Sunday, September 25, 2016

Writers & Politics

All writers are political, I think, but I've never thought - until recently - that's its helpful or necessary for writers to be party political. Despite the literary world still being skewed somewhat in favour of wealth and privilege, the nature of the lottery of writing is that writers aren't all that often from the ruling classes, though they frequently have been to the best schools and universities. In my own time, the "right wing" writer has been an, at times, mythical beast. Margaret Thatcher famously chose thriller writer Frederick Forsyth as her favourite; the choice of Ted Hughes ahead of Philip Larkin for poet laureate was a rare time when the leading contenders were - at least notionally - to the right of the political spectrum.  In the 1930s, writers did join the British Communist Party, for reasons of conscience, of solidarity with what was happening in Spain and Germany, and sometimes out of ignorance; but as often as not they would leave the party because of the unfulfillable expectations. Whereas a writer like Orwell could not in good conscience give a free pass to a left that was as murderous as the right, his publisher Victor Gollancz fell out with him over the same dilemma (he had no dilemma, as a publisher - perhaps like right wing media moguls today - he didn't want to risk muddying the waters of his own project.) The Norwegian Knut Hamsun was admired by the Nazis; writers - often Jewish - were one of the main groups cracked down on by Hollywood as a result of appearing before McCarthy and the UnAmerican Activities committee; Ayn Rand and and L. Ron Hubbard turned their ideological works into actual ideologies. On other side of the coin, politicians have frequently written novels, very successfully in the case of Jeffrey Archer and Chris Mullin's "A very British Coup". The magazine Encounter was funded by the CIA as part of cold war propaganda - a story satirised in Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth."

McEwan, in an interview reflecting on the Iraq war discussed with his wife that he'd use his influence with Tony Blair - who he knew a little - to contact him somehow and get him to stop the war. Looking back, he marvelled at his hubris. Where writers get involved in politics its often in the local or domestic sphere, and more as a high profile supporter - e.g. J.K. Rowling's support for various causes and political parties - than any direct involvement. I've always wondered about whether its a good thing for a writer to be a member of a political party - for however "liberal" the rules, the reality is that the "narrative" of a political party, wherever on the spectrum is not one that can be interpreted by one individual. Certainly there was a groundswell of support for Tony Blair when he came to power, and in a different time, there seems plenty of writers who are full square behind his ideological opposite Jeremy Corbyn.

I was briefly a paid up member of the Labour party - though I thought of myself more as a supporter - a fellow traveller if you like - than an active member. I'd have been horrified - this was the nineties - if my writing, which has always been broadly on the left, had been picked up as not following a party line. It's perhaps instructive that I left the party around the same time that I was writing a broadly political novel. Having worked in reasonably close proximity to politicians and political ideas for a number of years, I'm more convinced than ever that the probing and ambiguity of good writing, is incompatible with the "single party line" of political activism. This brings us to the current state of the Labour party, the cult of Corbyn, and the irrefutable fact that he's been re-elected yesterday by the membership.

On my Facebook feed there seems a general support for Corbyn from the writers I follow, but in many ways this seems a support for the politics - anti-austerity, anti-war - that are so associated with the brand. My initial reluctance to support the man in 2015 was always his foreign policy stance - particular his anti-Americanism, his past willingness to share platforms with a number of despicable regimes, and his past record in not just opposing bad wars such as Iraq, but any military action such as the intervention in Kosovo. But I'm a writer not an elected politician - appalled as I am by war, I see the geopolitics of the world as a fascinating - perhaps the most fascinating - of subjects. Writers have written about wars in their lifetime, wars they have experienced, wars from history....and imagined wars such as in Evelyn Waugh's satirical "Scoop." It does not make us supporters of them. Even in the genteel drawing rooms of a Jane Austen novel, the barrack room, and the army are a presence. As writers we draw the world as it is, as we see it, as much as how we might want to see it.

In the U.S. Donald Trump is looking ominously electable, and there would, I imagine, be few writers of fiction or poetry who would endorse him. In Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" he imagines a 1930s where the near fascist aviation hero Charles Lindbergh would have been swept to power providing a right wing government in America as Hitler pillaged Europe. Alternate histories such as "The Man in the High Castle" or "SSGB" are part of the writer's armoury. In the century-sweeping "Life after Life", the justification for the time travelling narrative is partly to answer that most famous "what if...." "what if you could go back in time and murder Hitler."

I've been surprised, fascinated and appalled a little, by the nature of the cult of Corbyn. For me, the mass resignation of Labour MPs, was a direct result of an unexpected trauma - the Brexit result - which saw the Labour party - whose MPs and supporters had predominantly supported the "remain" camp despite that aligning them with Cameron and Osbourne - and partly occasioned by the incompetent and hamfisted approach that Corbyn and his top team had adopted in their reluctant "remain" campaign. It may well have been a coordinated coop, but if so, its "war planning" - that Corbyn would step down if unable to form a full opposition bench - showed a lack of understanding of the man, and to be fair, of his mandate. Even Thatcher went when faced with the mutinous amongst her peers.

Yet in the torturous weeks since Brexit happened, the Tories have defenestrated not only their leader, but apparently the majority of their 2015 manifesto, avoided a bloodletting election by letting Theresa May step nimbly over the political corpses of her rivals, and given us a new, unelected government powering ahead on a mandate that - to leave Europe - which they still haven't managed to define. As a writer I sit there and wonder about the Labour party in opposition. I don't want to be a party activist - but I do want a Labour party to do their job. The difference between me and a Corbyn fan seems to be that they would view the resigning MPs (elected by the public) as not doing his job, whilst I would see Corbyn and his team, whose first year in shadow opposition has been autocratic, vague, uninspiring and more than that, administratively incompetent, as not doing theirs.

So where do we go with writers and the political scene? The left leaning writer has a more conducive political canvas than ever - yet whereas poetry and fiction can often be highly political and politicised, the best work is that which is ambiguous, or which plots the times, or which doesn't just see one side of the argument. Thinking of "GBH" or "Our Friends in the North" those two blistering political pieces - the first reflecting on the chaos of Liverpool under the stand-off between council and government; the second a complex telling of the hollow lies behind so much of the sixties and seventies' political landscape. Both of these, as examples, are aware of the contradictions and messiness of politics, which is best reflected by an art that is equally complex. The simple solutions of writing that toes just a simple political line is surely more propaganda than anything else; yet I wonder if the writer who finds themselves cheerleading too hard, not just for the left vs. right, but for the peculiarly strange accidental leader that is Jeremy Corbyn, risks missing an ability to reflect any kind of truth. Writers have a tendency - in Tony Wilson's words - to print the myth, and we can surely expect a few novels in the next few years that play out the recent political failures of Cameron et al.

I often think I can predict to some degree the "what next" direction of our political or social landscape - a useful forethinking for a writer - but at present, we have two parallel things which seem almost impossible to predict: hard vs soft Brexit for the government and the Tory party; and the popularity amongst activists for Corbyn's non-pragmatic populism, vs. the needs of a centre-left coalition in order to unseat a right wing and ideological government. Though I would never criticise anyone, writer or non writer, for whatever activism they want to follow, I think this might be a time, when I comment less, observe more, and see which way the plot might possibly develop.

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