Before the referendum I wrote a post here and in Minute Hack called EU Sitting Comfortably? illustrating how both ‘sides’ of the EU debate were craftily hijacking the power of story to get inside our heads and tinker with our thinking. As it turned out, the Leavers were the more successful fiction pedlars and brazenly proud of it. As Leave.EU founder Arron Banks put it: “The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”
Yes indeed. In a post truth world Fiction Trumps Fact. Trust Me!!
Like I was saying, stories work. Narrative acts so persuasively on our neurology I call it neurative. So expect a lot more between now and September 9th when two women – and the story machines behind them – vie to become the new Leader of this United (for now) Kingdom.
I’ve already shared some of the sneakier techniques our politicos use (destabilisation, false specificity, fantasy construction…) to lull us asleep. And there are many more in my book, Story for Leaders. But in case you don’t have time for reading as you seek to navigate the new chapter that now follows the Brexit vote – yes fictions do have their very real consequences – there’s one more storytelling trick I noticed Andrea Leadsom starting to use and I wanted to sound an alarm before it spreads. Like story Ebola.
The whole “it’s time to get a woman to clear up a man’s mess” narrative that surrounds the Tory (and national) leadership contest started twanging my story radar. Which fiction is being evoked here? Then I got it. Mary Poppins. Aka Nanny McFee. Aka Mrs Doubtfire. When things get bad and you really don’t know what to do, Mummy/Matron/the Matriarch will appear with her cheery smile, a bottomless magic bag full of solutions and a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. It’s the deus – or in this case dea – ex machina, the divine get-out-of-jail card that storytellers have relied on for millennia to provide an easy resolution to a complex story.
But that’s not what disturbed me about Andrea Leadsom. Nor the apparently self-effacing connection she clearly wants us to make between her and the divine Margaret. By the way, when a politician tells you “I’m not saying I am the next Thatcher” that is exactly what they are saying. It’s classic NLP.
No, what really chilled me was another comment. When challenged in The Times (I’d link to the article but I don’t want to swell their readership) to explain her attitude to the Single Market, she replied it’s “not a term that is any longer relevant to this discussion”.
Da daa! That’s the wonderful freedom of the storyteller. If you don’t like a term, change it. If the tale isn’t going the way you want it, make another. If you’re at a fork in the road and neither path seems attractive, just create a Third Way. That is actually what the journalist was asking. How would Leadsom solve the Brexiteer’s perplexing riddle – get access to the single market but without following the rules that allow access to the single market?
The answer is – you make the Single Market disappear. Poof! The term doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s apparently “a protectionist trade zone”. Leadsom was on a roll. Why should we have access to this zone? Because we are – Britain! And why won’t they apply tariffs on us, Andrea? “Why would they?” she replies, knowing the best way to answer a question you have no answer to is – ask another question.
If it’s sounding childish, it’s meant to. Mary Poppins clearly wants to us go back to sleep and quick. Or she’s going to get very, very cross.
But this linguistic sleight of hand evokes a quite different fictional character from Julie Andrews and her singing umbrella, one who stalks us in a looking glass world where ‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.” Orwell’s Big Brother is the arch storyteller who leverages the shape-shifting nature of language knowing “if thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought”. When faced with the impossibility having your cake and eating it, as the Brexiteers would so like, you simply resort to ‘Doublethink’, that is “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.“*
I’ll be honest, Andrea Leadsom gives me the hereby jeebies. It’s not just the rictus smile, or the fact she’s a completely manufactured product with a newly bouffanted Maggie hair-do and the word l-e-a-d subliminally branded into her surname. Or is that lead, the poisonous metal? But Theresa May could turn out to be just as skilful a weaver of fable. I guess she will have to be if her narrative is to make a real impression on the Tory party membership.
One way or the other, Britain is certain to have a female Prime Minister. And some female energy could be just what’s required. But let her not be our Big Sister.
*If you haven’t read Orwell’s 1984 for while, it’s worth a refresher. And thank you, House of Lords, for requesting a copy of Story of Leaders to put in your library. If you could bung a copy down to the Commons who knows, a principled grown-up might find it a useful bedtime reading in the Jackanory days to come.