An Ode to Owen Smith

In 1912, F.E. Smith condemned the Welsh Disestablishment Bill as ‘A Bill which has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe.’  G.K. Chesterton’s famous Antichrist, or the Reunion of Christendom: An Ode punctured his ridiculous hypocrisy.  The BBC recently reported that Owen Smith praised Jeremy Corbyn for helping Labour “rediscover its radical roots” and would offer him the role of President to “speak for the party” to the wider membership. This awoke in me sentiments not unlike Chesterton’s, though my eloquence is less than his.

 

SO YOU’RE IN A GIVING VEIN,

ARE YOU SMITH?

WANT TO PUT YOUR OFFER PLAIN,

DO YOU SMITH?

SO WE’LL HAVE A PRESIDENCY FOR THE PARTY AND WE’LL THEN SEE

ALL THOSE MEMBERS WE’VE RECRUITED QUITE CONTENT TO BE UPROOTED,

WHILE YOU’LL BE THE REAL LEADER, OWEN SMITH.

 

YOU’D LIKE CORBYN TO PRESIDE,

WOULD YOU SMITH?

WHILE THE PARTY YOU WOULD GUIDE,

OWEN SMITH.

TO YIELD UP HIS LEADER’S POWER TO THE MP OF THE HOUR

WITH THE MEMBERSHIP THAT BACKED HIM RALLYING BEHIND WHO SACKED HIM

IS THAT PRACTICABLE THINKING?

REALLY, SMITH.

 

WHEN YOU TOOK BIG PHARMA’S SHILLIN’,

OWEN SMITH,

DID IT ENTER YOUR CAMPAIGN IN

PONTYPRIDD?

WAS THE VOTERS’ MAIN IMPRESSION YOU WOULD KEEP THE NHS ON

DID THEY WANT A COMPROMISER WHO’D BEEN HELPED ALONG BY PFIZER,

DID THEY KNOW JUST WHERE YOU STOOD, OWEN SMITH?

 

WHEN FOR TRIDENT THEY FOUND BILLIONS,

OWEN SMITH,

DID YOU THEN THINK OF THE MILLIONS,

TELL ME, SMITH,

WHO CAN’T FIND THE CASH FOR RENTING WHEN THE LANDLORD’S UNRELENTING,

AND WHO SEE NO COMMON SENSE IN THIS UNUSABLE ‘DEFENCE’.

DID YOU WEIGH THEM WHEN YOU VOTED, OWEN SMITH?

 

ARE THE MEMBERS IN YOUR THOUGHTS

OWEN SMITH?

CANVASSERS, RETIRING SORTS,

ARE THEY SMITH?

NOT REQUIRED TO GIVE THEIR VIEWS, WATCHING MPS HOG THE NEWS,

KEEPING SILENT, UNCOMPLAINING, PUSHING LEAFLETS WHILE IT’S RAINING

DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR THEM, OWEN SMITH?

 

IS IT ONLY YOU THAT FEARS,

OWEN SMITH,

TORY POWER FOR MANY YEARS,

TELL ME SMITH?

IS IT YOU ALONE THAT WORRIES FOR THE POOR AND DISPOSSESSED?

ARE YOU SOLITARY IN YOUR WISH TO REPRESENT THE REST?

IS IT ONLY YOU CAN SAVE US, OWEN SMITH?

 

WHAT’S YOUR CAMPAIGN REALLY FOR,

OWEN SMITH?

IT’S HIGH TIME WE KNEW THE SCORE,

COME ON SMITH!

IS YOUR TALK OF ‘REVOLUTION’ JUST HISTORICAL ABLUTION?

IS THE MEANING OF YOUR FIGHT JUST TALKING LEFT WHILE ACTING RIGHT?

IF SO, YOU WON’T FIND MANY TAKERS,

CHUCK IT SMITH.

