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November 15, 2006

Christie Davies sneers at the Labour Party and laughs at the cartoons mocking it: Did Cowards Flinch? A cartoon history of the Labour Party 1906 - 2006 at the Political Cartoon Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Did Cowards Flinch? A cartoon history of the Labour Party 1906 - 2006
Political Cartoon Gallery
32 Store Street, London, WC1E 7BS
4th October - 24th December 2006
Monday - Friday 9am - 5.30pm, Saturday 11am - 5.30pm
Free Admission

Did Cowards Flinch? A cartoon history of the Labour Party 1906 - 2006
by Alan Mumford
London: Political Cartoon Society, 2006
Hardback, £19.99

The views expressed in this review are those of Christie Davies, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

Political cartoons have many appeals. They can aptly and succinctly sum up a political situation in visual form. They can be very funny. They can accurately capture the physical being and even the character of a politician. They can be a work of art. Any one of these makes a good cartoon. Get all four and you have a masterpiece.

The British Labour Party is an attractive target for cartoonists; indeed that is its only attractive feature. It may not have achieved much but you've got to laugh, haven't you Any organisation that could make heroes out of the racist and homophobic Beatrice Webb and the pious, cottaging Tom Driberg, the drab yet self-satisfied Attlee and Gordon Brown and the arch-twisters Wilson and Blair - and I have not even got to the real nutters - has got to be a figure of fun. Yet many of the best cartooning attacks on the Labour Party have come from those on its left who saw it as flinching from complete absurdity.

Let us then consider some of the best cartoons in the exhibition and in Alan Mumford's book, as an adventure in the artistic as well as the social and political history of our country. The prize probably goes to David Low for Congratulations Mr MacDonald on having your free hand in the Evening Standard 31st October 1931 published just after the Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald had split away from his party to form a National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals, a Conservative-dominated coalition that won a huge victory in the 1931 election.

MacDonald had claimed that the obdurate opposition within his own party (from among others Sir Oswald Mosley) to his economic policies had tied his hands and that he needed "a free hand". Low's cartoon shows a small, sharply drawn, easily recognisable and rather frightened MacDonald in black and white with his silly collar and great mop of hair in the middle of a thick crowd of grey, unemphasised, identical men all converging on him. They are nearly all in top hats or bowlers and on the back of each is inscribed "Conservative gain". The one closest to him puts his nose almost into MacDonald's ear and says:

Congratulations Mr. MacDonald on having your free hand.
The others smirk, or at least those whose faces we can see do so. Mostly they are seen as fat backs, shoulders rounded as they lean inwards towards MacDonald at the centre. In the distance the heads of the huge crowd fade into a mass of undifferentiated roundels.

Roundels? Where have their hats gone, you wonder? Who ever heard of an old-style Tory MP going bareheaded or cloth-capped? The shiny topper was a symbol of the uselessness that goes with political power and especially if that power was rooted in aristocratic status, rather like a Chinese Mandarin's long finger nails. Remember those old newsreels of the meeting to decide the Versailles Treaty that run too fast and show Lloyd George, Clemençeau and Woodrow Wilson doffing their toppers to the crowd with quite unnatural speed.

The equally rigid bowler was also a mark of status and of financial probity and was worn by bank managers, like Captain Mainwaring of Dad's Army and Scottish Presbyterian ministers. It told the world that you never needed to run, and would never make off with the till or the collection plate. In fairness, Scottish ministers often attached them to the collars of their overcoats with a ribbon and two studs. Like the kilt the bowler is in danger in a high Scottish wind. It was the smashable stiffness of their headgear that set the wearers of toppers and bowlers apart. You can stuff a cloth cap, a Dai cap, in your pocket when you need to do something energetic where it might impede you. That is why the foreman is often made to wear a bowler in seaside postcards - he's useless and one of them, not us. It's not there for protection. It's not a hard hat, it's a stiff one.

