The search for Miliband’s megalith

This weekend the new leader of the Labour party will be announced.

This momentous occasion inevitably leads us to recall the demise of the previous leader, Ed Miliband. It seems likely regardless of all that he did during his career in politics, there will be one defining image that history has of him.

It is Ed, be-suited, standing in a powerful masculine pose, surrounded by groupies (aka staff) with a white megalithic limestone block balanced on a blue rusty trailer with words hewn upon it behind him – Miliband’s megalith, the #EdStone.

BBC photo of the monolith and Miliband

The tantalising possibility that this megalith could even have been erected in the garden of 10 Downing Street had Ed won that election in May prompted me to write a blog post on this startling turn of events earlier in the year.

But Ed lost. And the standing stone quickly went missing. It disappeared, a source of increasing embarrassment for all concerned (and some bemusement even before the election took place). What could have been the highest profile urban prehistoric landmark in the UK became an inconvenience. And Ed disappeared as quickly, and effectively.

Heaviest suicide note in history

Private Eye

That lump of stone came to encapsulate the failures and banality of Labour’s election campaign, a metaphor for vacuous sloganizing and box-ticking pledges that few took seriously anymore. Post mortem accounts of the election defeat featured the stone heavily, both as an image, but also as a symptom of a party hierarchy that was out of touch and misguided.

Guardian front cover 4th June 2015

So why re-visit this comical monolith now?

I watched with interest over the summer as Miliband’s megalith appeared again and again in media stories (although the story fizzled out in June), and it seemed to me that the #EdStone became a relic of sorts, treasure to be sought after, the material outcome of a political process, something to be found and analysed. It was a treasure hunt and mystery rolled into one.

Milistone newsclipping

Some of the key themes of the parodies, reflection and comedy searches that have been provoked by this inscribed lump of limestone are drawn from archaeology, not surprisingly given the megalithic nature of this political gimmick and Miliband’s misguided assertion he would erect the stone had he won the election, thus creating London’s newest standing stone.

Allusions to prehistory were easy to make (as I demonstrated in my blog post), and well illustrated by a bizarre poem performed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 news on 8th May 2015 (worth watching).

Labour hoped it would be a hinge stone

many thought it was a henge stone

it was quickly tagged an #EdStone

but now it’s just a headstone

What is a henge stone? Who knows, but the parallel was made by others.

General Boles twitter image
Image posted on twitter by General Boles

It was even suggested in The Daily Mail by unctuous columnist Quentin Letts that if erected in Downing Street, the stone would have become the focus for solstice rituals. With hyperbole and scattergun classical and archaeological references, he ranted:

Now the Downing Street garden would have this Mili-stone, this lump of mad masonry. The plan is said to be still not entirely certain but it will presumably go in one of those flower beds near the back gate where Samantha Cameron plants her aromatherapy herbs and where Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah used to grow vegetables. Will full-breasted Harmanite maidens and fluting-voiced New Labour press officers dance round this stone every summer solstice? Or will it one day be found covered in lichen in some back garden in Doncaster, near rusting prams, discarded lavatory bowls and boxes of never-distributed leaflets entitled ‘The Miliband Ascendancy’?

The ‘Doncaster option’ actually sounds quite realistic in light of what was to follow.

Solstice story
Daily Mail coverage of the standing stone unveiling

The search for the standing stone also had prehistoric allusions, and this had something of a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel about it, in the form of numerous parallels with the closing scene of that film where the Ark of the Covenant was deposited in an apparently infinite warehouse – assumed to be the fate of the #EdStone itself.

millibands-stone-tablet1

newshump image

raiders of the lost ark
A much reproduced image, no doctoring required, this version from The Mirror

The treatment of the stone, hidden away, was one aspect of fascination with the stone. But another was the search for the standing stone itself. This high profile campaign interested me because it had parallels with approaches archaeologists take to the study of prehistoric standing stones – there were attempts to find the source and materiality of the stone and who made it, and a strong interest in the journey it took from unveiling to its current location: where the stone was deposited. In other words, a biographical approach was taken to the #EdStone, with an apparently nationwide fascination with the story of this standing stone from birth to death and everything in between. Even I got in on the act.

letter to labour

This detective work was done by journalists, not archaeologists. The methods used in this piece of research were unorthodox in archaeological terms – multiple phone calls to stonemasons, appeals via twitter and email, interviewing Labour politicians and the establishment of a hotline and rewards for information – but the outcomes are familiar to us. A narrative emerged, clues were uncovered and interpretations made. Suggestions were even made as to how the stone could be utilised if ever found, as if it were an artefact discovered on an excavation that then had to be displayed in a museum.

