The secret fantasies of the political classes

Pulp thrillers by MPs reveal something disturbing about Britain’s political unconscious, say Nicola Allen and Aidan Byrne

January 8, 2015

Source: BBC

Political acts: House of Cards (above) and A Very British Coup reveal their writers’ different views on the individual’s will to power and the will of the people

Politicians’ novels are the secret fantasies of a class that despises the democratic process for blunting the will to power

“When I want to read a novel, I write one,” asserted Benjamin Disraeli. Since then, parliamentarians prominent and obscure have produced a flood of novels, traversing the professional boundaries of art and politics – Chris Mullin describes himself as “author, journalist, politician” and even judged the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Yet it is the generic and aesthetic character of their output that tells us something significant – and disturbing – about Britain’s political unconscious. Most are now thrillers or murder mysteries, wrapped in glossy jackets adorned with stocking-clad legs and embossed gold lettering, promising sex and violent death.

The murder rate is comparable to Morse’s Oxford or Midsomer. Imagined MPs are far more attractive than watching Prime Minister’s Questions would suggest. Labour politician Helen Liddell’s Elite (1990) charts the rise and fall of Ann Clarke, Scottish Labour MP and Trotskyist-CIA double agent. Its opening locates the origins of political authority in primal urges: “Tall, with a rich fall of auburn hair, she strode loose-limbed as an athlete. Dressed in silk, simple, expensive, sexy and elegant; this woman, they said, had everything. Now she reached out for what she most wanted – power.” Elite depicts a corrupt and corrupting sex-mad political world, divorced from the moral codes that supposedly underpin political discourse.

Paranoia about the allure of corruption stalks the genre from the start: in 1796, Matthew Lewis (MP for Hindon in Wiltshire) wrote The Monk, a Gothic tale of obsession, murder and necrophilia climaxing with a guest appearance by Satan himself. An innocent believer is turned into a devil by the revelation that the holy organisation to which he dedicated his life is flawed. How far did Lewis have to look for a model of a system designed to turn a saint into a sinner?

In the era of professional politics, legislator-authors have been overwhelmingly Conservative. Moral corruption and crime are excused if they further the interests of the enlightened political class or if they are sufficiently flamboyant, such as those depicted in Conservative Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards series. The message of such thrillers is clear: those wielding and indulging in power are exempt from bourgeois morality. If power corrupts then we, as readers, have simply to trust that our hero will prove himself greater than – though not necessarily morally superior to – the masses.

Why are politicians drawn to writing pulp fiction? They are attracted, it seems, to a fantasy political world in which animal instincts are given free rein. Conservatives seem at ease with the classically individualist nature of the novel: heroic characters grapple for dominance, often against the deadening hand of the party or governmental machine. Their sexual drives demonstrate a Nietzschean will to power that both fascinates and repels: Dobbs’ Francis Urquhart (“You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment”) may be an anti-hero, but that’s better than not being a hero at all.

Some Labour authors follow a similar formula. Mary Hamilton’s Murder in the House of Commons (1931) expects readers to approve of two MPs who cover up a colleague’s murder of a blackmailing prostitute. Yet the Left’s ambivalent feelings about the state, which (they assume) subverts the inherent egalitarianism of the people, is often expressed in the form of conspiracy thrillers. A good example is Mullin’s A Very British Coup (1982), in which Establishment cynicism subverts the will of the people in the interests of realpolitik. Illicit sex in these novels is often a sign of moral failure.

Politicians’ fiction is often strangely perfunctory in its style and plotting, attempting to engage the reader through inside knowledge rather than literary skill. Conservative Julian Critchley’s Floating Voter (1992) features a politically ambitious woman who is murdered and left floating in a deck chair under Brighton pier on the last day of the Tory conference. Yet stereotypes swamp any sense of atmosphere or emotional range. When the body is discovered, we are told only that “one of the wives started to cry”. As in much genre fiction about detectives or spies, we are presented with simplified and emotionally detached central protagonists – here usually fighting a charismatic foe who has conned the electorate – rather than more complex character studies.

Such genre conventions appeal to authors with simplistic views of human existence and society. Heroes put the world to rights through dramatic action. Real-life politicians, however, cannot, so the choice of genre can easily be seen as wish fulfilment. James Bond possesses a kind of exhilarating absolute agency, whereas modern politics is often boringly technocratic. In Floating Voter, the protagonist, Joshua Morris (MP), turns to sleuthing because “the Cabinet seemed to him to have a reputation of worthiness verging on the dull”. These novels feed and are fed by an anti-democratic discourse that regards the mechanics of democratic politics as moribund because it denies politicians heroic agency.

MPs spend much of their time sitting in depressing rooms doing detailed, patient work: helping constituents with benefits or examining treaty clauses. Negotiation, compromise and incremental – perhaps invisible – change are the order of the day. Rarely does an MP get to strike a Churchillian pose, and those who do (Enoch Powell, Michael Gove or Nigel Farage) often end up sounding demagogic, dangerous or ridiculous. It is no wonder that politician-authors fantasise about pushing their rivals from roofs or seducing their enemies in order to save the nation. Douglas Hurd’s “tartan terrorism” novel Scotch on the Rocks (1971) imagines a Soviet-backed Scottish liberation army fighting an (ultimately doomed) civil war, secretly led by the British Army officer tasked with defeating them, Colonel Cameron. At no point does the democratic process influence the political settlement, which leads to an independent but non-socialist Scotland.

This may further explain the generic differences between the rarer Labour authors and their Conservative counterparts. The former long left the streets behind, but they are often trained in community or trade union work and so remain largely collectivists, used to undertaking unheralded committee work to achieve progressive aims. Conservatives, however, tend to have a more individualistic view of the human condition. Life, their novels assert, is nasty, brutish, competitive and short. Great Men and – very occasionally – Great Women employ charismatic, sexual and violent means to move the world and resist the tide of civilisational entropy, even if doing so requires morally questionable behaviour. The future is not forged consensually in Westminster committee rooms, but in the bear pit of PMQs, on the PM’s rug or on the rooftops of Westminster.

In short, there is a reciprocal relationship between the cheap thriller and the neoliberal political imagination. Politicians’ novels are the secret fantasies of a class that despises the democratic process for blunting the will to power. For Lewis, early in the novel’s development, “Man was born for society”, but in Jeffrey Archer’s Sons of Fortune (2002), a coin toss decides the result of a tied election in favour of the “right” candidate. This climax undermines the legitimacy of democracy by implying that fate and destiny are not just more dramatic but more reliable than the electorate when it comes to choosing our leaders.

In 1966, US senatorial candidate Dick Tuck conceded defeat with the words “the people have spoken, the bastards”. It’s hard not to see the politicians’ addiction to the thriller as an expression of frustration and disappointment in their electorates. Much ink has been spilled of late bemoaning the voters’ disenchantment with democracy. On the evidence of their novels, it seems that our representatives are feeling much the same way. If we view politicians’ fictions as an expression of the beliefs repressed in their daily lives, we can detect frustration, hatred and resentment of the democratic chains the system drapes around soi-disant heroes – on the page and in the Chamber.

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