 

Martin Upham

 

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WHY I AM NOT CELEBRATING WATERLOO

18 June isn’t a well-known date, for all the efforts of Britain’s Francophobe press, which is celebrating the bicentenary of Waterloo in true apolitical style. Occasionally reality breaks through: it has, for example, emerged that the casualty rate in the battle surpassed the first day of the Somme. Will there be similar same flag-waving on 1 July next year I wonder? Certainly Wellington’s victory was a triumph for combined command not to be repeated until the last half of 1918. Whether this gifted general’s final win puts him in the same league as Napoleon (victor at Toulon, Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino) I leave to the military historians, but squeezing Waterloo into the dreary narrative of ‘our island story’ should not obscure its politics.

Back to the Bourbons

Waterloo was greeted with relief by every crowned head in Europe (bar one) and rightly so. Once confirmed by the Congress of Vienna, it meant the Continental restoration of the ancien regime. These restored (or imposed) tyrants could not of course occupy their thrones with the same confidence as before 1789, but they could still combine to frustrate and suppress popular expression.

A foretaste had come in Spain, theatre of Wellington’s earlier triumphs, where the ludicrous Ferdinand VII had been restored, returning the country to its trajectory of decline: within two decades it sank into civil war. But at least in Spain the monarchy (however undeservedly) truly focused national feeling against the Napoleonic invasion. Elsewhere this was true only of Prussia, and perhaps Russia. Generally Waterloo and Vienna meant that national self-expression and bourgeois right – the political expressions of the Enlightenment – would be subordinated to Order and Legitimacy.

Bernadotte, King of Sweden, was rewarded for betraying Napoleon with the gift of Norway, whose people had to wait a century for independence. When the Belgians were subordinated to the Dutch in an artificially united province the arrangement lasted just 15 years. Poland, dismembered in the 18th century but given cause for hope by Napleon, was redistributed between the restored great powers. Italian self-determination was not even considered: the north (excepting Piemonte) went to Hapsburg Austria, the middle to the Pope and the south to the restored Bourbon monarchy, notable only for its cruelty and stupidity.

Distorting Germany

Prussia which had experienced powerful national renewal under French occupation now had to play second fiddle to a bloated Austrian Empire which, under the preposterous Hapsburgs, spread its ample bottom over most of central Europe. Hapsburg supremacy brought Metternich’s police state and national division. Within three decades this produced the revolutions of 1848, drowned in blood in every country. The flawed liberals of the Frankfurt Parliament might have fashioned an all-German republic; this path blocked, a deformed united Germany emerged in the ugly shape of a greater Prussia with its strutting military caste. This new Germany now excluded Hapsburg Austria, which strove the harder to retain its other territories, suppressing national minorities from Bohemia to the Ukraine. Its final expansionist clutch precipitated World War One.

In France, the restored Bourbons lasted just 15 years, swept away by popular revolution in 1830. It took two more huge revolutions – and several experimental regimes – to restore the republic, France’s proper form of government. In Russia Tsar Alexander, who had once presumed to treat Napoleon as an equal, soon relapsed into mere reaction. The serfs who had saved his throne were not emancipated and he ceased to dally with the Enlightenment. In 1825 he was succeeded by his brother, the noted brute Nicholas I, the very essence of unapologetic reaction.

Britain no exception

And what of Britain? Its huge army was rapidly demobilised with no provision made for their homecoming. Excess labour at home drove down wages sparking successive revolts in the years following Wellington’s triumph. The restoration of the Corn Laws fattened landlords and starved the people into demanding bread and reform. At Peterloo the terrified militia emulated the Tsar’s Cossacks when they freely sabred a peaceful assembly, women and children not excepted. Wellington drifted into Tory administrations, even becoming prime minister during 1828-30. From this position he opposed all change. Only with his removal did the British state begin a process of gradual reform, the very thing it had denied to all the other countries of Europe on 18 June 1815.

