Politicians: Our Greatest Storytellers?

Scrabble pieces spelling out the words Fake News
Fake News, by Marco Verch. Reproduced under CC BY 2.0 licence.

While “fake news” may be a relatively new term, politicians have long been accused of making-up stories about themselves and their policies. As Durham Book Festival brings several politicians with memoirs to tell about their and others’ time in office, Antony Mullen explores how the literary and the political interact.  

As Leader of the Opposition and as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher carried out a sustained attack on the postwar consensus. The politics of consensus, she said, was the politics of compromise; politicians at the heart of the consensus lacked the conviction she had. But the existence of a “consensus” in the immediate years following the Second World War is highly questionable. In fact, Thatcher was turning history into a convenient story, with herself as its narrator.

Historians debated whether such a consensus existed from the idea’s conception. Peter Kerr suggests that the consensus narrative was born in the early 1980s out of a desire among historians “to portray the Thatcher governments as radical”. My own archival research shows that even former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, considered the high priest of consensus politics, did not recognise the term. In a letter to Thatcher, he placed the word consensus in quotation marks and acknowledged that it was being applied retrospectively – and not with particularly favourable connotations.

More recently, the Manifesto Data Project has mapped out the ideological positions of Labour and the Conservatives since 1945. The findings of this work demonstrate that, while the Conservatives did move to the left in the early 1950s, and Labour followed them rightwards for several years after, there was no “consensus” as such. Even if we could argue that a consensus existed, the analysis (below) clearly indicates that the ideological gap between the two parties widened before Thatcher became leader. Nonetheless, as Tim Bale observes, the “largely discredited” consensus narrative has endured academics’ criticism of it and remains with us.

Left-right position of Conservative and Labour party, 1945-2010 (Comparative Manifesto Data)

In part, the reason the idea that there was a postwar consensus has become such a dominant narrative of the postwar period is because of Thatcher. The historian Bernard Porter stated that in Thatcher, Britain had “a Prime Minister with a very pronounced sense of history” which was “simplistic, at best” but nonetheless served “a purpose: to encourage emulation, point dangers or teach lessons”.

By creating a narrative account of the recent past, and one which explained previous governments’ failings, Thatcher created the conditions for her own political future. In particular, she was able to present herself as a break with a failed political project that had ostensibly culminated in the Winter of Discontent. The nature of her narrative can be understood in relation to Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of equilibrium. Dominic Strinati has summarised Todorov thus:

…any narrative begins with a state of equilibrium or order, which is restored after being disrupted by an event which introduces a state of disequilibrium. The narrative tells the story of how this disruption arises, how it is dealt with and how order is restored. However, since the state of disequilibrium has to be dealt with, the restored equilibrium may have changed to accommodate the problems posed by the disruption.

This is a basic model of narrative, but an effective one which can be easily understood and used to clearly communicate a sequence of events. Thatcher, as Leader of the Opposition, situated herself at the tipping point between disequilibrium and restored equilibrium, emphasising the former and promising the latter. Her Victorian values and the lessons of thriftiness harked back to a time when, in her view, Britain was true to itself. The period which followed, which she deemed the “permissive” society, was presented as one in which these British values were lost. Thatcher, as narrator, presented the Conservatives under her leadership as an opportunity to reverse the nation’s decline and to restore those lost values.

Book covers of three political memoirs: A Woman's Work, by Harriet Harman; Hinterland, by Chris Mullin; Alice in Westminster, by Rachael Reeves.
Left to right: A Woman’s Work, by Harriet Harman; Hinterland, by Chris Mullin; Alice in Westminster, by Rachael Reeves.

But not all politicians are at the forefront of politics and so they must find other ways to intervene in these narratives – either during or after their formation. One way they attempt to do this is through writing biography and autobiography. The 2018 Durham Book Festival sees Harriet Harman, former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, in conversation about her memoir A Woman’s Work (2017). There are also appearances from Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP who has written a biography of her predecessor Alice Bacon, entitled Alice in Westminster, and Chris Mullin, whose memoir Hinterland was published in 2016.

Memoirs and biographies, such as the ones by the three Labour figures appearing at the Festival, allow politicians to write retrospective retellings of stories that are familiar to us. Autobiographies appear to invite us to the heart of an otherwise unknowable political world, offering new perspectives on figures and events we thought we knew; biographies, like Reeves’ Alice in Westminster, bring to life figures that have been overlooked in mainstream historical accounts and ask us to reassess our understanding of past events. In both cases, these forms of political life-writing highlight how the literary and the political interact with one another – and how the public’s understanding of government is shaped through politicians’ storytelling.

Hear from the writers mentioned in this article, and other political and literary figures, at Durham Book Festival from 7th-15th October.

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