Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) was the most important figure in modern British theatre, though you may never have heard of him. He left school at 14, became a professional actor, and gravitated to the pioneering theatre clubs of the late nineteenth-century theatre.

These theatre clubs had various functions, including the circumvention of censorship, since plays performed for a private club did not require a license from the Lord Chamberlain. Some of them, such as J.T. Grein’s Independent Theatre Society (1891-97) were concerned to stage new plays that wouldn’t get a license because of their subject matter (Grein put on, e.g, Ibsen’s Ghosts, which deals with hereditary syphilis, and Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses). Others sought to air non-commercial approaches to drama. William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society, for instance, was devoted to performing Shakespeare in productions that stripped away nineteenth-century pictorial and historicist realism in order to get back to Shakespeare’s fluid, relatively simple staging. Barker played Richard II for Poel, and in 1899 he was a founder member the Stage Society, the successor to Grein’s Independent Theatre. Continue reading


Parliament has always been part of English drama. Intriguingly, the N-Town Plays – a collection of mystery plays performed in the second half of the 15th century – include The Parliament in Heaven and The Parliament in Hell. The parliaments in question are celestial fora in which allegorical figures such as Truth, Justice and Mercy debate the fate of humankind.

The idea of Parliament as a corporeal political institution is discernible in William Shakespeare’s History Plays (1590s) but only partly so. Perhaps the most parliamentary of these plays is Henry VI, Part 2 (1591), which includes references to the 21 parliaments summoned during this monarch’s reign. Although Shakespeare is sometimes seen as anti-democratic, there is a curious tension in this play between Parliament’s role as an institution of government and its potential as a voice for the people. ‘Away, burn all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be the parliament of England’, says Jack Cade, the leader of an unsuccessful peasants’ revolt (Act IV.iii). Continue reading

Ellen Meiksin Wood

Ellen Meiksin Wood

As I walked down Torrington Place towards the Birkbeck College campus in eager anticipation of a very special symposium, I was suddenly struck by the immediacy of the crowds surrounding the Bloomsbury campuses in preparation for that day’s student protest against the attack on the rights to education for all. The current Tory government’s fanatical pursuit of austerity politics – in which the dominant, de-politicised metaphor of the ‘household budget’ – is being challenged head-on by students, a frustrated and angry global citizenry, as well as the recent resurgence of left-wing politics within the Labour Party itself. And it is because of these diverse social forces that the empty rhetoric of austerity economics is being shifted back onto the terrain of political contestation. Continue reading

Credit: Policy Exchange (https://www.flickr.com/photos/policyexchange/)

The Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life welcomed author and journalist Polly Toynbee to the Keynes Library yesterday, where she appeared in conversation with Birkbeck Professorial Fellow in Politics Tony Wright.

The wide-ranging talk, which was followed by a Q&A with the audience,
mixed biographical detail with political insight, covering Toynbee’s education, early work experiences and the effort behind writing two columns a week. It also addressed the challenges facing the Labour party in upcoming votes in London and Scotland, and the pitfalls for the Yes campaign in the EU referendum.

Continue reading


John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor and former Birkbeck student spoke to staff and students at an event organised by the politics department. He was questioned by Joni Lovenduski over gender representation and came out in support of legislative quotas for women and job shares, though he challenged the ‘19th century’ idea that the top Shadow Cabinet jobs such as Foreign secretary were still the most important. He acknowledged that the Parliamentary Labour party was not wholly in favour of its new leadership but promised that the party would remain a broad church and democratic, with space for dissent and different views. The new activists who had joined since September, he hoped, would radicalise the party.