President Hollande is unavailable for today’s Waterloo jamboree. He will attend events marking De Gaulle’s defiant speech of June 18 1940. Now that’s an anniversary worth celebrating.

LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE (Lyttleton Theatre, London)

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Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play was part of the great rediscovery of the English Revolution. Nearly a century ago Edouard Bernstein thought it worthy of wider understanding among German socialists. From the 1930s historians like David Petegorsky, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton unearthed the deeds and words of the common people who had ‘turned the world upside down’. Their wartime generation faced a supreme crisis in 1940 and found inspiration from a forgotten English tradition.

Levellers in our time

The post-war generation revived interest in the Levellers, Diggers and others who had struggled to find a democratic and egalitarian way ahead in 1649. Appropriately, a great outburst of pamphlets and events greeted the 350th anniversary of the last stand of the Levellers at Burford and the Putney Debates (convened by the Parliamentary Army Heads after Charles Stuart’s final defeat). BBC Radio 3 broadcast the Debates in 2008, Light Shining was revived by the Arcola Theatre in 2010, 2012 brought to the Hampstead Theatre Howard Brenton’s 55 Days brilliantly juxtaposing Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary will and Charles’s fatuous arrogance. In 2015 the Levellers’ Association celebrated the 400th birthday of the Leveller John Lilburne. Burford’s Levellers’ Day is alive and well, right in David Cameron’s back yard.

Churchill’s play begins with the common people, then turns epic, as Cromwell presides over a generous exposition of key moments in the Putney Debates which occupied several days in late 1648. She boldly uses the protagonists’ own words which in their dramatic impact surpass the words of any playwright. Cromwell’s great foresight in calling for minutes preserved them, notably Colonel Rainsborough’s famous outburst ‘…the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he’. Taken with records of Charles Stuart at his trial and execution a few weeks later we have contemporary expressions from both sides in the first modern revolution.

 

Mental horizons

The second half belongs to the common people. We see Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers setting up utopian communes. Their settlement at St. George’s Hill, Surrey was a political fact. Here the dramatist reaches beyond the records for her characters are mostly fictitious. At Putney, Rainsborough, Edward Sexby (an Army Agitator, or shop steward) and others had called unavailingly for male suffrage. By showing the propertied class crushing the Diggers, Churchill skilfully illustrates that without it there can only be economic continuity. Sadly, we know more of the deeds of these people than we do of their words. In imagining them, Churchill avoids the kind of mistake Shaw would have made, remembering that this is 1648-9. Characters may be creating the modern world but they inhabit a universe bounded by Christian thought. Might a heavenly king might be defeated and deposed like an earthly one? They could not say so. Instead, the Revolution unleashed Millenarianism – anticipation of the Second Coming. As illustrated in Ben Wheatley’s recent film A Field in England (2012), the Left Wing of the Revolution looks superstitiously backwards as well as radically forwards.

England’s Robespierre

Churchill (like Geoffrey Robertson and John Rees in the excellent programme notes) reminds us that even the most radical wing of the revolution did not advocate women’s emancipation. Early on we meet a woman preacher who inspires fear among the common people; later an imagined female character challenges the Diggers’ male-centric universe in words and behaviour. Churchill is also one of many playwrights depicting a stage Cromwell. This complex man is shown attending to the debates with the utmost seriousness, as indeed he did. He was the English Robespierre, recently voted the greatest Englishman. He is a year away from a brutal Irish campaign. We know that he will bloodily crush the Levellers within six months, yet here – surely accurately – we see a revolutionary leader, capable of the boldest deeds yet consulting widely (in his view seeking the Will of Providence) when unsure of the way. 55 Days (another play that hopefully will also be periodically revived) brilliantly explored the paradox of revolution: you have to do the unthinkable to show the future what is possible. In May 2015, after an election chucked away by timidity and lack of vision Churchill’s play reminds us that England too can be radical and that history turns the page on even the blackest defeats.