Michael Dobbs wrote the original House of Cards novel. Photo: Getty
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House of Cards creator Michael Dobbs: "I must have sold my soul"

The man behind television's most masterful political operator reveals the inspiration for his story, gives advice to the PM on the powers of persuasion, and recalls his own real-life political dramas.

“So this is our little office.” It’s an aside worthy of Francis Urquhart. Pithy, understated, and a little bit camp. Michael Dobbs, or Baron Dobbs of Wylye as he’s known around these parts, is showing me into the House of Lords chamber. But his awe at this opulent workplace gives him an innocence unexpected of the man behind House of Cards’ infamous antihero.

Dobbs is the author of House of Cards, the original novel published in 1989 about the machinations of an amoral fictional chief whip. Two further books to complete the trilogy and a BBC miniseries on, Urquhart has morphed into Frank Underwood, the modern-day Washington DC equivalent played by Kevin Spacey in three successful television series on the online streaming service, Netflix.

The story, a hit in the UK during the Nineties in its Westminster days, has become a sensation since its migration to the marble corridors of the Capitol.

The programme has been the most popular series ever on all of Netflix (that’s 6.4 per cent of subscribers who tuned in during the first 30 days after each season premiere), according to figures released in March.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in Season 3 of House of Cards. Photo: episode still

Dobbs is an executive producer of the US series, which means he “has as much involvement as I want”. He beams that it’s been “the happiest professional experience of my life”, and is currently working on a new drama based in Westminster with Borgen creator Adam Price.

Meanwhile, a fourth season of House of Cards has been lined up for next year, and Spacey and Robin Wright (who plays Underwood’s wife, Claire), have each picked up Golden Globe Awards for their performances (respectively Best Actor and Best Actress in a Television Series Drama) – a first for an online-only show.

And this all came about, as most things do, because of Margaret Thatcher.

Before he began writing, Dobbs was a Conservative party backroom boy, scurrying up the chain of command from speechwriter to special adviser to chief of staff. He was serving as the latter when, on the eve of the 1987 election, he fell out spectacularly with his then boss, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He was soon kicked into the political long grass, which was when he found time to write fiction.

“It all started because Maggie Thatcher beat me up and was actually rather cruel to me,” he says, looking softly out onto the Thames from a sunny spot on the Lords Terrace. “I don’t complain about that – politics is rough and tough. But it caused me great unhappiness for a while . . . [Despite] the fact that she could be absolutely horrid to me, I still regard her as being probably the greatest peacetime prime minister in the 20th century.”

It was on the day known as Wobble Thursday, exactly a week before polling day in ‘87. Thatcher was convinced she was losing the election (spoiler: she wasn’t), and “she took out all her pain and anger and frustration on me, when in fact I was perhaps the most innocent person in the room at the time”, says Dobbs with a sweet smile.

Soon after, the bruised former chief of staff found himself on holiday with his wife, sitting on the beach and scrawling two letters onto a piece of paper: “F U” – his soon to be protagonist’s initials, and a none-too-cryptic two fingers up at the page.

Although Dobbs denies his first and most successful novel is a “book of revenge”, the story begins and ends with a toppled prime minister, and he does reveal that the book was inspired by his experience of politics. “Most of the stuff I put into House of Cards was material from events I’d either seen, or participated in, or done, or watched other people do.”

Dobbs himself was tagged “Westminster's baby-faced hit man” by the Guardian in the Eighties because of his skill as a political operator. Indeed, although he is 66 years old, and merrily aware of growing older (he chuckles that he would like to write a play about the House of Lords with the title “The Zimmer Conspiracy”), Dobbs has a boyish look – all wide-eyed wonder beneath his sweep of tousled sandy-white hair. He even wears his stripy orange tie and smart waistcoat a little like a school uniform. It’s hard to imagine him as a Westminster machiavel.

So how much of the Urquhart/Underwood ruthlessness comes from him?

“Oh, not a lot,” he says. “Because I had to take reality and water it down. Politics is outrageous, it’s ridiculous. We do things that you couldn’t possibly get away with in a work of fiction.”

Dobbs’ theory is that brilliant politicians derive their ambition from private demons – and he himself doesn’t “have that sort of drive”.

“Great people have great vulnerabilities, great weaknesses, and that’s often the reason that pushes them onto the public scene,” Dobbs explains in a hushed voice. “Harold Macmillan was a cuckold all his life, and it was his official biographer, Alistair Horne, who said it was his private shames that drove him to his public duties. There’s a huge amount of truth in that for all great people. Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Gladstone...”

He adds: “What makes them different, more obsessive, more driven, is that there is a worm inside them, a worm of shame or guilt or anger that drives them beyond the normal, which is why they end up being able to do what they do.”