In answering to Dermot Hodson’s questioning on political economy issues, he discusses the U-turn over George Osborne’s Fiscal Charter in terms of the time pressures of taking office and the urgency of repositioning Labour as the party of anti-austerity in spite of short-term costs to economic credibility. In answer to Hodson’s question about the EU referendum, McDonnell said that Labour would be entering the Brexit debate on its own terms, including through cooperation with other parties on the European left. When asked by Ben Worthy inspirational figures he name checked, unsurprisingly, the great 1940s Labour reformer Clement Attlee but, less expectedly, the artful balancer of the 1960s and 1970s Harold Wilson. He was less convinced when Alex Colas asked him for his most admired Conservative leader. He argued that, amid the political ‘insurgencies’ of Left and Right the rules of political leadership had now changed.

There were then searching crowd-sourced audience questions on a whole range of topics, from whether Labour could build a winning electoral coalition to dealing with rebels, press regulation and sacrificing principles for power. He argued that a winning coalition did exist among the majority of anti-conservative voters if the message was right, but felt the first round of elections in Scotland, London and local government in May 2016 may be tough. Party rebels [which McDonnell and Corbyn used to be] would face a barrage of ‘tea and sympathy’ and the public would be reached not through the main stream press but on the stump and through social media. He suggested more change was coming, supporting a PR elected House of Lords of the regions and initiatives around national savings bank and a series of gender based policy reviews.

John McDonnell was an MSc. student at Birkbeck between 1978 and 1981 under the great Bernard Crick, before entering politics and becoming Deputy Leader of the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone and standing for Parliament in 1997. Studying politics at Birkbeck had given him a rounded, deeper understanding of politics and, he said, a fear of essay deadlines.

To hear more listen to the podcast here http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/11/in-conversation-with-john-mcdonnell/


‘Fighting for a Place in Parliament: What is it like to work for an MP?’
An evening with Robert Dale
16 November 2015, 6pm
William Harvey Room, British Medical Association
Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9JP

Thousands of people apply to work in MPs’ parliamentary offices every year. Why? Because they want to operate at the centre of British politics and are drawn by the sense of power, history and importance of the House of Commons. They want hear words they’ve written read out in the chamber, or see them printed on newspaper front pages. Many want to make a difference to society. Some see the role as the first step to becoming an MP themselves, and others as the beginning of a successful career in lobbying or communications. Robert Dale – author of How to Be a Parliamentary Researcher – will explain all.

Join us on 16 November 2015 for a special event that will explore how to get a job working for an MP in Parliament, how to perform a role that is unique to each MP and, perhaps most importantly, how to survive the long hours, stress and emotional demands.

Admission is free but tickets must be reserved here:


In Conversation with John McDonnell 5th November 2015, 6.30pm 

Labour Shadow Chancellor and Birkbeck alumnus John McDonnell will be speaking at Birkbeck on November the 5th. He will draw on his long career and experience of more than 18 years in Parliament to speak about his politics and current plans before opening up to a Q and A session with staff and students. This will be a unique opportunity to hear from one of the most important new figures in the Labour party and British politics.

Admission is free but it is necessary to reserve a place at


Parents wishing the best for their offspring were once able to buy the hefty Encyclopaedia Britannica in WH Smith stores. It wasn’t cheap for the 28-volume set. With the best binding option the complete set was priced – for Christmas 1983 – at £3,000. That equates to more than £9,400 today. It only sells EB‘s yearbook now and is currently 35% off list price, at £47. The discount is applied, I guess, as it’s last year’s edition, which actually records events of 2013. In the age of 24/7 news, two-year-old recaps are ancient history. Continue reading

Crisis is a term that has come to define, almost exclusively, how we think and talk about the European Union (EU). It is hard to remember a time when European integration was not seen to be in crisis, from the turmoil over the European Defence Community in the 1950s to the political fallout over the failed European Constitution in the 2000s. The EU’s crises are, on occasion, constructed, by policy-makers who use the last chance saloon of EU summits to talk up the costs of failure and bring attention to their own starring role in brokering a solution. This does not mean that the perceived crises facing the EU aren’t also very real in some cases. EU policy-makers’ capacity to deal with policy problems can have profound implications for people’s livelihoods and their levels of trust in the European project. Nowhere more so than in the case of two of the most important challenges facing the EU at present: Grexit and Brexit. Continue reading