Ed Miliband channels David Hare’s The Absence of War

by Stephen Tall on November 5, 2014

In 1993, David Hare’s play The Absence of War was premiered. It tells the story of George Jones, a Labour leader who, “smothered and constricted by his cautious advisers” (to borrow from Wikipedia) loses his sense of self, of the talents that propelled him to the top.

For Jones read Neil Kinnock. But also perhaps read Ed Miliband.

This week’s New Statesman lays into the man they helped propel into the leadership:

At present, he and Labour seem trapped. … Labour wins well when its leader seems most in tune with the times and can speak for and to the people about who they are and what they want to be in the near future: Attlee in 1945, Wilson in 1966, Blair in 1997. … He needs to find a distinctive voice to articulate people’s feelings about the present moment.

It’s that sense of being trapped and voiceless which Hare’s play captures. Jones/Kinnock/Miliband was played by John Thaw in the 1995 BBC adaptation. I watched it at the time, and this moment (from 1:06:30) — inspired by the catastrophe of the Sheffield rally — has always lived with me.

In part, because it’s everyone’s worst public speaking nightmare. Mostly, because it’s the realisation that, by conforming to what you think’s expected of you, you forget how to be yourself.

When Ed Miliband won, Neil Kinnock declared “We’ve got our party back.” Perhaps. But it seems to be the party of 1959, 1979 and 1983. And that’s the problem.