8 Things to Read and Watch to Understand British Politics
British politics is remarkably hard to follow at the moment.
It feels a little like plunging into a TV series that’s been told its plotlines have gone on for too long, so what was planned for three seasons has now been condensed into one. Characters are being written out and new characters introduced at remarkable speed. Didn’t we just have a leadership contest last season? Never mind, we’re having one again.
To keep track of it all, you don’t just need to understand the details of how the British political process works – though with different processes in every party, the complexities of devolution, an unwritten constitution and the unpredictability of Brexit, understanding even that can be hard work. But there are also a lot of cultural factors that aren’t immediately obvious, but that have a huge impact on the way that the political system works in the UK. Thankfully, there are enjoyable ways to get to grips with this cultural background, across novels, TV shows and more. If you want to gain a deeper understanding of British politics, here’s what you should read and watch.
1. Good-Bye to All That – Robert Graves
While most of the books, films and TV series on this list are specifically about politics, Good-Bye to All That is not; instead, it’s here by way of setting the scene. Written in 1929, it’s Robert Graves’ account of his experiences during the First World War. All countries have their traditional ‘ruling classes’, whatever they may be, but Graves’ book provides an insight into the way this system worked in Britain, and the particular set of values that these classes held.
There’s a famous misquote from the Duke of Wellington that the Battle of Waterloo was “won of the playing fields of Eton”; that the generation who fought at Waterloo learned the values that enabled their victory at their public school, and specifically on the sports grounds, not in the classroom. The idealised tradition of the British public school education is that more than educating pupils to be great intellectuals or academics (which was not a priority; even now, Eton’s exam results are good but not outstanding), it raised young men who held values of courage, determination, and a readiness to take not only power but responsibility – or to put it another way, producing Gryffindors, not Ravenclaws.
How much the system worked is a matter of debate, but where someone stands in relation to it has defined their place in British politics in the past hundred years perhaps more than any other trait. The fact that Theresa May, our current Prime Minister, did not come from this system is seen as just as significant as the fact that David Cameron, our previous Prime Minister, did. Whether or not you think the system works is likely to define your place on the political spectrum. Good-Bye to All That paints a picture of this environment and its values, sometimes fondly, sometimes critically – and David Cameron once cited it as his favourite book. It’s hard to imagine Theresa May saying the same.
2. Yes, Minister
Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister were sitcoms of the early 1980s about an essentially well-meaning but hapless minister, and the civil servants who thwart his aims at every turn – sometimes because his plans are more idealistic than achievable, but usually just to preserve their own jobs and interests. The writers talked to a lot of politicians, civil servants and journalists to get a realistic picture of what life in government was really like, and the picture they painted was so accurate, that questions were raised about whether they were connected to spies (they weren’t).
Yes, Minister is fantastic for understanding British politics in two ways. First of all, it shines a light on all the obstacles and delays that prevent ministers from putting promised legislation into place, demonstrating how even a government with a strong majority might falter in seeing its manifesto promises through.
Secondly, it covers most of the major issues of British politics over the past few decades. It’s startling how many of the topics dealt with in each episode remain relevant today: surveillance and phone-tapping, the difficulty of cutting government budgets, international trade deals with connections to bribery, the appropriate level of funding to museums, the groups to whom British-made weaponry ends up being sold, and the publication of potentially damaging memoirs. Not everything has stayed current (the characters worry a great deal more about the role of trade unions than British politicians would do today) but enough has that it’s still an effective introduction to the British political landscape.
3. A Very British Coup – Chris Mullin
Chris Mullin, author of A Very British Coup, was the Labour MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010, when he chose not to stand. Published in 1982, A Very British Coup tells the story of Harry Perkins, a quiet, kind, working-class, very left-wing politician who unexpectedly becomes Prime Minister in a landslide. He plans to withdraw from NATO, remove all US bases from British soil, and pursue a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. The British Establishment, across the media, the civil service and the City, concludes that he cannot be allowed to continue and do everything in their power to remove him from office.
Good-Bye to All That offers an insight into a world that produces mostly right-wing politicians. A Very British Coup, by contrast, allows a greater understanding of the thought processes of the British left, particularly the far left, and the belief that is held by many that the British Establishment is ranged against them, and would overturn a democratic vote in order to preserve their power. (In the interests of balance, it’s worth pointing out that politicians on the far right believe much the same thing). It’s an insight that’s particularly valuable now that Labour has elected a leader who sounds remarkably like Harry Perkins, and who is hanging on to his position for dear life.
4. House of Cards – Michael Dobbs
House of Cards was originally a book by Michael Dobbs, published 1989, which has since been followed by a British TV series in 1990, and a US TV series in the past couple of years. However, as the TV series are 15 and 18-rated respectively, we’ll focus on the book.
