The Tales Politicians Tell

April 19, 2013

Following on from my previous post, I want to discuss MacIntyre’s claim that stories and the roles that people play in them contribute something fundamental to personal identity. This is crucially important to modern politics, because storytelling – in the form of political narratives – is at the core of how parties present themselves and their ideas.

I first encountered the slightly arcane world of political messaging when I began working for the Liberal Democrats many years ago, back when they were cool. Over beers in a bar somewhere in deepest darkest Brighton, I was enthusiastically given the stripped-down story that constituted the Lib Dem narrative in all seats in which we fighting Labour:

  1. The Government isn’t delivering.
  2. Labour have let us down.
  3. Only the hard-working local Lib Dem candidate knows what you want.

This, of course, can be recapsulated around any particular issue, and it’s a useful starting point for this discussion because it’s a very clear statement of the narrative form:

  1. Setup (Disappointment in Government empathised with)
  2. Conflict (Traditional sources of hope for change no longer available)
  3. Resolution (Ergo, vote Lib Dem)

It is, however, fundamentally an impoverished story. The previous discussion covered how MacIntyre’s view of narrative as at the heart of personal identity leads to an interesting point: the tellers of stories shape the lives of those who opt for roles described by those stories. The only role accessible to the audience in this story is that of the disappointee; there is no scope for participation beyond that. There is the audience and the protagonists, and the protagonists are clearly distinguished from the audience. Even the emphasis on empathy and understanding and ‘local’ is insufficient to overcome the difference of roles.

This is significant, because other political narratives have expanded on the roles available to the audience in an interestingly prescriptive way. This week saw the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, whose political narrative can be summarised as:

  1. The country is in a shocking state
  2. Reactionary forces, such as unions, want to imprison economic enterprise in their grasp or that of the State
  3. I shall set you free to enjoy the rewards of your own industry and ingenuity

This narrative ascribes at least two roles to the audience: that of a reactionary force, and that of the industrious and entrepreneurial masses. This faces a very different impoverishment to that of the Lib Dems: that of non-exhaustive roles. The call is for the audience to become protagonists in the battle against the state of the nation, for which Government is an enabler. The audience can either be entrepreneurs or dinosaurs. No other course of action is available.

The roles permitted the audience are non-exhaustive in the sense that people could very well fall outside them; they are not simply the audience, they are active participants in the story. If they are unable to participate, then the story has nothing for them. It is clear that Thatcher believed her own story: the closure of the coal mines was supposed to lead to the of flowering a service economy driven by all the entrepreneurship pent up behind the floodgates of state ownership. One can see Thatcher’s legacy as a tremendous experiment into the fungibility of labour in a context in which there is no other source of wealth available. Unsurprisingly, the answer to the question of, “Can a labour force skilled for a particular profession based in a particular geographic area readily transfer those skills to new employment once the major source of local income is eliminated?” is “No”. The demand by other members of her Government that the newly redundant demonstrate their get up and go by getting on their bikes neglected the fact that bikes costs money. No Conservative government has ever argued for a bike allowance for the unemployed, a fact which must remain a mystery.

Without fungibility of labour, Thatcher’s narrative missed out great swathes of the population, who were left without a role. An interesting analogue of this problem affected the narrative of New Labour, which can be summarised like this:

  1. Public services you rely on are in a shocking state
  2. The Conservatives have failed to deliver better services even when times were good
  3. We will let capitalism rip and feast upon its proceeds in order to deliver better services

This is a an exhaustive narrative; the public are either capitalists or service recipients. The passivity of the latter raises an interesting comparison with the Lib Dem narrative above: one can trace political lineages through the stories they tell, and the shared passivity in both approaches indicates that the Lib Dem strategy was to be Labour, but better.

New Labour assigned a role to capitalists that in the end they could not play: that of a never-ending source of wealth. In this, they failed to define roles which matched reality, in much the same way as Thatcher. The assumption that the reality of people will match a politician’s story about them is all too common in politics.

We can see from the above three stories that impoverishment comes in many guises: that of an ill-fitting role that can just about extend to all, but fails to prescribe that role in an interesting fashion, that of an assumption about how far a role can extend, and that of an assumption about those who play a role which already exists. Political stories do not describe reality, but rather touch upon it lightly in ways which appeal to the politicians that tell them. However, it is easy to describe and condemn with the benefit of hindsight, so in my next post I shall examine Ed Miliband’s version of the One Nation narrative. As something directly inspired by MacIntyre’s work, it should be interesting.

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