And most of the time, none of this was taken particularly seriously – this was soft archaeology, tickling the underbelly of the megalith, selling newspapers and filling air time, taking the piss out of Ed and his strange idea.

Radio 4 ad

Some things were a matter of record, such as the amazingly dull location of the press launch of the stone, a car park in Hastings.

Location of the launch
Location of the launch

But much less clear was where the stone was made before it was transported to this banal location. Journalists hit the phones. ‘The Telegraph has contacted more than 50 of the largest masonry firms across UK, none of whom have admitted responsibility for its creation.’ Other newspapers phoned local stonemasons, all of whom denied having anything to do with the manufacture of Miliband’s megalith.

However, after a bit of a search, the makers of the stone were finally revealed – a monumental stone firm based in Basingstone called – believe it or not – Stone Circle.

Stone Circle makers of the EdStone

stone-circle_logoThe megalith is made of limestone, and cost around £30,00o to make (£100,000 according to The Sun). It weighs around 2 tonnes. And the man whose company made it was not revealing much other than he thought it was a stupid idea, but hey, the customer is always right.

The company’s joint director, Jeff Vanhinsbergh, said he was unable to discuss the making of the stone or its estimated £30,000 because he had signed a confidentiality clause with the Labour Party (The Telegraph)

‘I’m sure it wasn’t his [Miliband] idea and he was just doing what his strategists told him. But whoever did come up with the idea, oh dear’ (The Mirror)

The birth of the stone, and its journey to Hastings, was by now a little clearer. But where had the stone gone after its unveiling? Various media outlets reported that it had been taken to London, some arguing this was a response to the negative coverage, others that it was part of a secret post-election erection plan. The Telegraph noted:

It is believed to have been moved under cover of darkness to London, where it would have been within striking distance of Miliband’s Downing Street.

The game was afoot!

Some newspapers had a direct approach, making appeals and offering cash rewards, notably The Sun:

Where’s Ed’s special stone? The Labour party have done a spectacularly good job at hiding the 8ft PR disaster.

SunNation screen grab

Meanwhile The Daily Mail offered a crate of champagne as a reward for information on the whereabouts of this most elusive of standing stones.

In the end, the truth was rather more banal – the monolith had been taken to a grey warehouse in SE London, in an industrial estate in Woolwich. Owned by stone conservationists PAYE, it remained hidden from the sight of journalists, and this seems to have been a temporary resting place only.

Warehouse

Private Eye 1393

Intriguingly, the fate of the stone appears to have been subject to various different plans within the Labour party. An excellent retrospective assessment of the lead-up to the election and what went wrong, which appeared in The Guardian in June 2015, applied hindsight and insider information to provide this definitive overview:

The stone’s demolition, in the event of a Labour loss, had been agreed at the time it was commissioned. After the election, the party drew up two plans for its disposal: one was simply to smash the stone up and throw the rubble onto a scrap heap. The second was to break it up and sell chunks, like the Berlin Wall, to party members as a fundraising effort. The first attempts to destroy the stone had to be postponed when the media tracked its location to a south London warehouse. There are claims it has been destroyed, but even Miliband’s close advisers cannot confirm its fate.

One Edstone, no longer needed

This juicy bit of gossip hints at various possible deaths for this stone, and perhaps it has now been destroyed. This act has already been parodied in this cartoon from the Private Eye.

Private Eye 2

Clearly this could be viewed as a cathartic act for a political party in shock. It was reported in The Mail on Sunday in June that Labour MP John Woodcock pleaded for the EdStone to be taken from its place of storage and “smashed to bits in public”.

The whereabouts of this – perhaps very short-lived – standing stone remains unclear and unknown, rather like the vast amounts of pottery, stone tools and human remains uncovered by antiquarians in the 19th century which were ‘lost’ soon after discovery. Only ever on display for an hour or less, it might even be speculated as to whether Miliband’s megalith ever existed at all in any meaningful form. Because this megalith spent most of its life history being made and being hidden. This is where my clever archaeological parallels fall down, because standing stones in the Neolithic were made to create awe and to be visible to all, not concealed and a source of shame.

