One of the better plays at the National Theatre in recent weeks has been about a 21st-century banker, Judy, who quits her job to become a 1950s-style housewife. In Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling, Judy ditches her corporate wardrobe for a kitchen pinny and feather duster. She could have stepped from the Good Housekeeping domestic guide my mother was given after her wedding in 1954. Judy scorns modern technology and she dislikes coarse language. She is, at initial view, a faux-nostalgic figure, to be mocked. Yet the word used for her stance is ‘rebellion’ and by the end of the play she may, to a small extent, have made us re-examine today’s assumptions about work and happiness.
Judy, though slightly mad, is fresh. There hasn’t been anyone like her in recent drama. A grim orthodoxy has descended on the modern stage. Its characters largely eff and blind, marinaded in metropolitan sarcasm. They are as predictable as were the characters found in British drawing-room plays in the mid-20th century — until John Osborne’s angry young men brought revolution in the 1950s.
It would be excessive to call Laura Wade’s gently satirical play revolutionary but it certainly shows a character who dares to be different and question modern manners. There is a lesson here for Westminster politicians. Although MPs and party strategists often endorse ‘change’ as an electoral slogan, few behave in a way that is remotely rebellious. God, they’re dreary.
One of the more boring things they do is speak up against long-defeated problems. They ‘boldly’ embrace anti-racism. With quivering lips they assert belief in equal pay, horror at female genital mutilation, indignation at sexual abuse. The electorate thinks, ‘Well, yes, of course, we know that’ — and concludes these politicians have nothing new to offer.
This is not to say that racism, unequal pay, sexual abuse, etc. do not exist to some degree, but politicians should not think they will convert the public by trotting out such truisms. Similar points can be made about literary prizes that select winners from long-favoured minorities, or quangos that fret over diversity, or national broadcasters who proselytise about the virtues of the NHS. Once-rebellious positions have become the established view. Worthy but done.
Theresa May flopped in last year’s general election with her ‘strong and stable’ spiel because almost half of voters wanted someone more exciting. Tory grandees thought they had been terribly clever making such a pudding their leader. If Tory activists had been given a choice between Mrs May and Andrea Leadsom (whose campaign for the leadership was aborted after a Times front-page attack), they quite possibly would have picked Mrs Leadsom. I suspect she would have been an improvement on the Glumbucket.
Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies are daft but he does radiate rebellion. Many voters last year thought: ‘At least he’d give the establishment a kick up the arse.’ A less rebellious centrist would lack that electoral appeal. Mrs May would probably have fared better against a Labour party led by Owen Smith.
It may be painful to say this but I don’t suppose the anti-Semitism row has done Mr Corbyn much harm with voters who find current politics formulaic and tedious. Ethnic grievance rows are decidedly modern-establishment. Voters quite possibly prefer a politician who refuses to jump through the well-worn hoops of apology and confected contrition. They might be more likely to support one who refuses to comply with the norms of political behaviour.
Wiping that smile off the system’s chops: the 2016 Leave vote was in part a result of that. The more that Whitehall, Remain MPs, the centrist media and their patsies in the citadel refuse to accept the Leave vote, the longer that Brexit will retain its premium of rebellion.
The centre still thinks that rebellion means standing up for egalitarianism/modernism/social liberalism — the sort of ideals sketched in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’. Sir John Lennon he would have been by now — maybe even Poet Laureate. Mind you, his skill with rhymes might have damaged his chances. Today’s top poets don’t chime. It’s a crime.
When Anglican vicars wring their hands about food banks and the rise in the number of tramps, few of us listen because the record is stuck. Find a new angle of attack, reverend. Why not, for once, stand up for taxpayers and attack the immorality of habitual beggars who refuse to work? You might find that packs your churches.
When art galleries push the abstract on us, we don’t stop to think. It’s vieux chapeau. When Radio 3 assails us with plinkety-plink modernism, we don’t bubble with artistic challenge. We yawn and switch to Classic FM. Tattoos, once rebellious, are now so widespread, it’s actually more exciting to see a person whose skin is un-inked.
In politics, the rebels are not only Corbyn and John McDonnell and their smoulderingly nasty anti-Semites but also Jacob Rees-Mogg with his pukka politeness, Boris with his non-PC wisecracks about burkas, possibly Ruth Davidson (bouncily rebelling against the Scots Nat government in Edinburgh), and to some extent Sajid Javid with his stance on capital punishment.
Nigel Farage remains the great rebel, benefitting from the establishment’s continued, bubble-blowing sulk about Leave. But how few of these rebels there are. It’s amazing how bad our politicians are at feeding the public’s hunger for something different. Instead they just drone on, serving up the same old, same old, in phrases and cadences as stale as last month’s bread. And they’re surprised no one is buying.