The story follows the scheming Francis Urquhart, the Conservative Party’s Chief Whip – a role that allows him a great deal of knowledge of other politicians’ secrets. The Prime Minister is Henry Collingridge, who has recently taken over from Margaret Thatcher following her resignation, and who decides not to promote Urquhart despite Urquhart’s loyalty. Urquhart uses his insider knowledge to ensure that Collingridge is removed as Prime Minister, and to try to put himself forward as a replacement. It’s a representation of politics at its most unpleasant and Machiavellian, and like A Very British Coup, it was written by a real politician – Michael Dobbs was a high-ranking Conservative politician for many years, which makes his novel even more fascinating in how ruthless and backstabbing he portrays his party as being.
5. The Queen
The 2006 film The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears, tells the story of a remarkable few months in British politics: the time in 1997 when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in a landslide election, and not long after, Diana, Prince of Wales, was killed in a car crash, leading to an unprecedented outpouring of public grief. The Royal Family came under considerable criticism for what was seen as their emotionless and uncaring response to Diana’s death, while Blair did a much better job of reflecting the public mood.
1997 is a year that has had a long influence over British politics. The Conservative Party had been in power since 1979 and had changed the country utterly since then, but had become mired in scandal in the early 1990s. Blair’s Labour party were seen as a fresh start – younger, more relaxed, and perhaps more representative of the country as a whole. The Royal Family were facing growing unpopularity given the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, where the country was mostly on Diana’s side. Diana’s death represented the clash of these cultures, between the modern let-it-all-out approach to grief, and the traditional stiff-upper-lip approach taken by the Royal Family. The Queen does an excellent job of giving an impression of this pivotal year.
6. The Ghost – Robert Harris
If The Queen is the best demonstration of the jubilant mood around Tony Blair when he first took office, The Ghost shows how complicated his legacy had become by the end of it. Published in 2007, the year Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister, it tells the story of a ghostwriter who has been called in last-minute to write the memoirs of Adam Lang, a very thinly disguised version of Blair, after the previous ghostwriter has died in mysterious circumstances. Lang has been repeatedly accused of war crimes, and is in danger of being indicted to the International Criminal Court, and the ghostwriter (who is never named in the book) slowly uncovers shocking hidden truths about Lang’s past.
The ultimate revelations (which we won’t spoil) were over-hyped when the book was released, with Robert Harris claiming, “the day this appears a writ [for libel] might come through the door”. Why the book is interesting is not primarily for its value as a thriller, but because it shows how much public opinion on Blair had changed since the 1997 days where the New Labour anthem was ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ and Helen Fielding wrote approvingly in Bridget Jones about how attractive the new Prime Minister was. By the time of The Ghost, Blair was being portrayed as a probable war criminal, with a background of cover-ups and corruption.
7. Private Eye
Stepping away from fiction, Private Eye is a fortnightly magazine that satirises British politics in a distinctive way. Understanding what it’s saying sometimes feels like it requires a glossary, as it’s so packed with in-jokes and allusions. It’s often more willing to print breaking news and scandals than the mainstream press, resulting in a remarkable number of libel cases that it usually doesn’t win, and sometimes the most controversial of these are written up in an oblique way, in the hope of more sources coming forward – which makes it very tricky to read. For instance, Brighton and Hove becomes Skidrow-on-sea (skid row being a down-at-heel area, where lots of crime might take place) and Richard Branson is called ‘Beardie’, in two of the magazine’s kinder nicknames.
If you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of British politics, Private Eye can be borderline incomprehensible. But it’s worth picking up all the same, because its tone – cutting, satirical, and generally cynical – infuses British politics. It’s worth noting that of the books and films on this list, only The Queen and Yes, Minister portray politicians in a generally positive light, and Yes, Minister’s Jim Hacker is a likeable fool rather than an effective public servant. British people are often portrayed internationally as deferential towards authority, but the public’s stance towards politicians is anything but. Disliked politicians get the Private Eye treatment, while well-liked ones are not exactly treated with respect; among the members of their respective parties, for instance, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron are much less likely to be ‘Corbyn’ and ‘Farron’ than they are ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Tim’.
8. The West Wing
Why is does The West Wing, a show set in the White House about a fictional US president, feature on a list about British politics? US politics has always been a huge influence on British politics, far more so than the other way around, and The West Wing was watched avidly in the UK by anyone interested in progressive politics, whether as a politician, a journalist, or anything else. The Guardian claims that “the Blair inner circle were West Wing nuts almost without exception”.
The show’s influence reached its peak in 2006, Conservative MPs borrowed an idea from The West Wing in order to defeat the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. But it’s not just about borrowed ideas; The West Wing made politics look exciting, and British politicians sought to emulate it, just as they have often sought to emulate the apparently cooler world of US politics in general.
What have you read or seen that has helped you understand British politics? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: television; seven sisters; graves’ blue plaque; corbyn; house of cards; blair; ian hislop;