The resultant search for the stone came to reflect an archaeological project, with surveys, data gathering, research and digging around. The stone was given a biographical narrative, from birth to (assumed) death. It became an artefact, and multiple meanings and affordances were read into it. It became a focus for forensic attention but was treated with antiquarian disdain. And it interesting to see how often journalists fall back on archaeological tropes and prehistoric stereotypes whenever faced with anything that looks like a standing stone. (Which to be fair I do as well in this blog frequently.) In the end (is this the end?) the story of Miliband’s megalith, the #EdStone, is a warning – this idea did not fail because of the medium, but because of the preposterousness and po-faced nature of what Miliband was doing.

It was all a bit silly really, disturbing given how high the stakes actually were during that week in May – as they continue to be for us all.

matt cartoon

Sources and acknowledgements: much of the information and imagery in this blog was sourced from media outlets and online sources, summarised here (all publication dates are 2015):

Daily Telegraph quotes come from stories published on the 9th May and 16th May. These are the sources of the car park photo and warehouse photos too. The Guardian also had some very helpful stories, not least a summary of the hunt for the stone which appeared on 9th May, but also a very detailed retrospective piece on the lead up to the election, published on 4th June (this provided the Guardian front cover reproduced above). The Sun’s search  for the stone can be found here. The warehouse pic is available widely online, I sourced it from another ‘where is the EdStone’ article from The Mirror; the Indy in front of the stone image came from the News Thump webpage. The cartoons above were sourced from Private Eye (Fountain and Jamieson, Robert Thomson, Mike Williams) and The Telegraph (Matt) – I hope no-one is offended by my curation of various EdStone cartoons here in one place…

 

 

Miliband’s megalith

It is made of limestone, and takes the form of a monolithic beige block, over 2m in height. It sits on some kind of trolley arrangement, and so is presumably portable. There is writing on the stone, starting with block capitals:

A BETTER PLAN.

A BETTER FUTURE.

Below this are six statements which are aspirational and vacuous at the same time. And below that a squiggly signature and a logo.

For the Labour Party.

For Ed Miliband.

It is election fever.

miliband and his megalith

I am describing Miliband’s megalith, or is has become known in the press, ‘Miliband’s manifesto monolith’, and more widely still, as #EdStone in social media. It is a remarkable standing stone version of the successful ‘pledge card’ that characterised the rise to power of New Labour and Tony Blair in 1997. It was unveiled by Ed Miliband itself, with a group of over-enthusiastic flag-wavers, on Sunday 3rd May, just five days before the UK general election. Miliband said of this peculiar gesture: ‘These six pledges are now carved in stone, and they are carved in stone because they won’t be abandoned after the general election.’ He was keen to stress the connection between stone, trustworthiness and promises – Miliband told the BBC the day after its unveiling: ‘Our pledges are carved in stone. I think trust is a huge issue in this election – the difference with our pledges is they are not going to expire on 8 May. We’re setting out promises – they don’t expire on May 8. They don’t disappear’. Although I think the megalith has actually disappeared now,  a wee bit embarrassed.

Picture showing the trolley stone sits on

This is all run of the mill election nonsense of course, but what got my interest was Miliband’s comment that he was prepared to turn Downing Street into an urban prehistory landmark. He suggested that if he were to win the election, he would erect the standing stone in the garden of 10 Downing Street, so he could be held to account or something. Westminster Council has already reported that they would not necessarily allow planning permission for Ed’s erection in the garden of a central London property. Even if planning permission were granted, it seems likely London’s newest standing stone would fall foul of propaganda regulations. The Daily Telegraph reported on the day after Miliband’s announcement that any monolith erection ‘would be likely to fall foul of the Ministerial Code, which bans the use of government buildings for the “dissemination of material which is essentially party political”, sources said.’ As ever, megaliths and politics are difficult to disentangle.