Headgear tells all - Jock in his bonnet, a Sikh in his turban, Noel Annan in his mortar-board, a barrister in a wig, Yasser Arafat in his towel, Kemal Atatűrk in his brimmed Western hat, onion dangling Sioni Wniwns in his beret, a peer in an exiguous coronet, a married woman in a sheitel, Roy Jenkins in his grubby old cloth cap, a yob with his baseball cap worn backwards, an Australian bishop in a mitre with corks. They are or were all trying to tell us something, establishing an identity. It is men's faces you look at first. What's on my head tells you who I am. It is the mark of the decline of the Conservative Party that its MPs have gone hatless. Boris Johnson with his great mop of hair, like Ramsay MacDonald or "Dave" in his hooded anorak like Michael Foot at the Cenotaph - look what has become of them. Only the older stalwarts among the Conservatives, men like Russell Lewis or Barry Bracewell-Milnes, those upholders of principle, have retained their bowlers, their stiff upper hats.

Yet when you look at Low's masterpiece you can see instantly that he is right to draw the Conservatives dehatted at the rear echelons of the crowd of the winners of 1931. The composition demands it. Low was an artist.

A prize must also go to Vicky for his The Anti-Marx Brothers done at a time when Harpo and Chico were starring in Blackpool. Clemo (Attlee) plays a piano marked "Inevitability of gradualness" (as in the Fabian Society named after Fabius Tortus, the Roman crawler) in Chico hat. Herbo (Herbert Morrison) plays "Ode to the Middle Class" on Harpo's harp and Crippso (Sir Stafford Cripps), made rather oddly to look like Groucho, thinks "Consolidation". Poor Vicky (Victor Weisz), a man of immense talent, killed himself at the age of 52 depressed at the failure of his socialist dream to materialise. He really had believed in all that nonsense.

Now we can look back at the secular religion of socialism and speak scornfully of the end of an illusion but in the past there actually were true believers among otherwise intelligent and upright people. They genuinely believed that the Labour Party could deliver a Clause 4 style socialism with a democratically elected Parliament overseeing a planned economy, without capitalism but with individual freedom. It was the fallacy of intelligent design, the opposite of Mr Blair the blind watch maker. Socialism always ends in chaos and tears and then there is a search for scapegoats - hence the title of Alan Mumford's book, Did Cowards Flinch? Low's cartoon of Ramsay MacDonald and Vicky's cartoon of Attlee, Morrison and Cripps - all ministers in the Labour Government of 1945-50 are in that tradition.

On the floor in front of Herbert "Herbo" Morrison is a hooter marked "Give a Hoot". It refers to a now forgotten incident when Emmanuel (wee Mannie) Shinwell, a belligerent pipe smoker who had once punched a Conservative M.P. in the face in the House of Commons, had said provocatively in a speech that he didn't give a hoot for the middle classes. Herbert Morrison mindful that Labour needed their votes, in effect rebuked him - hence "give a hoot" of support for the middle class. The phrase appears again in a cartoon Barnstormers by George Butterworth in the Daily Dispatch 12th January 1950 just before the general election showing Attlee admonishing his delinquent colleagues:

There are your lines - the audience won't let you forget them.
Shinwell cowers and a worried Nye Bevan holds a placard marked "Bah! Tory vermin" his own misjudged contribution to the class and party abuse of the time.

Butterworth did not really capture Nye Bevan's eminently cartoonable appearance. For that we must again turn to David Low's Gone with the Wind, Daily Herald 24th April 1951. A heavy-overcoated, hand tucked under lapel, Bevan is blown away by the wind of money needed for rearmament. Rearmament was to be paid for breaking the principle of an entirely free health service for which Bevan stood, by making the myopic pay for their severely round, small Ford-black NHS spectacles. Likewise at a time when few people retained their teeth beyond the age of thirty, the toothless majority were to pay for their ill-fitting clackers; no doubt they never dared to smile again but to their astigmatic spouses they must have seemed as if drawn by Picasso anyway. Bevan is made by Low to look like a cross between Napoleon and the statue of Stalin in Prague, presumably to emphasise the force of a political wind that can pick up so massive an object, but it is unmistakably him. Elsewhere Low shows Bevan leaning forward bulkily to hit his audience with oratory, a wonderful portrayal of the sheer physicality of the man.

