Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories. Follow @Rakewelltweets.
Last week, Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell used the House of Commons as a platform to quote from that classic 1970s student favourite, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. McDonnell later described the stunt as ‘jocular’, and if it was laughs he was looking for, he certainly got them. The Mao reference provoked derision from his Conservative rivals, while his own party reacted like teenagers exposed to the sight of their parents twerking to Miley Cyrus.
Indeed, those who believe that the current Labour leadership is living in the past may be more right than they think. Just days after McDonnell took his Great Leap Backward, Sotheby’s announced that it is to auction a letter that Mao himself wrote to then-Labour leader Clement Attlee.
The letter, which Mao wrote in 1937, repeatedly calls for Labour (then, as now, in opposition) to provide ‘practical assistance’ to his Communist forces as they battled the Japanese invaders.
It seems the letter may have had an effect, and that Attlee may well have shared McDonnell’s apparent affection for the writings of the Great Leader; in 1950, after Mao had established the People’s Republic of China, Attlee – by now Prime Minister – became the first western leader to recognise the new state. A few years later, the two even took tea together.
McDonnell, who cites the reformer Attlee as an ‘inspirational’ figure, will doubtless be thrilled that the letter is up for grabs. However, its estimate of £100,000 to £150,000 means the cash-strapped Labour Party will need to have a gruelling whip round should it wish to acquire Mao’s missive for use as McDonnell’s next Dispatch Box prop.
In any case, Rakewell strongly advises the Shadow Chancellor to seek some ‘practical assistance’ of his own should he wish to remain in his job past Christmas. Now, what was that Marx said about history repeating itself?
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