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House of Cards and other Conservative Fictions?

By Steve Fielding

As the party associated with maintaining the status quo, Britain’s Conservatives have historically been more comfortable using popular culture to advance their ends than their supposedly ‘improving’ rivals on the left.

When mass democracy arrived in the interwar period Conservatives therefore saw the potential in using fiction to promote their ideas. The party produced stories, one of which ‘A New Jack the Giant-Killer’, featured an evil gnome called ‘Discontent’ preaching Socialism.  At the same time, Conservative cinema vans toured the country showing short films, which dramatised its propaganda. Some Conservatives even considered buying a cinema chain and producing movies with sympathetic themes.

One might wonder why. The British film industry was then controlled by figures friendly to the party. Film censorship also meant subversive topics rarely reached the big screen. Moreover, for its own reasons, Hollywood promoted Benjamin Disraeli in a number of historically themed dramas, one of which saw George Arliss win an Oscar for playing the man who saved the Empire.

After 1945 Conservatives might argue however that the ground shifted against them. Not only did radical playwrights regularly castigate the party but those running television showed their left-wing sympathies in airing a series of anti-Conservative dramas. Yet while some Conservatives referred to the BBC as the British Bolshevik Corporation, during the 1980s it still broadcast the sitcom Yes, Minister, which has been described as a weekly commercial for Thatcherism. Even so, for most post-war dramatists the Conservative party was the ‘nasty party: it took the New Labour years to end that prejudice. Now, so far as most fiction writers are concerned, all the parties are nasty.

Individual Conservatives have however excelled in writing novels about politics. Disraeli was the first to use the novel to promote himself and his ideas, notably ‘One Nation’. His 1840s trilogy had a go at Peel and announced Young England’s ambition of drawing the aristocracy back into politics, while entertaining readers with comedy and melodrama.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a spate of novels written by Conservatives, including Jeffrey Archer, Julian Critchley, Bertie Denham, Michael Dobbs, Douglas Hurd, Tim Renton, Michael Spicer and Nigel West. These often evoked the excitement of being part of life-or-death decisions, close cabinet votes and critical Commons divisions. They expressed a cautious idealism about the parliamentary system, painting a picture of a politics best left in the hands of rational, patrician, pragmatic men, those very much like their authors.

Few of these novels were adapted for television. When they were – as was the case with Archer’s First Amongst Equals (1984) and Dobbs’ House of Cards (1989) – their authors’ broadly positive account of parliamentary politics was transformed.

This was most clearly the case with House of Cards. In his novel Dobbs paints his anti-hero Francis Urquhart as an antediluvian figure. A hard-up member of the landed elite who took up politics only after being forced to sell off his family estate, he resents being surrounded by modern Tories to whom he has to defer. Unable to take any more, Urquhart turns the power and knowledge of the Chief Whip to eliminate those standing between him and Number 10. Such is his desire for power Dobbs’ cold-hearted protagonist even murders to achieve his ends. Yet, when threatened with exposure by a journalist, Urquhart throws himself from the top of the Palace of Westminster, allowing normal politics to resume.

When Andrew Davies’ adapted Dobbs’ novel for BBC1 in 1990 he transformed it into a very different piece of work. No Conservative, Davies gave House of Cards a darkly comic edge, parodying qualities the likes of Hurd had praised and critiquing how real Conservatives like Margaret Thatcher exercised power. For Urquhart, in Davies’ hands, becomes the inhuman embodiment of the pursuit of political authority. Most crucially, in this bleaker vision, Davies has Urquhart succeed: rather than commit suicide he throws his accuser to her death.

While a mostly masculine form, women also contributed to the Conservative novel during this period but significantly produced a less positive account of Westminster politics.

Yet, even Conservative men used their novels to air doubts about the nature of democracy. Churchill wrote Savrola in 1899 before he had become an MP. A romance set in Ruritanian Europe it shows the people as needing firm guidance from their leaders. For such men, the pursuit of self-interest is their best guide – not only for themselves but for the people as well. If this sounds self-serving, the novel also exposes some of Churchill’s uncertainties about leadership, for his hero asks of the people: ‘Do you think I am what I am, because I changed all those minds, or because I best express their views? Am I their master or their slave?’  

Ironically, such self-doubt was absent from the novel written by Churchill’s latest biographer, Boris Johnson. While praising the parliamentary tradition, much of his Seventy Two Virgins (2005) was concerned with promoting the ‘Boris brand’ through a hero closely modeled on its author. So far as some leading Conservatives are concerned, fiction still plays a role in real politics.

This post is based on a talk given to the Conservative History Group in November 2014 and A State of Play (2014).

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons 

Published inBritish PoliticsConservativesPolitics

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