The Remains of the Day released in 1993, directed by James Ivory and starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, is a meandering wistful evocation of class relations of patronage, obedience and restrained resentment seen mainly through the eyes of Mr James Stevens (Hopkins) the butler at Darlington Hall. Set in the 1950s, the film follows Stevens after he receives a letter from a previous housekeeper at the Hall (Thompson), and borrows the new owner’s Daimler to drive down to the West of England to meet his old colleague. The lines of the plot unravel through flashbacks as Stevens remembers his time as loyal servant at the Hall, which include the inter-war years when Lord Darlington dabbled in Nazism, an error of judgement which led to the eventual destruction of his former master’s reputation and career.
The two threads of the film are packed with motifs of reminiscence on the one hand, as Stevens looks back at his life as a functionary in the great Hall, and decay on the other as we see England conjured into his memory at the very moment that it fades from old aristocratic power. The film, rather unsuccessfully, traces elements of the 1989 book by Kazuo Ishiguro who condenses a representation of peculiarly English class servitude into the figure of the butler, a figure who adapts himself to the whims of his masters and learns to bend to the rules while finding little spaces in which he can find some dignity while still being governed.
The book and the film are more about what has been and gone, the lines of regret and the comfort that comes from remembering the little gains that were made, than about what might be possible. Reminiscence in the film is as much about self-deception – the covering over of the moments in which Stevens collaborates with his employer when he agrees to dismiss some Jewish maidservants, for example – as it is about the attempt to come to terms with what has actually happened. In this way the film is about being English and of Englishness as a condition for boring good behaviour, fitting in as the condition for being fitted up and so eventually being unable to resist. And so it is with the trap of reminiscing on the left.
The Socialist Party of England and Wales members usually prefer the more respectable acronym SP – say it fast as ‘espee’ – to the more down-at-heel and rather unappealing ‘SPEW’. They have a sorry history of oscillating between ostentatiously playing at being ‘workers’, proclaiming that their elected representatives take only the national living wage home with them (popping the rest of it into the party’s coffers, then to be poured into the full-time apparatus and lost election deposit payments), and wanting to be taken seriously as having policies that will manage the economy well enough to keep Johnny foreigner out; free movement of capital is one thing, but when it comes to election or referendum time they effectively side with capital and complain about the ‘free movement of labour’.
Their loyalty to the British state and willingness to pander to little-Englander politics flows directly from their many years embedded in one of the most efficient help-mates of imperialism, the social-democratic Labour Party. Once upon a time the British Section of the Fourth International (FI) as the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) dating from 1956, they began their journey into loneliness (and now they are well known for refusing to engage in solidarity campaigns they do not control) as ‘entrists’ in the Labour Party in 1964, putting into practice a policy flagged by their leader Ted Grant five years earlier.
They were so loyal to the Labour Party even then that they supported the expulsion of members of the Socialist Labour League (which went on to become the Workers Revolutionary Party) in 1959, something that soured its relations with the FI). During years of patient work in Labour Party ward meetings, they burrowed away into the host party flogging the very boring and distinctively shiny bright orange mast-headed ‘Militant’ newspaper (and from then on known as the ‘Millies’). That was until they came a cropper after fumbling their management of Liverpool City Council (where they controlled the local Labour Party) and then declaring that it was time to go in their ‘Open Turn’ of 1991, a turn from which they emerged blinking into the light as SPEW, spewed out.
They never recovered from the glory days of Liverpool, and it is true that the Militant Labour councillors put up a brave fight against government cuts, attempting to balance the budget and save services in the face of threats to prosecute them. And they never recovered from the very bad tactical mistake of dismissing council employees, shuttling around the city in taxis to deliver the bad news while promising reinstatement immediately afterwards. They played the game, and failed. What could they do? But instead of an honest balance-sheet of the successes and failures, they wallow in what they wish had been and deny any responsibility for their mistakes.
Ted Grant, unwillingly, it should be said, passed the baton to Peter Taafe, landing a juicy future double-role for Anthony Hopkins. Taafe now runs the SP, with Hannah Sell as deputy leader (our Emma Thompson), as well as its Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition front-organisation from north London (the SP is last man standing in TUSC after the SWP decamped in 2017). And, predictably for a British group with any pretensions to equal status in the far left, the SP runs its own ‘international’, the Committee for a Workers’ International which chips off sections every now and again from rival pretenders to the heritage of the Fourth International, and loses sections just as fast when comrades around the world realise that Taafe much prefers the ‘centralism’ to the ‘democratic’ parts of a revolutionary party. Taafe can sometimes suddenly turn into a grumpy old butler, and expelled most sections of the CWI in 2019, leading a group in Britain allied with the majority to break away and form Socialist Alternative.
Those long years inside the Labour Party sure left their mark, and the ‘Millies’ could always be quickly detected by way of their habit of repeating the formula that an ‘enabling act’ would bypass the attempts of the capitalists to make the state work for them and so allow a Labour government elected on a ‘bold socialist programme’ to nationalise the top 200 or 250 or 400 monopolies (or whatever their favourite number was that month). There is that, and their habit of insisting that comrades read the Financial Times to discover what the capitalist class was thinking and so reel off lines of economic statistics, to mind-numbing effect in public meetings. Lower level members shook their hands up and down, chopping the air as they spoke in deadening monotone correcting each other about the latest financial data gleaned from the FT, middle cadre reached arm to waist with more velocity as they harangued a meeting, but it was Ted who provided the model, a living windmill who mesmerised annual conferences of Labour Party Young Socialists during the Millies’ years of pretend power.
Other distinctive Millie political lines followed faithfully from their assigned role as a very English little party. On the question of Ireland, for example, they quickly adapted to the Labour Party view of the northern six counties of Ireland as being part of the UK, and argued for mobilisation of the loyalist working class as members of the British Labour Party (and, of course, if at all possible, as members of Militant and then SPEW). They also had a fond spot for the English nuclear family, perhaps another effect of remaining so long as butlers inside the great hall of social democracy, waiting for their chance to get into the master’s bedroom and find the enabling act. And so they were very unimpressed with uppity groups like feminists or Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, arguing that homosexuality was a symptom of decay. It was, at those moments, as if the good old red, white and blue-blooded aristocracy was better than pink degenerate capitalism.
Now SPEW, which had a central committee consisting entirely of full-time paid workers, until it ended the contracts without pay of those who went with the rival CWI which renamed itself International Socialist Alternative, ISA, in 2019, is really a party of butlers who are dependent on their masters for their living and so anxious to twist and turn to the latest line. Every British left group is afflicted with the pull of the past, repeating stories about the good old days, but SPEW is a special case. Please God that the British breakaway group Socialist Alternative, adherent of the ISA, does not simply follow in their footsteps.
Whenever we read copies of the outstandingly dull ‘The Socialist’ and the interminable references to the brave battle for Liverpool we are haunted by the dead-eyed face of Stevens the butler reminiscing about the past and going nowhere with it, apart from a futile nostalgic road-trip around old England.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.