Stay sane this General Election with your very own, five-part crash course in the (dark) arts of political storytelling…
20 years ago Blair’s New Labour won a landslide under the banner of “Education Education Education”. I can’t help feeling the slogan of this General Election should be “Narration, Narration, Narration!”
Politics is storytelling and politicians have been in the “make-believe” business since the dawn of time. How else are they to sell us a future that no-one can factually predict? That said, the fictional trend in politics has taken a dramatic upswing recently.
I’d argue it’s because people are gorged with information but starved of meaning. The world is making less sense and we want our leaders to simplify life for us into digestible narratives. Or maybe it’s just because today’s politicians have noticed they can make stuff up without getting sent to the naughty corner. Evidently you can fib your way to power more brazenly than any time in recent history.
One way or the other, brace yourself. The UK General Election is going to be an orgy of story, with a blizzard of contradictory narratives each competing for our attention. Which is why every week till polling day, I am going to be sharing an aspect of story that politicians of all parties will be using to win your vote.
This week: The Reveal
Part of the difference between stories and plans is that we love it when stories don’t turn out as planned. The child in us gets a real frisson when what we thought was true is revealed as artifice; when the world is not as it appears.
This is why good storytellers spice up their their stories with ‘reveals’, peeling away layers to expose previously hidden truths. This appeals to our optimism. If only we persevere we’ll discover the beast is actually – dadah! – a prince in disguise. And also to our skepticism. That too-good-to-be-true “goodie” turns out to be as dodgy as we suspected all along.
Politicians love using the Reveal to aggrandise themselves and diminish their opposition. And this kicks into overdrive during elections when they hope new revelations will win new voters. Here are three recent favourites of mine.
Bronze medal to Jeremy Corbyn. The character he plays in the nation’s political narrative is dogged, committed, unswerving. What you see is what you get. Or is it? Within days of the election being announced and conscious he needs to broaden his family appeal, he unzips his grizzled activist suit and out steps the Cuddly Jeremy within! And so there’s no danger of us missing the point, Uncle Jezza is reading us a bedtime story.
Silver to Teresa May who just performed the same trick but in reverse. Clearly she wants to be seen as the central character of our national story, the leader fighting for us against the evil that is Europe. The trouble is, true leaders are chosen by the People, they don’t creep into power as the result of a party shakeup. That’s why we are having this election, so May can start the next chapter of the Brexit Epic as the Chosen One. But when an abortive Downing Street dinner with Jean Claude Junker threatened the storyline, she (or rather her story advisors) realised a Reveal was in order.
Like Little Red Riding Hood’s granny whipping off her frilly bonnet to uncover the slavering carnivore beneath she warned the pesky foreigners of the commission that they would find her “a bloody difficult woman”. This is the classic Act 2, No-More-Mr-Nice-Guy moment. Like Bambi belching up a Tarantula. Expect much more this in future as May seeks to reboot the Iron Lady franchise.
But the Gold goes this week not to a UK politician but a French one. With the French presidency tantalisingly within her grasp, Marine Le Pen has been furiously rewriting – and indeed erasing – her toxic backstory to persuade those not in her traditional base to vote for her. The veils have been dropping left, (far) right and centre. Whoosh, the nationalist, proto-Fascist, xenophobe is redrawn as a pragmatic, national realist. Whoosh, she resigns as leader of the National Front so she’s no longer a leader of those nasty, racist folk but purely a candidate for all France. And now with the unveiling of the latest, thigh-flashing campaign poster, whoosh, she is no longer even a politician. Bah, non! She’s just a girl, standing in front of an electorate asking them to love her. On Sunday we shall see if they believe her story enough to love her back. If they do, that truly will be a reveal!
These are my favourite recent uses of the Story reveal. Please share yours below. The best/funniest suggestion wins a copy of my new paperback Story of Leaders. Read it and you need never be taken in by fibbing politico again. Unless, of course you want to be.