Thursday, April 08, 2010

On Being A Political Writer

If pushed, I would always describe myself as a political writer, though it's a bit of a moot point - people only ask when you get published, and to be fair, most of the stories and poems I've had published aren't, on the surface, at all political, that's tended to come in my longer works. I was tempted to start a new blog to talk about the election, but one day in and I'm already a little bored and frustrated. ("Gordon? Is it fair to say the business leaders were deceived by the Tories?" "Yes, I think they were..." Headline: Gordon Brown says business was "Deceived" by the Tories (but only after the word was put in his mouth, and he won't make that mistake again.))

So I'll blog a little on this site about the politics, because it is intimately related to my artistic and creative practice. Stepping back in time a bit, my unpublished novel "High Wire", which I wrote from 1997-9 on my MA in Novel Writing at University of Manchester, begins on election night 1997. The first chapter sees the main character watching the election in a pub in Brixton, going to a post-election party, and ending up outside the Royal Festival Hall as Tony Blair's helicopter arrives for the Labour party victory celebration.

"High Wire" - written in the 18 months after the election began as a "state of the nation" novel - the obvious starting point being the new government. Despite my personal optimism, (optimistic enough to give up a well paid job and go back to university!), my novel is about exposing the cynicism of the times. Characters listen to Radiohead, go to see hyped shows by fashionable conceptual artists in Hoxton, plough all their money into internet startups that are being set up as shell companies, and politics has become the quick way to riches and influence. Meanwhile, the homeless, the poor, the dispossessed, are shifted to the margins, out of sight as not representing "cool Britannia." It's a London novel from someone who only lived there for a year - and though there was quite a bit of interest, in the end it didn't get me a publisher or an agent. Coming from and going back to Manchester, I wonder whether the "reality" that I saw, simply wasn't grasped by a London that benefitted greatly from "new Labour" after the grey years of John Major. My satirical take on those times wasn't yet a fashionable view.

I wasn't then, and aren't now a believer in David Cameron's "broken Britain", yet for the last 25 years, my political sensibilities having been forged in the unforgiving nastiness of the Thatcher era, I've perhaps always been frustrated at a failure of nerve in British politics - whether it was Thatcher's scorched earth policy, Major's pettyminded little England, or Tony Blair's empty technocracy - of opportunities missed, of pledges broken, and of promise unfulfilled. It is obviously fertile ground for a contemporary novelist. But writing "contemporary" fiction for two decades makes you also something of a modern historian - looking back and wondering whether your take was prescient or merely reactive. Looking around Britain, I have never been short of material, particularly when you look at the under-reported lives of ordinary people. In "High Wire" I invented a millionaire businessman-politician, but he was an invention; but he was not so hard to conjure into existence - for the sense of privilege, the greed, of our ruling classes has never been that hard to imagine.

Yet, I'm an optimist at heart, like I said, and one writes how one sees things as an antidote to the veneer that's often there in the modern media, where a truth is rarely allowed to interrupt the prevailing narrative. This, if anything, will be what gives Cameron, a marketing man by background and inclination, a parliamentary victory. The Labour party may well do better than was expected even weeks ago, but as the old saying goes, now is the time to regret what they haven't done, rather than what they have. Any promises for the future will be tinged with the 13 years where power was easy, and therefore, often frittered away.

Last year, in the midst of the expenses scandal and with job losses on the news every night reminding you of the worst of the Thatcher years, I saw in the hardening of the opinion polls something more worrying than a shift from Labour to Conservative. I'm always interested in the share of the vote. Whilst the socially democratic parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, poll more than 50% of the vote, you can have a hope for the progressive nature of politics in this country (and let us not forget the minimum wage, devolution, Surestart centres and civil partnerships as things that would never have happened under the other side) - but last year in the polls, the collapse in Labour support was seeing the right wing parties, Conservatives, UKIP, and yes, the extreme right, polling over half the electorate. This was potentially the cataclysm for Britain as a modern nation - a lurch to the right that was fuelled by economic meltdown. (Whilst being fully aware that the Conservative Party are as appalled by the 8% or so who regularly vote for far right parties as the left.)

Labour's handling of the economy, and as importantly, I think, the gravitas that Vince Cable's economic common sense has brought to the Liberal party, have done enough to make me think that I doubt whether Conservative, UKIP and far right parties will have any sort of overall majority % of the vote. It may well be that the more optimistic view on the economy will wither the vote for far right parties, without the Conservative party under Cameron having to concede policies to the right as the Michael Howard's party did. (Though their bugbear of Europe is never far away). But accepting that though we may still have a Social Democratic majority in the country, the Conservatives could still triumph. The seats they need to win do not seem naturally Labour in the way that a lot of Thatcher's 80s gains did; and the contemporary electorate - less tribal - may decide "the other guys" deserve a chance.

