The mental image of their fictional meeting would not leave my mind after I watched Kevin Spacey’s remarkable portrayal of the former unfold in the eponymous one-man play Clarence Darrow at London’s Old Vic Theatre on Friday.
The production – which is well reviewed here, here and here, and in which an elderly Darrow looks back on the many victories and tribulations of his long legal career – gave considerable attention to Darrow’s union activism through his defence of the American Railway Union leader Eugene Debs in the 1894 Pullman Strike, and of the McNamara brothers charged with dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, among other famous episodes.
But watching Kevin Spacey portray Clarence Darrow is to see an impassioned and eloquent defence of the rights and dignity of working people that today’s current and recently departed left wing political and union leaders could never hope to equal.
Witnessing the spirit and passion of Clarence Darrow flicker to life on a London stage made it starkly apparent just how close the modern labour movement is to purposelessness and death in the Age of Miliband.
While Darrow in full rhetorical flight could have convinced Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher themselves of the need to concern themselves with the welfare and aspirations of the mother and father working minimum wage jobs on zero hour contracts, today’s left-wing figureheads come across as whiny, self-entitled and spitefully partisan by comparison.
Here are the stirring words of Clarence Darrow in an address to the inmates of Cook County Jail in 1902, the theme of which would be taken up by Ed Miliband and the Labour party in a bold reassertion of conviction politics were today’s labour movement not so politically calculating and intellectually inert:
To take all the coal in the United States and raise the price two dollars or three dollars when there is no need of it, and thus kills thousands of babies and send thousands of people to the poorhouse and tens of thousands to jail, as is done every year in the United States — this is a greater crime than all the people in our jails ever committed, but the law does not punish it. Why? Because the fellows who control the earth make the laws. If you and I had the making of the laws, the first thing we would do would be to punish the fellow who gets control of the earth. Nature put this coal in the ground for me as well as for them and nature made the prairies up here to raise wheat for me as well as for them, and then the great railroad companies came along and fenced it up.
How relevant to today, given the present Labour Party’s focus on the “cost of living crisis” and its apparent determination to freeze consumer energy bills.
But here instead is Ed Miliband warning us of the supposedly mortal threat to the unions posed by David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government, in a typically unmemorable speech to the 2013 TUC conference:
We have a Prime Minister who writes you and your members off. Who doesn’t just write you off, but oozes contempt for you from every pore. What does he say about you? He says the trade union movement is a “threat to our economy”. Back to the enemy within.
Six and a half million people in Britain. Who teach our children. Who look after the sick. Who care for the elderly. Who build our homes. Who keep our shops open morning, noon and night. They’re not the enemy within. They’re the people who make Britain what it is.
How dare he? How dare he insult people – members of trade unions – as he does?
Terrible speechwriting aside, Miliband’s suggestion that David Cameron spends his every waking hour plotting against the trade union movement like a modern-day Iago is patently absurd. While the Conservative Party – as one would expect – raises objections to various union policies and rhetoric and their self-interested leadership, you will search in vain to find any evidence of the prime minister “oozing contempt”.
Ed Miliband (in his halting, aggrieved and ineffectual way) and others try hard to continue the life-and-death struggle narrative laid out by Darrow a century earlier, but the fact that their comments are aimed at a modern British audience – even the poorest of whom likely own smartphones, personal computers and enjoy access to universal healthcare via the NHS – renders them ridiculous.
Where Darrow wore his heart on his sleeve and walked the walk of labour advocacy – foregoing a more lucrative career in order to oppose his old railroad bosses who were oppressing their workers – today’s leaders such as Miliband and his union counterparts often hail from the same metropolitan middle and upper-middle classes who form the middle management and ranks of senior civil servants for whom so many working Brits toil. And what’s more, Labour politicians and the management class now talk and sound alike.
Whereas Clarence Darrow stood firmly for worker’s rights without lapsing into sentimental and unworkable socialism, the response of the likes of Ed Miliband, Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka to our present pale shadow of real austerity has been snarling and misleading hyperbole about the Conservatives “hating” the poor and taking an obscene delight in their suffering.
(It is conveniently forgotten by these anti-Tory crusaders that the suffering was largely created by a gradual bipartisan expansion of the state, and by making so many British people dependent on the government for one thing or another that any retrenchment of spending now has a widespread, painful effect that would not be the case if the government didn’t try to do so much.)
The victories won by organised labour in Clarence Darrow’s day saved lives and liberated millions of people from what William Beveridge would later describe as the five “Giant Evils” in society: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. And they are immortalised in rights and traditions which endure to this day, such as the annual May Day march and rally in London, and the Labor Day federal holiday in America.
The victories won by the left wing establishment of today (and the debauched, rudderless trades union to whom they are captive) are comparatively petty and trivial, and each passing ‘victory’ incrementally serves either to perpetuate inefficient public sector service delivery or entrench benefits for union members at the expense of the ranks of the budding entrepreneur class, the self employed, the underemployed and the jobless.
The union men of Darrow’s America (and their British counterparts) would be horrified to witness the tanned, bloated, self-satisfied swagger of men like Bob Crow, who delighted in tormenting other ordinary working people with their undemocratic strikes in order to preserve the gold-plated salary and benefits of, say, a tube driver on the London Underground who gets paid well over twice as much as a newly trained Private fighting for his or her country in the British Army.
So how would Clarence Darrow feel upon meeting the likes of Bob Crow?
One can only imagine, but in fairness, it is not unreasonable to think Darrow would first feel immense satisfaction and relief that the causes for which he fought have come to fruition and done so much good, not just in the United States but throughout the Western world.
His heart might swell to know that not only have child labour and the exploitative company towns of his day been cast into history, but that the strength of public sentiment stands firmly against multinational companies who try to take undue advantage of lower standards and regulations in other parts of the world – although there is undeniably still much work to be done.
But a man of such conviction as Clarence Darrow would also likely recoil at the nanny-state socialism, self-entitled smugness and the bitter, envious rhetoric of people like Bob Crow and today’s labour movement leaders, who have casually sauntered in his hard-fought footsteps across what is now much easier political terrain.
And a final bold prediction: A century from now, in the year 2114 – no matter how much the current generation of labour leaders try to portray themselves as intrepid generals locked in an ongoing epic battle for the rights of the downtrodden and the dignity of man – nobody will spend hours queueing for return tickets to a play honouring the life’s work of the likes Ed Miliband, Bob Crow or others of their calibre.
Truly great women and men like Clarence Darrow fought and won ninety percent of the battle before today’s privileged, metropolitan, self-appointed guardians of the common man ever picked up a protest placard or stumbled into their first Labour Students Society meeting.
Clarence Darrow finishes its run at The Old Vic Theatre tonight. Kevin Spacey also portrayed Clarence Darrow in a PBS biopic movie of the same name, the climactic speech of which is shown above.
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