Review of ’The Illustrious Corpse‘ by Tariq Ali, Soho Theatre, London
The theme of Tariq Ali‘s new play is the degeneration of the Labour Party. Given that much of it is set in the present and talks about Iraq, it could hardly be more topical.
It begins 20-odd years ago, with a black Labour activist giving a speech outside the South African embassy condemning apartheid. It ends with him as Home Secretary, being murdered by his ’old Labour‘ wife, Desdemona, due to her ’betrayed hopes, lost illusions‘. As is so common, Huntley Palmer Jones joined the Labour Party to bring about reforms for working class people, but the system ended up reforming him into a soulless careerist.
In many ways the play is almost biographical. Although Ali certainly hasn‘t sold out, he has observed many Labour leaders do just that. Peter Hain and Paul Boateng were strong anti-apartheid campaigners in the past, Robin Cook was in CND, Jack Straw and Charles Clarke were both activists in the NUS, and so on. This trajectory is not unique to Britain, as Ali told Socialist Review: ’A lot of it is universal. It applies all over Europe - politicians have moved to the right.‘
What you see in this curious mixture of farce and tragedy is New Labour from the inside, almost in the bedroom. The activist becomes a junior minister, gets a knighthood, and then his NHS doctor wife explains how they drifted apart - ‘He moved on to Transport and helped push through the privatisation of the air traffic controllers. Even the Tories were opposed to that one. Another row. He defended the government‘s refusal to take back the railways from the gangs who prefer profit to passenger safety. Another row.‘
Then came the mistresses and a 12-bedroomed house in Tuscany as a backhander for a ministerial contract to build concentration camps for asylum seekers. Then came Iraq, and she tells him, ’If you‘d walked out when they invaded Iraq I would have forgiven you everything. But no.‘ So she ’appointed [her]self judge, jury and executioner. Just like the United States.‘ In a statement that many can have sympathy with, she wonders, ’Surprise is that I waited so long to execute him.‘
But you also see a few things outside this incestuous little world through video clips - an old speech from Tony Benn condemning war and footage of the great anti-war demonstrations.
There are some nice touches as the plot weaves forwards and backwards over time. But having said that, the central plot line of a Labour activist selling out is a bit predictable, and the anger and confidence of the anti-war movement doesn‘t show through.
For a younger audience seeing how over time an ex-activist whips himself into neoliberal orthodoxy is educational, and even on that basis alone it deserves to travel. A tour hosted by the Stop the War Coalition would go down a storm. As Ali says, ’We have this new young generation that has been politicised by the war, and culture in general hasn‘t responded to this.‘ This is also because of cutbacks in grants since ’post-Thatcherite culture has stopped innovation and experimentation‘.
One of the things which Ali is keen to talk about is that ’Thatcherite views on culture and New Labour ideas on culture are no different at all. The difference is that under Thatcherism there were some elements within the Conservative Party which tolerated that space - under New Labour there is no toleration at all. Everything is market dominated.‘
The play is a searing indictment of the cadaver of New Labour, but Ali‘s view is that the rotting stench which you can smell today has always been there. ’When people say “We‘ve been betrayed,” I say: all that‘s been betrayed are your illusions. To be fair to Blair, he never pretended to be anything else than what he is.‘
Despite all the stench and decomposition, he is not arguing that the nature of the beast is one of terminal decline, since ‘you can hardly say that social democracy is dead with Labour about to win a third general election’. So in many ways Ali is whipping a live organism with his wit and comedy, a beast that has given itself a new mutated lease of life: ‘Social democracy had a certain role to play when capitalism perceived a danger from communism, revolution, or whatever. Once that challenge, real or unreal, went, then capitalism felt it didn’t need to make any concessions whatsoever. Social democracy was the conduit for making these concessions, so it decided to become better managers of capitalism, doing so without sentimentality.’
While the couple at the centre of the play obviously cared about each other for many years, the play generally steers away from easy sentimentality. Despite the intimate setting, Ali is at pains to show that Desdemona did not kill her husband out of jealousy over his affairs, despite all the pressure applied by the police and the prosecuting judge. She argues that you can’t separate the personal from the political, as New Labour and dominant ideology urge us to do every day.
Desdemona wants to be put on trial for murder, and feels confident about the outcome: ‘What if the jury acquits me? Justifiable homicide?’ I think she’d be in with a chance.