Miliband has laughed this suggestion off since (‘I’m not a landscape gardener’), and most observers have had a good laugh about the whole situation, with mockery commonplace on social media although little of this content (except the image reproduced below) has so far focused on the prehistoric nature of Miliband’s gesture. (Having said that Boris Johnstone tweeted ‘Future archaeologists will gaze with bafflement at this waste of good stone’ and this is perhaps an interpretation of Stonehenge which has not yet been considered).

General Boles twitter image
Image posted on twitter by General Boles

It is difficult to find out much information about the standing stone itself. It is said to be made of limestone and is a harsh block rather than an organic megalith although the base seems slightly rippled and the top cut at a slight angle. It is 8 feet and 6 inches tall (which is 2.59m) and looks to me to be about half of that across (maybe 1.2m). The depth is also tricky to guess, as the stone seems to only have been photographed from the front – to allow it to be a stable megalith it must be at least 15 to 20cm deep. By this estimation, and based on my back-of-an-envelope calculations, the whole standing stone could weigh in the order of 1.597 tonnes. Hence the stone sitting on a rather rusty and crappy looking metal frame which, I assume is a trailer, upon which the stone can be driven about. (Having said all of that, from the pictures I have seen, the stone could actually be an elaborate cardboard cut out for all I know, or may only be a thin slab.) It is not clear where the stone will be stored until re-erected, and may now be residing in a garage or lock-up somewhere.

My superficial analysis of Miliband's megalith
My superficial analysis of Miliband’s megalith

This is all reminiscent of the rather more poetic attempt by Alex Salmond, then Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the SNP, to leave a legacy in the form of a colourful standing stone which was erected in Edinburgh last year. It was unveiled on 18th November 2014, on Salmond’s final day as First Minister, and again ‘sets in stone’ a pledge, in this case paraphrasing Robert Burns:

‘The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students’

Salmond and his stone D Telegraph

This stone sits in the grounds of Heriot-Watt University. It is a rather extravagant monument to Salmond himself, containing a pledge he can no longer deliver, and has elements of the hubris of the Miliband megalith. These are less monuments to political promises, more monuments to the men themselves. Salmond’s stone is known as his Legacy Stone, but Miliband’s version will, I am sure, be quickly forgotten even if does become resident at 10 Downing Street.

Set in stone cartoon The Times
Morten Morland’s cartoon, which appeared in The Times on 4th May 2015

So why do politicians’ feel the need, on occasion, to carve their pledges and policies into stone, and erect them as megaliths? The idea is that these are promises, permanent and impossible to erase, ‘set in stone’. But there is also an unmistakable whiff of prehistoric, shamanic grandstanding in these gestures; politicians do appear to like to be associated with ancient places of permanence, wisdom and solidity. Stonehenge has seen its share of celebrity politician visits over the past year. When Obama visited, he said Stonehenge was ‘cool’. David Cameron remembered trips there as a youth when it was possible to ‘clamber all over the stones’. I have no idea what Nick Clegg said.

Obama at Stonehenge

David Cameron at Stonehenge

Nick Clegg at Stonehenge

Are we fooled by these megalithic metaphors of power and permanence? Do we accept that when a pledge is carved into rock by machine or chisel that it has more resonance and reliability that a promise spoken, a paper manifesto, a ministerial tweet? Would this infamous pre-referendum promise, printed in newspaper form just before the independence referendum in Scotland in September 2014, have really been any more trustworthy or powerful had it been carved on a tablet of stone?

The vow DR front cover

On the eve of the election, voter apathy is high, and patronising gestures like the ‘Daily Record Vow’ and Miliband’s megalith simply reinforce the credibility gap politicians are trying to breach. There is a sort of ‘pledge arms race’ going on here, where promises need to become more extravagant and tangible to be real, and so propaganda tools from the past are used to make this happen – treaties, tablets of stone, modern magna cartas. I fully expect the next election to be marked by promises written in blood on documents made of the leathered skin of ancient prime ministers, or for full scale trilithons to be erected with pledges hanging from them on banners and draped in flags.

The rocks will melt with the sun before politicians start to say things we really can believe in sadly, and the harder they try, the harder the surface they write on, the more like bollocks it looks.

Sources: this post contains a range of images which I have sourced online, most of which – the Stonehenge celeb pics, those of Miliband’s megalith, and Salmond’s stone for instance – are widely available online from various media outlets and newspaper websites.