Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Death of Consensus, by Phil Tinline

A lot of this excellent history of British politics over the past century was already familiar to me. In some cases, that's because I've heard the radio documentaries Phil Tinline has produced that fed into his book; in the latter third of the book, I was sometimes an indirect witness to the things he discusses, as until 2017 I was a parliamentary reporter in the House of Lords.

The wheeze of the book is that Britain has had mass democracy for just about 100 years, in which it has "lurched from crisis to crisis", with decisions and ideology shaped by what people most feared. Tinline explores these nightmares in three weighty instalments: 1931-45 (fascism, bombing, mass-unemployment), 1968-85 (hyperinflation, military coups, communist dictatorship) and 2008-2022 (the crash, Brexit and lockdown).

As well as digging into the history of each period, each section illuminates the next. For example there's p. 268, when in the early 2010s the Conservatives identify ways to win votes in the traditionally Labour-voting north of England. Here we understand from having read the previous section why the mooted "northern powerhouse" fell short of offering an actual industrial strategy: those involved had personal memories of such things falling flat in the 70s. That in turn illuminates recent claims that one party or other will return us to the 1970s, the nightmares still haunting today's political imagination. It's more that supplying the context; you feel the visceral fear.

This is just one of a number of fascinating connections. Tinline also has an eye for telling detail. Not only does he show how the stage play Love on the Dole made vivid the plight of unemployment in the 1930s, but he spots a great example of the disconnect from those in money and power. Having toured the north to great acclaim, the play finally opened at the Garrick Theatre in London on 30 January 1935, but in the programme,

"Opposite a list of the play's settings--'The Hardcastle's kitchen', 'An Alley'--is a full-page ad boasting that the Triumph-Gloria has won the Monte Carlo Rally (Light Car Class)." (p. 51)

I was also taken by the description of Naomi Mitchison's River Court House on "a short, quiet street right next to the Thames, closed to vehicles at both ends" in Hammersmith. Here, guests coming for drinks and to forge a bold new future included Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee, Ellen Wilkinson, Douglas and Margaret Cole, William Mellor, Barbara Betts (later Castle), Michael Foot, EM Forster and WH Auden.

"No ideological cul-de-sac was ever so elegant." (p. 55)

Or there's the vivid portraits of key figures in this densely populated story, such as,

"George Lansbury, the mutton-chopped-whiskered Cockney pacifist, who had long served as the Labour Party's righteous grandpa" (p. 36). 

This deft kind of writing enlivens what could otherwise be a dense subject; a political history that is fun. 

Though familiar with much of the thesis, a lot of the context provided and the details of politics were new to me. There were other things, too. For example, in the mid 1970s,

"To write her early, hardline foreign policy speeches, Thatcher recruited the historian Robert Conquest, a former communist who, in 1944, had witnessed Stalinists promise to uphold Bulgarian democracy, only to destroy it." (p. 201)

I already knew Conquest's name, but as editor (with Kingsley Amis) of the science-fiction anthologies Spectrum, once a staple of second-hand book shops and a formative influence. In them, I first read Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" and Clarke's "The Sentinel", two among so many gems that seemed mad and wild and free. It's strange to look back at the contents of those anthologies now and realise they're on the more conservative side of SF. This book about political nightmares has made me think about the blinkers on dreams.

It's strange, too, to see a reference to the event held in Manchester in June 1968 to mark the centenary of the TUC, in which,

"The Prime Minister [Harold Wilson] joined 100,000 trade unionists for a day of celebrations including a parade, a carnival, brass bands, a male voice choir, primary-school dancers from the Lancashire coalfield, fireworks and a pageant." (p. 149)

Only recently, I was digging through the original paperwork related to this event held in the archives of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. As chair of the guild at the time, former Doctor Who story editor David Whitaker recommended former Doctor Who producer John Wiles as a writer for the pageant. When that didn't work out, Whitaker met with the TUC's Vic Feather (who features a lot in Tinline's book) with Doctor Who writer Mac Hulke, who then produced an outline for the pageant with former Doctor Who story editor Gerry Davis. When the TUC didn't like this and decided to press on without the involvement of the Doctor Who cavalcade, Hulke insisted on still being paid in full - for a script he'd not even written. And he was, after years of disgruntled back and forth. See my book for the whole story.

Anyway. The Death of Consensus is an insightful, enjoyable history that helps to make sense of where we are now. In fact, published in 2022, it finishes on something of a cliffhanger, with Boris Johnson still Prime Minister. I'd be interested to know what Tinline has made of events since publication. We're still caught up in a nightmare but is it quite the same one?

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