Yet I'm not sure the parties quite recognise the still raw level of hatred for the expenses scandal, the duck houses, the 2nd homes etc. Watching Question Time from Wythenshawe the other week, the hatred was palpable. We are lucky - or rather the major parties are lucky - that their leaders at least are perhaps the least tainted by this. Brown may be disliked, but few will think him dishonest; Cameron may be mistrusted, but few will think him a liar. How that plays out: stay at home Labour voters, a chance for 3rd and 4th parties, a push for maverick independents or extremist viewpoints, we'll have to wait and see. The current vilification of the public sector by the CBI and others is more than ironic given that our debts were generated by the private sector (with, to be fair, government connivance) and that it is the offbalance sheet debt of Pfi projects as well as the vast monies spent on consultancy which is surely a bigger problem than having too many office clerks in East Kilbride. And though it may suit the agenda of the Sun and the millionaire bosses - I wonder whether alienating a large section of the workforce is good politics for anyone. (Public sector employees pay taxes, including National Insurance, as well, don't you know?) (If Justin King had to stand for democratic election at Sainsbury's he might be less quick to sign letters to the Telegraph.)

Beyond the share of the vote, I'd be less concerned about "historic" swings - I think 1997 showed us that there was a clear break in tribalism (and surely Thatcher's successes - particularly in working class areas - had shown that tribalism was already in decline). Clearly the election will be won and lost in the marginals - but local politics as well as the 3rd party joker of the Liberal Democrats (in England; the nationalist parties in the rest of the UK), may well stop any uniform swing. I doubt we'll see an election night of whole swathes of the country turning blue or red. Here, the duck houses will probably have an effect - though so many politicians are taking their money and not running, that there will be a bigger part for "personality" rather than "party" winners than any time that I can remember. Too many career politicians looking for an easy seat in a traditionally blue or red area, and there might be more surprises than you think; and, even from people I've spoken to, individual policies or personalities or prejudices may affect the vote of a larger than usual part of the electorate. Upset with your local council? Annoyed about a particular tax rise? Concerned about what a front bench politician has said about a moral issue? And you may well vote for the other guy...

I still think the Conservatives may just shade it - but for once, a lot does depend on the campaign, but if they do get in, either in a hung parliament or with a small majority, the details of their opposition will be what is important. A Conservative party without any representation in Scotland will surely do more for nationalism north of the border than anything else. Labour, with its heartland in Scotland and the North, has a vested interest in keeping Scotland happy, even when esconced in London. Cameron hasn't sealed the deal with the floating voter; in power - he would have a lot to do to make Labour areas listen to him. Break up of the union is not something he would want on his CV, yet it's not an impossibility.

How would you write about this? The doorstep issues of immigration, housing and jobs are surely ripe for any contemporary novelist - and, because they are so much part of our globalisation they are in no way parochial. British society seems to me ever more fluid than, say, French or Dutch or German society. The bigger issues; Afghanistan, devolution, climate change or our nuclear deterrent may not speak loud on the doorstep, but the chances are they may be the defining decisions of the next premiership.

...going back to "High Wire", it made a lot of sense to me to set a "state of the nation" novel at a time of both national and personal change (if not quite renewal). It was a statement about hope for the future (I'd just turned 30, and had it been published this would have been my "debut novel") as well as a commentary on the failings of the recent past. Like the electorate, I could imagine looking back ruefully on the last few years, but I don't think it's so easy to see what comes next. I can no more imagine a 4th Labour term than the thought of a revitalised Tory government, yet I know that both might be a disappointing mix of the managerial and presentational. I may be happy with Gordon Brown or Vince Cable or Alistair Darling at meeting of international finance ministers, I'm less sure of any of our politicians addressing the geopolitical and environmental challenges of the time - let alone them understanding the way forward for digital or the arts. If making a career out of writing was a pipedream in 1997, making money out of writing in 2010 seems even less solid a reality.

And, for all of the talk about this being an "internet election", I think I'd be wary of such a phrase. I'm very aware that the majority of my peers (I'm 43) are reluctant uses of social media at best; only those of my age and older who are involved in digital in a professional or semi-professional way really get it, like it, use it. For all my successful bids to eBay auctions, I've never been to a car boot sale; and it's the car boot sale attendees much more than the iPhone evangelists who the politicians need to convince. And an email to a Facebook group won't even come close.

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