard for what the fashion of the day demanded, seems to have worked against him, even though his integrity has never been questioned. Even in the MP’s expenses scandal, he caused mirth rather than vitriol when it emerged that he had claimed expenses for a £45 TV license for a black and white television. This was a man who had to be forced to carry a pager by Clare Short, a man who even today avoids using mobile phones, to say nothing of social media.

It was a riveting play that almost made me believe in parliamentary democracy again, but then came the political debate hosted by the BBC’s Michael Crick. My evening with Tony Benn came to an end as he discreetly and sagely exited stage left, while the rest of us took our seats once again to debate art and politics with the panel consisting of Labour MP and best mate of Michael Portillo, Diane Abbott, Lib Dem MP and spokesman for culture, media and sport, Don Foster, the Soho Theatre’s artistic director Steve Marmion and the leading actor playing Chris Mullin, John Hodjkinson.

The questions centred around how government could best deliver investment for the arts, but my question was more to do with seeing how art and politics can combine, as with the Situationists in the 1960s and most pertinently with the Occupy movements and whether this was something that modern politics could learn from.

But the answers to my question were predictably unsatisfactory. No one really got the fact that Occupy was as close to a Situationist work of art as anything since Paris, May 1968. The system of participatory democracy that Occupy has been using has been effective, but Diane Abbott, while acknowledging the connection between Occupy and the Situationists, made the point that, as she experienced in her involvements with co-operative groups in the past, such as with magazine The Leveller, co-operative ideals can still get bogged by white, middle-class males hogging the limelight and, though I did respond that Occupy has progressed somewhat from that, I have to agree that that kind of race, gender and class domination can still be the case, as I have witnessed in one or two working groups at Occupy that I have been involved in.

In a sense, watching this play unfold, and the musing on the ensuing debate afterwards, there was a strong suggestion to me that it is not the system that has to change at all, it is people within the walls of that system. Occupy can but stir the imagination and rather than see art in terms of patronage funding etc, we can see that art and culture is instrinsic to our communities and to authentic politics and emerges from grassroots activism and creativity. As such, we need to prioritise people and their ideas and put that before the profit motive.

Governments and those with money need to trust communities to create their own culture, rather than seeing culture and arts as commodities that inevitably get commercialised before they have had a chance to really develop. This is the root of a problem throughout our communities and western civilisation as a whole, a problem that Occupy is also attempting to address, the idea that culture and art and politics cannot exist without the need to monetise every action, every dream, every creation.

After the debate I spoke to the actor Tracy Gillman who spoke with greater depth of understanding about Occupy even though she hadn’t yet been there. This artist from the northeast of England seemed to instinctively get what the movement is about. Artists often do, it is perhaps when they become producers or theatre owners and have to deal with the commercial end and how to obtain funding that objectives can become confused.

The Soho Theatre has a great vibe to it and it works brilliantly with helping young writers from disadvantaged communities develop their talents. It is partly the result of Arts Council funding of the kind that is being cut by the coalition government. This kind of funding can and does give many people a chance to grow artistically, and the work of the Soho Theatre is testament to this. But there are many more young (and old) people in the country who, for one reason or another, do not get access to the kind of assistance and guidance that arts funding offers. Once again, we look at society and see a world where the very essence of our communities and its various needs are quantified, budgeted and straightjacketed by commodification.

The nature of arts funding, and funding in general, which does help many individuals and groups of people, seems to me to be affected by a misunderstanding in the highest offices of government, between the need for art to be commercially viable, and the necessity of investing in the creation and development of art which addresses the immediate needs of community life, which need not have any connection to commercial ventures, but the value of which can be measured over years by the evidence of thriving communities.

Our society has to find a way that allows every individual artist or creative group throughout the country who so desires to get the kind of guidance and support that allows them the space and time to produce art that is more than entertainment, art that is intrinsic to the individual and society, that can heal and invigorate communities, without the necessary legal and commercial requirements that inevitably stall the process of spontaneity.

But art will find a way to present itself with little or no funding and when I think of art that irresistibly emerges from the wastage of the Broken Britain of Cameron, Blair and Thatcher, despite these monstrous cut backs in the arts, I am inspired to believe that in this idealistic battle between politics, commerce and the arts, the arts will eventually come out on top. Arts funding does allow a select few organisations and individuals who can negotiate red tape to thrive, and does invest in communities, but the very nature of this system of funding can be slow to recognise and encourage grassroots art to flourish, especially art that has little or no commercial value but which is nevertheless vital to community health and wellbeing.

I think of art and I think of the growing mass of Occupy moments captured on film and photographic stills, the image, for example, of the pepper-spray cop and how quickly the reworking of that image has defined comically and poignantly the truth of the brutal suppression of dissent in the USA. That art was produced out of necessity and, as such, will always retain that immediacy and energetic relevance in a way that commissioned and monetised art rarely emulates. This is not to downplay commissioned art or the skill and mastery of the leading actors and directors, it is an attempt to give greater relevance to the art that emerges from the ground and which is often ignored.

At the same time seeing the disjuncture between the public and parliamentary democracy and the realisation that power structures are the same throughout, we are still left wondering whether Occupy can really be more than just a spectacle and whether it can more closely resemble the Situationist International and its art in provoking those in power to challenge the corruption in politics, and to highlight the tendency common to all humans to succumb to pressure from those who brandish power to keep quiet when we should be speaking out against tyranny and exploitation.

All respect goes to the artistic team who put this play together, the actors who were marvellous and of course, a special thanks to Tony Benn, for being such a consistent voice of integrity over the years and for the pleasure of his company.

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