Accurate in a quite different way is Michael Cummings' You Can Trust Mr Attlee in the Daily Express, 16th May 1955. In front as a cardboard cut-out is good old reliable bald Clem with his solid Baldwin-like pipe, his vividly stripy old Haileybury tie and the neat moustache he retained from his time as a Major in World War I. Behind him and peering through the cardboard Attlee's empty eye-slits is the unmistakable face of Aneurin Bevan smiling to himself. The cartoon, rather unfairly, implies that the real power lies with the radical Bevan and not with nice Mr Attlee. Yet although an electoral cartoon by an anti-Labour paper, it is a friendly almost intimate portrayal of the dark eyed, heavy eyebrowed, lucky-haired Bevan.

Looking at the cartoon I realised for the first time the very strong facial resemblance between Bevan and Norman Lamont, now Lord Lamont of Lerwick. It is all there - the dominating eye-brows, the flattish face, the cat-like smile. By chance I met Lord Lamont at a meeting to commemorate Alfred Sherman held on the evening of the day that I had been to the cartoon gallery. With a diffidence and deference verging on the obsequious, I suggested to his Lordship that there might be a resemblance between Bevan and himself. With his usual suave condescension he entertained the point and added that I was not the first to notice it. He had once been stopped in the street by an elderly citizen who had probably seen him on the television, saying:

I've seen you somewhere before. I know who you are. You're Nye Bevan.
It is perhaps a reminder that in the days before television, in the days of radio and blurred photographs in the press, the main way in which we knew what our politicians looked like was through their cartoons.

The cartoons in the exhibition and in Alan Mumford's book are a wonderful way into the political and social history of the Labour Party. Using political cartoons to teach history has been rather discredited by its over-employment by idle instructors who stick them on power point as a way of interesting students who would otherwise be bored by their teacher's lack of personality and who are unwilling and unable to engage with the analytical.

Yet cartoons are vivid, they are memorable and they often get to the heart of the matter. They inevitably show personalities rather than events but a good cartoonist can get through to the event itself. A good example of this is Wally Fawkes (Trog) in the Mail on Sunday in 1981 showing a boxing match between Tony Benn and Denis Healey for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. A wild-eyed Benn clouts Healey. In the background Mrs Thatcher, Woy Jenkins, David Steel and Shirley Williams are all shouting: Come on Tony. In the end Healey won with 50.4% of the vote to Benn's 49.6%, a narrow margin that tells you exactly the state the Labour Party was in. Those cheering Benn were right. How much happier our history would have been if Benn had won and become Worzel's deputy.

There was only one cartoon in the exhibition that brought back an unpleasant memory. It was Marc's (Mark Boxer) simple, accurate sketch of C. A. R. Crosland in his trendy stripy shirt and greasy parted hair. Perhaps unwittingly Marc has captured the entire tense, neurotic bitterness of a man whose dominant emotion was hate. It is done effortlessly with a few lines on the forehead and around the eyes and giving the eyes' pupils of exactly the right size to convey the nastiness within. I only met Crosland once, when he came to speak at the university where I was an undergraduate, but I disliked him immediately. Even from the other side of a table he smelt abominably of stale, as well as fresh, tobacco smoke.

By chance as we sat with him in the Union, Kingsley Amis, then a don, walked past carrying a shopping bag full of heavy, flat, black circular things for playing music, a sort of ancestor of the C.D. I never owned any but I think they were called gramophone records. When he was out of earshot Crosland snarled:

He's finished. He'll never come to anything.
This of one of Britain's finest novelists who had still to write Ending Up, The Alteration and The Old Devils. I instantly realised that all Crosland cared about was ideology. Amis was no longer a man of the left and would soon join that wonderful group of luminaries that included Tibor Szamuely, Robert Conquest and John O'Sullivan. Whatever his gifts, Amis was anathema, a non-person to the bigoted Crosland.

In fairness Crosland was probably also jealous of a man who could write far better than he could. Crosland was an arrogant c*** (his kind of word not mine) with very little to be arrogant about and he lacked the charm that often allows the arrogant to carry it off and be liked as with, say, Richard Crossman.

Crosland was not, as his wild socialist enemies alleged, a right wing influence in the Labour Party. He was intensely left-wing. He merely happened not to believe in public ownership. But he was willing to use the power of the state in a ruthless and autocratic way to achieve that great socialist obsession - equality. He merely disagreed with the leftists about means not ends; he was quite as mad as Tony Benn and far nastier.

