As I’ve tried to show during the last five weeks, leaders love using Story to persuade the electorate to vote for them. They understand story is a power tool for building mass influence. But as we saw on Thursday, it’s a power tool that can also take your leg off if you misuse it.
Stories aren’t plans, Theresa. Plans are designed to get you from A to B by the most direct route. Stories get you from A to B by the most interesting route. So stories rarely end as you expect them to. Indeed, they shouldn’t. In story land – as opposed to the planning rooms of Whitehall – predictable is dull. Indeed one of the author’s jobs is to provide an ending which is satisfying but not in a way the audience can predict.
Theresa May’s Strong & Stable Fable was meant to end last Thursday with a landslide victory. Instead it had a volcanically unexpected twist in the tail that’s left us all dangling from a cliff.
So how will this tale actually end?
You can read more about this in Story for Leaders, but broadly, there are three kinds of story endings – all related to what the hero learns. Stories, remember, are all about learning. Anthropologically they are a mechanism for transmitting Life’s lessons down the generations in a safe way so that the audience doesn’t have to keep learning them, messily, first-hand. We learn from stories. Whether the protagonist of the story learns is another matter.
- In the Comic Ending, the hero learns absolutely nothing and is doomed to repeat their mistakes again and again for our amusement.
- A Tragic Ending is where the protagonist learns but too late to do anything about it.
- And finally, there’s the Heroic Ending, where the main character learns in the nick of time to effect a satisfying resolution.
So, as Britain hangs poised above the abyss like the teetering coach in the final scene of The Italian Job, we’re wondering what’s it going to be.
Will our current PM fail to learn the lesson, retreat to her small, tight, bunker of rightness and doggedly plough on? Technically that’s a comic ending. It wouldn’t be much fun for us – but that’s the thing about comedy; it’s hilarious to watch but painful to live. Will she learn the lesson, too late for her, but as she falls on her political sword open the possibility of a new chapter for Britain? Or will this brutal reversal of fortunes – what Aristotle called ‘peripeteia’ – jolt May into being newly inclusive, rational, creative and constructive? Theresa, the Sequel?*
As May ponders how she wants the narrative to turn out, I’d recommend she consults the 5000 year-old tradition of world stories. Messrs Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Mugabe et al would be advised to do the same. They’ll find what happens to leaders who forget they are mortal, who choose and listen to the wrong advisors, who overuse their strength until it becomes a weakness and whose hubristic self-confidence blinds them to their imminent fall.
Meanwhile, it’s time the rest of us stopped waiting for politicians, pundits, Facebook and/or the media to create a compelling new narrative to bedazzle us. Instead, let’s get busy co-creating the stories we want to live for ourselves.
*There are signs that the election fiasco has registered behind the lifeless eyes of our stunned PM. She’s fired Nick and Fi the co-writers of the flop that was the Tory Manifesto. She could do worse than replace them with a proper writer like Armando Iannucci. The comic genius who created The Thick of It, has dreamed up the hilarious idea that May should form a cross-party alliance to negotiate a Brexit we can all support. Funny, I don’t hear anyone laughing…