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At first glance the work of a politician and the work of a writer appear very different. Politicians are public, their lives are fast, their speeches many, their days spent leaping from the National Health Service to the situation with GCSEs.
Writers are private, their lives slow, their words squeezed out between cups of tea and moments of despair. Yet, with an election looming, let us imagine if, for the sake of this article or an episode of reality TV, the politician and the writer switched places.
This would be a world where chain-smoking, coffee-drinking eccentrics, used to going for days without speaking to anyone, suddenly found themselves under a constant spot-light, responsible for the government of a whole country as opposed to the form of a single book, while novels, plays and poetry were churned out by permanently smiling orators who were always desperate to shake your hand. It would be a world where the big decisions about public services were taken by people who needed hours if not years to sit and think, people who would think nothing of deleting everything and starting again, people rarely, if ever, content with what they produced.
It would also be a world where novels were rushed out to fulfil a sound-bite, where every poem would be directed towards some urgent purpose, and where no one would ever put their hand up and say: “You know that last book I wrote really wasn’t all that good.”
In TV interviews we would watch on as the writer-turned-politician agonised over answers and ended up responding to a crisis in the NHS with a whimsical tale from their own childhood whose relevance would soon be forgotten. Meanwhile, at literary festivals, the politician-turned-writer would stand proudly on the stage until a short man from the back who brought his own sandwiches asked a question that not a single aide had predicted.
Early in the morning the new politicians would be rudely awakened and told that the problem with the railways that had dominated the last week should be forgotten because the issue was education now. The new writers would no doubt weep over their cereal as they were forced to consider one single idea for years at a time. Yet, what would the writer learn from their experience as a politician and what would the politician perhaps learn from their time as a writer?
The world of this job-swap is clearly built on a very artificial understanding of the roles of politicians and writers, which are evidently nowhere near as solid in their construction as has been suggested here. Not least there is the evidence that suggests that the two worlds are already interchangeable. Indeed, the career paths of many politicians would appear already well-suited to the transition to writer. So long as you consider PPE at Oxford to be more in line with an arts education than a scientific one, then the overwhelming majority of both the cabinet and the shadow cabinet studied the arts and humanities at university.
More specifically, the Conservative party chief whip, Michael Gove, read English at Oxford before entering a career in journalism, surely first steps on a career ladder that could just as easily see him bashing out crime novels in Suffolk.
As it is he is the author of a 1995 biography of Michael Portillo (entitled, somewhat ironically, Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right) as well as being the assumed author of the 2013 tome on education, Everything I Know About Teaching (a sensitive work spread over 90 blank pages that are still available in paperback. It’s Amazon reviews alone are worth reading in order to gain a glimpse of the esteem with which the former secretary of state for education is held by the teaching profession).
In the Labour party, meanwhile, there is the shadow secretary of state for health, Andy Burnham, who also read English at Oxford, alongside the shadow secretary of state for education, Tristram Hunt, who had a full on career as a historian before entering politics. On top of this there have been novels by Iain Duncan-Smith, Chris Mullan, Edwina Currie and Anne Widdicombe, as well as biographies by William Hague and Boris Johnson.
Even the smaller parties are not immune to the pull of literature, Caroline Lucas’s recent work Parliament and the Fight for Change, standing alongside a PhD in literature, and even Nigel Farage found time between pints to squeeze out The Purple Revolution. Glancing into the past, John Major has written a celebrated book about the history of cricket, Disraeli has Sybil, and, as well as the war, Winston Churchill won a Nobel Prize for literature. From this evidence the job swap might run very smoothly, the politicians seamlessly dropping into a parallel career as a writer that in a sense they are already well qualified for, but what of the writer who suddenly finds that they must take on the role of politician.
If you were to take the definition of a writer at its most blunt, it would perhaps be as the creator of narrative. Narrative, defined by the OED as “an account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account,” sits at the heart of the writer’s world, irrespective of form or function. Yet, the definition of narrative would also appear close to the world of the politician, especially at an election, when voters must elect representatives based on the account of events and the order of facts that competing politicians present us with. To the writer turned politician the election might thus appear disconcertingly similar to the world they were meant to have left behind in their garret, with the production of narratives for public consumption still at the centre of what they do, even if now they write manifestos rather than novels. In many ways an election is a little like entering a bookshop and being asked to read everything on the shelves before choosing which one to buy, or, more realistically, glancing up and down at a few books before picking one based on the cover or because we’ve heard of the author somewhere before. Perhaps, then, the job swap would run alarmingly smoothly because, underneath the superficial differences politicians are well-qualified to act as writers and writers already do very much the same thing as politicians anyway. Yet if the job swap continued maybe the writer might begin to feel differently.
