Welcome to week 2 of your Guide to the General Narration – sorry, Election – where I point out some of the story technology that’s being used to win your vote and you, hopefully, stay sane. I’ve included some of my favourites. Please tell me about yours and the best/funniest suggestion wins a free copy of my new paperback, Story for Leaders.
When the future’s whirring around in uncertain ways, there’s something so comforting about returning to the past. Not the historical past – that would be far too messy and troubling – the storytellers’ past, where the details are selective and the drama contained.
Classically, storytellers take us back in time so we can remember past lessons and apply them in the future. Politicians use the same story technology but for different motives, especially at election time. Paradoxically, whilst all electorates want change, they also fear the unfamiliar. Politicians resolve this with lashings of nostalgia – the promise we can change things back to how they were and all will be well. It’s driving what I heard Simon Anholt recently describe as the Inward and Backward (as opposed to Forward and Outward) mentality we are seeing across our troubled globe. It’s Trump turning back the clock to make America Great again. It’s Le Pen’s revisionist Beret-and-Baquette view of France: unsuccessful last weekend but back on your screens bientôt. It’s all fundamentalists yearning for a bygone, truly God-fearing age.
It’s what I call Downton Politics.
The TV series Downton Abbey wasn’t successful because it was accurate. We know the golden Edwardian summer it portrays never really happened and that, off camera, Britain was actually in a roiling, near revolutionary ferment of social strife and industrial action. But we don’t care! When the frazzled Pearls cuddle up on the sofa at the end of the week we want a story, not an exposé.
Politicians know this. Which is why Downton Politics is everywhere. Here in the currently United Kingdom the promise to bring back the past but only the best bits is woven through the narratives of all political parties bidding for your vote.
My recent favourites are:
Downton Labour’s leaked manifesto is laced with back-to-the-good-old-days measures like renationalising trains and energy (peat presumably) and putting Postman Pat back on his bicycle at the Royal Mail. But my favourite vote bait is offering us four more Bank Holidays – on our national Saints’ Days no less – so The Workers (remember them) can spend more time with their families. Presumably we’re to enjoy this bonus free time (as if that’s in the Government’s gift) sitting round the Vim-scoured kitchen table, eating Roberston’s Jam sandwiches, playing dominoes and listening to that nice Mr Corbyn on the Home Service.
Downton Lib Dems took us back in time for some reverse nostalgia. Remember the arctic cold of the Winter of Discontent in 1978/9? Brrrr. Well Vince Cable went all Game of Thrones on us, reminding the elderly voters that “Winter is Coming” but the LibDems will keep them toasty warm at the fireside (to enjoy their triple locked pensions) with cheaper fuel bill. I can’t help thinking Global Warming is Coming would be more accurate. And the elderly are more likely to need Air Conditioners to see them through.
Winner of the week though to our Downton PM for sticking with the 2015 Tory Manifesto pledge of reducing net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’. Let’s wind back the clock to the pre-globalisation days when we were happy to welcome the occasional influx of Windrush Jamaicans and Ugandan Asians back into our post-colonial arms. Forget that the openly bigoted nation of past years was anything but happy and we gave these immigrants hell. Ignore that without these dangerously ‘other’ others our services grind to a halt. And turn a blind eye to the enormous social and economic benefit migrants bring with them. Let’s get control again, goes the yarn; re-establish a Downtonian balance where a few foreigners appear as ‘extras’ in the background of our national story. Not so many as to overwhelm the main (British) characters. But enough to so we can feel good about ourselves being inclusive. And how many is that, Amber? Oh, ‘tens of thousands’.
Don’t get annoyed if these promises aren’t kept. Downton promises aren’t real promises. They are a storytelling device designed to keep us hooked, our anger placated, our anxiety soothed. We don’t complain when a bedtime story turns out differently than we thought. Because we are asleep by then.
Share your favourite example of Downton Politics below and you could win a free copy of my latest paperback, Story for Leaders.