Dobbs’ preoccupation with politicians’ personal turmoil has made his creation so appealing to a general audience. It’s about people, not politics – an angle heightened by Urquhart and then Underwood’s shattering of the fourth wall to give asides to the audience throughout the action.

“It’s not about politics, it’s not about institutions,” Dobbs tells me. “It’s about power, it’s about personality, it’s about great ambition, it’s about weakness, it’s about wickedness. All of that was drummed into me when I was a schoolkid, because we were made to read Shakespeare.”

The late Ian Richardson, who starred as Urquhart in the BBC series, was a stage actor who had played Richard III among other Shakespeare leads. And Spacey had just completed a worldwide tour playing Richard III before beginning filming the first Netflix series in Baltimore in 2012.

Dobbs is ecstatic about his story being brought to life by such accomplished actors. “It requires the best possible acting to get away with it. It would look really clunky if it were done by somebody who wasn’t up to it. Ian Richardson, Kevin Spacey – I think somewhere along the way I must’ve sold my soul, because I’m not quite sure why I’ve been so lucky.”

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the first episode of the BBC's House of Cards miniseries. Photo: YouTube screengrab

Beau Willimon, the writer of the US series, who has also worked in politics, owes a great deal to his British counterpart’s focus on character over political minutiae. When I spoke to him following the release of the first series, he told me: “One of the things that I thought was so fantastic about the English original is it didn’t require that you be a political expert in order to enjoy it. We wanted to take that same approach . . . it doesn’t leave you by the side of the road as the political freight train rolls on past.”

Yet Dobbs has had his fair share of real-life political drama. As if working for Thatcher during the height of her premiership, and being in Downing Street with John Major at the very end wasn’t enough, Dobbs was present when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the 1984 Conservative party conference.

“I had been right in the path of that bomb for much of that previous day, working in [then President of the Board of Trade] Norman Tebbit’s room,” he recalls. (Tebbit’s wife Margaret was left permanently disabled by the bomb).

“I realised two things. First of all, how lucky I was to be able to walk out of that . . . Secondly, it made me realise just how dangerous politics was. I had some really good friends who were murdered.”

Dobbs recounts discussing plans for the future on Thatcher’s sofa with her Northern Ireland Secretary Airey Neave the day before he was murdered outside the window of the very same office by a car bomb as he was driving out of the Commons car park. He was also “fantastic chums” with Ian Gow, the Tory MP and minister who was also killed by an IRA-planted car bomb.

“It was rather symbolic,” Dobbs reflects. “Airey was murdered almost at the start, it was the 1979 election, as the election campaign was starting – Ian was murdered pretty much right at the end . . .

“It certainly conditioned my view about my own political future, and how to protect my family while I was doing it. It was certainly a major step on the way to being who or what I am today.”

Indeed, Dobbs is more at home as a close observer than an active participant. Two weeks before our interview, he went back to stay in the Grand for the first time since the bombing, because “as a writer, you need to keep testing yourself”.

His most recent foray into British politics was his attempt to push the Private Member’s Bill to legislate for an EU referendum through the Lords, which failed in January 2014. He believes “the European question has been a cancer, a huge distraction in this country”, and warns David Cameron to take a softly-softly, behind-the-scenes approach to his EU renegotiation. Urquhart-style persuasion, perhaps.

“Being a little sensitive about these issues is very important,” he says. “I've always suggested to my lords and masters who make these decisions that we must make sure the way this is handled should enable not only the country to come back together afterwards, but also our party to come back together afterwards.

“Some people want to take it one direction, others in a totally different direction . . . And actually, although sometimes I think we get the tone wrong, if we want to persuade people, it’s often better to talk quietly to them, which he’s [Cameron’s] doing, rather than shouting at them across the barricades, which is what many people have been doing for too long.”

And although Dobbs, who was present during the Tories’ 1992 election victory, says the current period reminds him more of 1983 than Major’s surprise win, he doesn’t see a smooth road ahead for his party: “You always know that when the pressure’s off on a party, they normally manage to screw it up themselves – that's the nature of politics,” he chuckles.

Dobbs was made a life peer in December 2010, and remains enchanted by the House of Lords. He still thinks to himself “how on earth did I end up here?” when walking through its halls, and finds the “characters so lovely”.

But there’s still a glint of the old steel: “This isn’t a perfect place,” he admits. “We do have people who shouldn’t be here, absolutely clear about that. We don’t have the right procedures to get rid of them, no matter how hard we try.”

Whether this results in one final political coup, or another work of Westminster-based fiction, remains to be seen. Dobbs is guarded about what he plans to do next, bringing to mind the words most repeated to him by his colleagues and friends – the old Urquhart catchphrase: “You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.”

House of Cards Season 3 is now available on Blu-ray & DVD

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.