According to a 2009 Eurobarometer survey 62 per cent of Britons believed that ‘the giving and taking of bribes, and the abuse of positions of power for personal gain’ was ‘widespread’ amongst MPs. This view was obviously influenced by the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about expenses. But 44 per cent already thought corruption was rife in 2007 and since the 1980s big majorities have claimed to believe that MPs lie and put their selfish interests before those of the nation.
Much of this hostility is due to perception rather than personal knowledge. While a huge majority think our national politics is corrupt only 3 per cent claim to have first-hand experience of it.
So why do we perceive politicians so negatively? Political scientists have their explanations. The decline in social capital is the leading favourite: simply put, many argue that as society has become more individualised so we have stopped trusting each other, especially those in the public realm, in particular our leaders. Others believe that this is only part of the explanation. For, students of politics have hardly started finding out what politics means to citizens: they have not yet got inside people’s heads to find out why they imagine politics is corrupt when they don’t know that it is.
Something that influences how we imagine politics to be, is the way it is depicted on the screen, stage and page.
Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics held a conference on fiction and British politics in December 2009; and to coincide with that Steve Richards interviewed me for Radio 4’s The Week at Westminster. You can listen to the interview here:
Parliamentary Affairs has now published some of the papers spawned by that conference. The special edition of the journal looks at many different aspects of the subject, from Shakespeare to The Thick of It (and the article on the latter is available as a free download).
One of the most novel aspects of the conference was the participation of some writers of recent political dramas and comedies – and we transcribed their contributions. Unfortunately we did not record the last session of the conference. This was when Lawrence Marks – co-writer of The New Statesman – talked about how his experience covering the 1978 Jeremy Thorpe trial for the Sunday Times changed his perception of politicians. While often seen as a critique of a certain kind of Conservative MP, Alan B’Stard (pictured above) was, it seems, the result of a wider and earlier disillusion with politics.
Marks’ example suggests that if politicians acted well then they would be depicted well and we would think better of them. Of course, reality plays its part in how we think of politicians – and even imagined politicians like Alan B’Stard are a distorted reflection of that reality. But sometimes fiction can also play a direct role in real politics: it can construct how we think about politics. Who, by the way, was the star of the recent No to AV campaign broadcast but none other than … Alan B’Stard!?
So, while many Britons firmly believe that their politicians lie and are corrupt, why do they imagine that they know this?
To properly answer this question, we need to develop the implications of the claim made by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, that: ‘The real is as imagined as the imaginary’. For, the stories we tell ourselves about politics have helped construct and reinforce an almost unremittingly hostile view of our politicians. Maybe that’s because we have such an awful, corrupt politics; but maybe not.
It’s time we took fiction more seriously.