As my book on British political fiction comes closer to completion, I am now catching up on reading things I really should have looked at some time ago. As I prepare to finish the final chapter, on the New Labour years, ones defined by an increasing populist rejection of representative politics, I read Richard Littlejohn’s one novel…
Littlejohn was named in 2005 as one of the most influential journalists of the previous four decades, having written columns for the Sun and Daily Mail, two of Britain’s most popular daily newspapers since 1989. Both papers favoured a right-wing populist approach to politics, and Littlejohn’s columns invariably expressed, often in vituperative terms, a deep-set hostility to the Westminster elite. In 2001 he published his first novel, To Hell in a Handcart, loosely based on the real case of Tony Martin, a Norfolk farmer who shot and killed a burglar and a year earlier had been found guilty of murder.
Serialised in the Sun, Littlejohn’s novel was described by David Aaronovitch as a recruiting pamphlet for the British National Party, a view echoed by other left-leaning writers and journalists. Littlejohn however vigorously denied he was right-wing: he was certainly not a supporters of any one party and embraced a number of liberal views, including opposing capital punishment and favouring civil partnerships for gay couples.
His novel however certainly gave critics some grounds for viewing him as racist, it being over-populated by Romanian criminals, bogus asylum seekers, and thieving gypsies. Yet, the novel also contains a few characters of immigrant descent and whom he intends readers to view positively; indeed Littlejohn claimed that a West Indian character was the ‘conscience of the book’. If he was a racist, then, Littlejohn was a complex one.
In any case, the bogus asylum seekers depicted in the novel benefitting from the generosity of the British state were – along with recidivist young white criminals rewarded with free foreign holidays at tax payers’ expense – merely instances of a polity gone wrong, and it was that which was Littlejohn’s central theme. They formed part of a wider problem faced by decent people like Mickey French the ex-copper who faces murder charges for defending his home from a drugged up Romanian burglar.
For Littlejohn’s novel painted a picture of a Britain in which the moral, hard-working majority were increasingly hemmed in and controlled by the authorities. In the novel, motorists suffer 25 mile per hour speeding limits on motorways; city centres are pedestrianised to deny them access; they are randomly breathalysed; and their cars clamped on any excuse. More generally, Britons are not allowed to smoke where they like and their freedom to freely speak words some might possibly find offensive is severely limited.
Written ‘largely as an entertainment’ Littlejohn’s was a satire of how public authority no longer served the public, and used the threat of global warming and concern for safety as the means of controlling the majority’s behaviour while giving various criminalized minorities freedom to do as they liked.
The novel focuses its ire on New Labour, and shows ministers constantly flying to warmer climes and enjoying holidays in Tuscany untouched by the controls they impose on the people. But Blair’s government is merely part of a wider culture of control, which also embraces the private sector, including the holiday camp where the French family stay and which has more in common with a prison.
Littlejohn does not however have an explanation for this state of affairs; it is just not clear why ministers should want to oppress the majority. Yet, if no reasons are given, Littlejohn constantly reinforces his picture of an alien public authority, to his presumed readers, who are certainly not fans of the Guardian, notably by making it appear to be only officered by Trotskyists and gays.
Paranoid about the motives of those who exercise authority, Littlejohn’s novel formed part of a developing sense, one evident since the 1980s on left and right, that government now constituted a conspiracy against the people. Indeed, in articulating this outlook Littlejohn had much in common with those who might not have normally sought his company, including Henry Porter whose Guardian and Observer columns articulated deep concerns that New Labour was mounting a mighty assault on civil liberties, ones also expressed in two novels, The Dying Light (2009) and The Bell Ringers (2010). I’ll be discussing those in the book.