Once upon a time, a man with a quiff . . .

Why do all politicians now need a "narrative"? Tristram Huntblames French intellectuals

According to sympathetic accounts, the Conservative Party lost the general election because it did not have a "narrative". It wasn't the hopeless divisions, the hapless policies or the unpopularity of William Hague. It wasn't even the cack-handed campaign. Instead, what scuppered the Tories was the absence of a clear story of Britain's ills and their vision of solving them. The challenge for the party's next leader is to set out a new narrative.

Demand for scriptwriters is not confined to the Tories. These days, everyone wants a narrative. And none more so than the fretting Blairites in Downing Street. Endless seminars consumed new Labour's first term in its thankless quest for a narrative. Neither new policies nor a coherent political philosophy were enough. What was required was a seamless thread linking policy to history and, if possible, to Tony Blair's own personality as well. According to one media cheerleader, Blair needed to "construct" a "personal story" to capture the imaginations of the British people. The old story of modernising the Labour Party and so having the guts to reform the country would no longer do. Something grander was required. As one of Philip Gould's many leaked memos put it, it was about "Getting the Right Place in History".

Both Tory and new Labour strategists look back to the glorious narratives of the early 1980s. Margaret Thatcher's story was clear: postwar Britain had been betrayed by a conspiracy of patricians and unpatriotic leftists, and she, the grocer's daughter from Grantham, would renew the nation by rolling back the state and letting enterprise flourish. Her opponents, from the Tory wets to the miners' union, served only to strengthen the script.

Ronald Reagan's story was equally succinct. He described an American heritage being betrayed by big-government liberals in Washington who were suffocating the pioneering spirit. His 1984 re-election campaign, with its uplifting Good Morning America biopics of Ronnie and Nancy eating TV dinners, was a consummate triumph of narrative over policy. You bought the man, the story, the vision. Electorally, they were untouchable.

Perhaps it is no accident that Reagan was such a master of the narrative arts. He was not only a professional actor, but also the governor of California. And it was on the university campuses of Berkeley, UCLA and Stanford (most of which Reagan tear-gassed) that post-structuralist, postmodern and new historicist academics took hold of the social sciences and generated the narrative industry. Leading American intellectuals such as Richard Rorty helped turn the "course" of history into a series of contingent narratives and discourses. Where once history was an account of an objectively verifiable sequence of events, now any historical work (or "text") was just one disputable narrative among many. Whoever got to the past first, won.

The American academy popularised what the French had been doing for years. At the font of narrative thinking sits the late Michel Foucault and his apprentice in postmodern sorcery, the celebrated deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. For Foucault, truth is simply an effect of the rules of a discourse. There can be no overall truth or falsity - each discourse is as valid as the next. The past is there to be created. Foucault himself was a historian of prisons, madness and sexuality. But he said: "I am well aware that I have not written anything but fictions."

Foucault also argued that power is essential to the production of truth, because it regulates the terms of inquiry. Edward Said, for example, took this notion of discourse to show how "orientalism" dominated western European approaches to the Middle East or the Orient during the 19th century. Imperial domination of the east was reflected in cultural colonialism. Art, literature and music all fell under the spell of the discourse of orientalism; few could think outside those mental boundaries.

It is this use of power to close down alternative visions of the past that makes the idea of narrative so irresistible to politicians. Once the New Right had established the idea of British postwar decline as the dominant discourse, Thatcher's narrative of neoliberal renewal seemed all the more convincing. The self-imposed challenge for new Labour appears to be to establish the 1980s as a valueless time when there was no such thing as society, and boom and bust stalked the land. The narrative of the Third Way is the deliverance of Britain from this Thatcherite terror into the warm but stable embrace of Blairism. Quite what the narrative of tomorrow's Tory party will be is any post-structuralist's guess.

Yet, in an age of deep political cynicism, it is questionable whether charting out fresh narratives is the surest route to power. In a recent lecture, the playwright Arthur Miller remarked how, in a political fabric dominated by actors, "a roiling mass of consciously contrived performances", it was becoming harder and harder to locate reality. Embracing postmodern social science can only further alienate an already confused and hostile electorate. New narratives and dominant discourses amount to just the type of introspective navel-gazing that distances the political class from public reality.

Instead of narcissistic wonkathons on the search for narrative, both parties might do better to deliver on policies based around a coherent political philosophy. Better schools, proper healthcare and a working transport system - that would be a story worth listening to.