Among the many things that a writer must learn to do is work out what they are saying. When writing a novel hours are indeed spent playing with plot and setting, days on characterisation, weeks on sentences, months on names, but these exercises in style only ever amount to anything when pulled beneath the mantle of narrative. Sure, writers are perhaps lucky in that, unlike politicians, their narratives can be totally made up. But if literature is to function in this world it must always have something to say to this world. If it has nothing to say, if it has no narrative, then all the made up place names and events will simply read as nonsense. It is perhaps at this central point of narrative, the point where all the tricks of text and linguistic slight of hand comes together on some firm sense of story that the parallels between the politician and the writer begin to fray, because arguably one of the hardest things about the current crop of politicians is that, in spite of their arts education and literary credentials, it can be hard to figure out what their narratives are actually about.
By way of an example let us turn to one of the more hotly debated aspects of this election campaign: immigration. First, the Conservatives, who believe that “Immigration brings real benefits to Britain – to our economy, our culture and our national life. We will always be a party that is open, outward-looking and welcoming to people from all around the world.” Yet in the very next sentence they go on to explain that “Immigration must be controlled. When immigration is out of control, it puts pressure on schools, hospitals and transport; and it can cause social pressures if communities find it hard to integrate.” In the space of two sentences the Conservatives claim to be a party that will always welcome people from all around the world and then demand that immigration must be controlled.
In the same way Labour explain that, “Our economy and society benefit from the talent and investment of people who come here,” before making it clear that “low-skilled migration has been too high and needs to come down.” We find politicians saying two things: one, that immigration is necessary, beneficial and to be celebrated; two, that immigration is pernicious and harmful. It sounds as if these sentences are aimed at two different perspectives. In all likelihood they are. But the result is a narrative that is fractured and confused. One that the job-swapping writer-turned-politician might well be troubled by. So desperate has the politicians become to have a message that resonates with everyone they have decided to try to speak to everyone. Rather than offering one coherent narrative they would rather offer multiple, conflicting narratives. Let us imagine then, how a writer might react if faced with the job of producing a politician’s narrative.
Maurice Blanchot states of writers that, “An author who is writing specifically for a public is not really writing: it is the public that is writing, and for this reason the public can no longer be a reader: reading only appears to exist, actually it is nothing.” For Blanchot those writers who write simply what they believe others want to read, don’t end up writing at all. Moreover, their audience, the readers – the voter even – doesn’t even read: “reading only appears to exist, actually it is nothing.” Yet to the writer-turned-politician it might appear as if the writing that is actually nothing has infected the narratives of politics. If novels were written in the way politicians write manifestos we might find ourselves reading a novel where the main character was a vampire because a lot of people like vampires and set in Dublin because even after all these years people still really like James Joyce.
There might be a sadomasochistic aspect to the character’s personality taken from the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, and most of the character’s schooling would have to take place in an isolated boarding school where spells and potions have replaced maths and history. It would be a strange book, and while no doubt there are some books written like this, for Blanchot at least, it wouldn’t really be a book at all, in fact it would be a book that was incapable of even being read. “This,” he writes, “is why works created to be read our meaningless: no one reads them. This is why it is dangerous to write for other people, in order to evoke the speech of others and reveal them to themselves: the fact is that other people do not want to hear their own voices; they want to hear someone else’s voice, a voice that is real, profound, troubling like truth.”
It is here, then, that an attempt to pretend that the roles of the politician writer are somehow synonymous, breaks down. Perhaps in the past, the narratives offered by politics were closer to the narratives of fiction: Margaret Thatcher’s belligerence is possibly analogous with the novels of Ayn Rand; Tony Benn’s commitment to the work of George Orwell. But try to find narrative equivalents in the current crop of politicians and you struggle. In spite of their education and training our politicians appear to be like writers who have spent hours in the workshop honing their sound-bites, but nowhere near enough time working out what it is they actually want to say. Arguably, rather than being too literary, our politics isn’t literary enough. Or perhaps it has attached itself to only half of literature, worrying too much about language and forgetting about narrative.
Perhaps at the end of the job-swap the writer might leave the politician a note, detailing advice they had gleaned from the experience. In this note they might, as many writers have done, recall the words of Rilke and the advice he offers to a young poet, struggling with his work. “You are looking outwards,” explains Rilke, “and that, above all, is what you should not be doing at this time. There is no-one who can advise or who can aid you: no-one. There is only one way. You must go inside yourself.” Maybe a politician who listened to Rilke might work out what it is they want to say, allowing the humble voter to have a reaction to a narrative in much the same way as a reader has a reaction to a book.