It says a lot about the desperation of his supporters that Crosland was portrayed by them, and still is, as a considerable intellectual. He was not. His views on the workings of a capitalist economy were commonplace even then - the mere chit-chat of a Pee-Pee-Ee merchant. He was elevated, to the status of "profound theorist" because those who did the elevating also worshipped at the shrine of equality and his rhetorical tricks with ideological counters had got them out of a hole. To become revered in those circles all you need to do is to produce a piece of equality mongering. He was never even in the same intellectual league as his wise opponent Antony Flew but it was the merely flashy Crosland who garnered devotees.

If ever you think of Crosland and are in a place where it is sanitary to do so, then spit. He more than anyone else destroyed state education in Britain, something which Tony Blair knows (and secretly tries to rectify with his academies) but dare not say. Last week they closed the physics department in my local university. Crosland closed it and in time he will have closed, to use his favourite phrase, "every fucking" physics department in Britain. Equality destroys quality. Equality is the opposite of quality. Equality is quality's deadly enemy.

It is possible to sympathise with the egalitarian views of those who have known hardship when others are comfortable. You can see where Dennis Skinner is coming from, though you can't see where he is going to, since he was due to give the opening speech for the exhibition but failed to show up. When it stinks is when it comes from a sneering public school toff like Tony Crosland or David Cameron. There is nothing more repellent than the arrogant assumption of social superiority combined with a sense of being one of the unco' guid, the bearer of a moral mission.

After seeing Crosland's horrid ghost, it was a great pleasure to listen to the very much alive Neil Kinnock's speech at the launch of Alan Mumford's book, Did Cowards Flinch?, to which he has also contributed a foreword. His political views on Europe and on education are shameful but he proved to be modest, charming and a very humorous speaker. He does not look at all like his cartoon, though it has to be said that one of the best of the cartoons in Mumford's book , drawn by KAL (Kevin Kallaugher) in the Economist 6th October 1984 shows Kinnock as a terrified schoolboy backed into the brickwalled corner of the schoolyard by the shadow of a pick-wielding Scargill.

Kinnock not Blair was the man who pulled the Labour Party back from the brink. He was unlucky to lose in 1992. I was asked in 1992 by the Western Mail to write an article about Kinnock to be published on the day the election result was known. It was to be called Triumph of a great Welsh leader. Fortunately I also filed with the editor another piece headed Kinnock goes down to defeat and this was the one they ran.

Kinnock endeared himself to the audience saying of political cartoons:

When you're not on the receiving end, it's wonderful. Schadenfreude is the . . . strongest emotion known to politicians.
There was laughter and applause. He was one of us.

Kinnock later told me of Nye Bevan's poor state of health when campaigning in the 1959 election (he died in 1960). In one South Wales constituency Bevan had to rest before speaking and was clearly out of breath. He said to those around him:

I can't even blame it on the dust from the pit. I wasn't down there long enough.
Bevan's ability to make a joke against himself at such a time and Kinnock's touching memory of it reassured me that the Labour Party isn't all bad. They are not all like the twisted Crosland. Faced with the prospect of Cameron, I might even vote Labour next time.

My writing of this possibility has brought a smile to the face of my grandfather, David Davies, whose photograph hangs on the wall above the computer. There he is, Dai Pantydwr, coal-miner, trade union official, Labour councillor, a man respected by his voters and his opponents. Appropriately enough, this photograph was taken when he was Chairman of the Board of Governors of the local grammar school. He is sitting in the middle of the governors, holding a large umbrella, which he would have needed as he had walked some distance from the Crwys to Gowerton to get to the meeting. He would have been a competent and vigorous chairman of this meeting held in English, even though it was not his native language and he had left school at 12. My grandfather was one who never flinched. He spoke out against the General Strike, when all around him there was talk of bringing down the government. My grandfather said:

That is for the electorate to decide, not a strike.
It took guts to be a Daniel in Crwys.

My grandfather would have loved these cartoons. And so will you. Enjoy them at the exhibition. Enjoy them in the book.

Christie Davies is the author of Dewi the Dragon, a book of stories set in the former mining village of Pentrediwaith and of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, or how our moral fibre was destroyed by socialism.


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