Fiction - Inside story
Martin Sixsmith Macmillan, 336pp, £16.99
This is less a political novel than a satirically fictionalised memoir, and will probably be incomprehensible to anyone but serious political anoraks in ten years' time. Reading it then would be a bit like watching a repeat of That Was The Week That Was. The details will be understood only by those who have direct experience of Whitehall or who study its workings closely. They will recognise a searingly accurate and far from encouraging account of life in government under new Labour. But Spin is also fast-paced, entertaining and a good yarn.
I am a politician and a novelist, but I do not write political novels, because I like my characters to take over and surprise me. To write about a situation or people I know would mean that I would be confined by a particular outcome or predictable reactions. I adopt a similar approach to reading political novels: can I see what is coming or am I going to be surprised?
There is little in Spin that does not have recognisable real-life parallels, but you cannot always predict the course of events. The prime minister, Andy Sheen, buries one lot of bad news under Marie Sheen's "late and unexpected pregnancy". Everybody knows something discreditable about everybody else and is only waiting for the right moment to wield the power of that knowledge; the press gives politicians a hard time but is also easily manipulated; human rights organisations fight their own corner; and where on earth is the opposition?
Maurice Edelman wrote good political novels because they were more about human beings than politics, and C P Snow had the same happy knack. Other novels identify issues that call out for a political solution but are not set in the narrow world of politics or specifically in the corridors of power. Satire, however, requires thinly disguised characters and recognisable situations; while Spin is in many ways a clever book, the characters are superficial and twists in the plot provoke knowing smiles of recognition rather than surprise.
It is probably fair to say that Sixsmith did not intend this to be read primarily as a novel but as a rather biting - and bitter - commentary on today's body politic. Some of the humour is contrived and the satire laboured (the BBC broadcasts a reality programme called Big Sister), but in other places it is funny and pointed.
I would have preferred a straight memoir, however constrained by libel lawyers, and perhaps one day that is what Sixsmith will give us. The real test of this book is that it does not leave the reader thoughtful at its end. Instead you think: "So what?" or "Where is the surprise?" This response, however, is less damning of the book than it is of our spin-obsessed political culture, because the book should be shocking.
Most of the plot unfolds through conversation rather than description, through verbal confrontations rather than lonely thought. You will like very few of its characters and sympathise with fewer still. Drugs, sex, gambling, paedophilia and murder are not much balanced with principle or selfless love.
I would like to think that Spin could have brought about the death of spin, that its ruthless examination of that black art would make further practice impossible, especially as I believe the final conqueror of spin will be not moral outrage, but derision - and how better to deride than through satire? Instead, I think the novel will be of fleeting interest and that the politicians will spin on. Prove me wrong, Martin Sixsmith. For the sake of British politics, prove me wrong.
Ann Widdecombe's most recent novel is An Act of Treachery (Orion)