The curious thing about the man with the most sustained influence on British politics in the past 25 years is that he has never worked in Westminster. He has never been an MP, a member of a trade union, or written a speech for a prime minister. He isn’t British, and has never had a professional interest in this country. He isn’t even particularly ideological. “I don’t really have my own politics,” Aaron Sorkin admitted in 2012. “I have no political agenda.”
No agenda, but Aaron Sorkin did write The West Wing. Seven seasons, 154 episodes, and 26 Emmys. Between 1999 and 2006, it told the story of President Jed Bartlet, played by an avuncular Martin Sheen, and his glamorous, witty senior aides. The West Wing’s signature visual gesture was the “walk and talk”: shots in which, as one later critic put it, “characters strut down hallways having intense conversations but do not actually appear to be going anywhere”. (It is impossible to find a better metaphor for politics so far in the 21st century.) Bartlet became a blueprint for those who craved an alternative to the scratchy, irritating reality of American politics as it actually existed.
It’s the same story in Britain: seemingly hopeless eras generate naive fantasies. During the fag-end of the Blair years, Sally Wainwright wrote The Amazing Mrs Pritchard for the BBC – probably the closest the UK has come to its own West Wing. Mrs Pritchard was about a proto-populist (but nice) supermarket manager (played by Jane Horrocks) who transforms British politics by accidentally becoming prime minister. As this final year of Conservative rule plays out, there’s a similarly apathetic current flowing through British life. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise to find the television writer Steven Moffat recently suggesting to the Times that it might be “necessary” to create a British version of The West Wing.
Moffat yearns for an idealistic counterpoint to sleazy, downbeat Tory Britain. The problem with cries for a British West Wing, though, is that they ignore how influential the original was. Sorkin’s alternative reality, where credentialled people can solve tricky problems by talking about them quickly with other credentialled people, became – and remains – an ideal on both sides of the Atlantic. “Like nearly every Democrat,” Barack Obama’s speechwriter David Litt wrote in his memoir, “I was raised, in part, by Aaron Sorkin.” When the Veep creator Armando Iannucci toured the Obama White House, he found it staffed by “political nerds”. They were “absolutely obsessed… They kind of hold that show in higher regard than their own job.” Ordinary people – or “real people, RPs” as Obama White House staffers referred to them – only existed in the sense that words would be showered down on them from the presidential lectern. RPs were not the point of politics. What excited Obama’s underlings, Iannucci recalled, was “the fictionalised versions of themselves”.
How do you make Ed Miliband cry? It’s quite easy. Plant him in front of series one, episode 19 of The West Wing. Asked in 2021 which political speech had the most impact on him, Miliband bypassed a century of Labour oratory, briskly skipped over Cicero and chose Sorkin. “One of [the president’s] staff has written a memo saying that he just compromised all the time and didn’t really stand for what he believed in,” Miliband said, as if he were talking about real events.
The memo, referred to as “let Bartlet be Bartlet”, convinces the president to speak his truth. “I used to play this for inspiration when I was a Labour leader,” Miliband said. “It always makes me tear up, actually.” When Miliband embarrassed David Cameron’s Conservatives over the phone hacking scandal in 2011, his aides believed he had discovered – at the relatively late age of 42 – who he was and what he stood for. The Guardian reported that his advisers ended meetings by declaring “let Bartlet be Bartlet”.
But “let Bartlet be Bartlet” was not just important for Miliband. Every Labour leader since Gordon Brown has been urged to be themselves on the basis of that scene. Let Corbyn be Corbyn… let Starmer be Starmer. It’s not just Labour, either. You’re never more than ten metres away from a West Wing super-fan in Westminster. Nick Clegg’s advisers reminded each other to let Nick be Nick when he was deputy prime minister. “We must let Boris be Boris,” suggested, of all people, Anthony Seldon in 2019. These torturous quests for authenticity are suggestive. Was anybody saying “let Bevan be Bevan” in 1946? Do “RPs” lounge around at home wondering how to be themselves? Probably not.
Today, Rishi Sunak’s chief of staff, Liam Booth-Smith, reportedly “draws inspiration” from The West Wing. Booth-Smith was raised on a council estate – unusual for a Conservative in his position. Yet he appears to understand politics through the lens of a TV show written by somebody who admitted that they don’t understand or care about politics. Sorkin was a musical theatre major. At the heart of The West Wing, he told an interviewer, was the simple idea that you could show people working in politics as “wanting to do good”, rather than “Machiavellian or dolts”. At no point did Sorkin suggest this was real. His idealism wasn’t much more than a pose. His fans have ignored this, and tried to make Sorkin’s fantasy real – with little success.
“We’ve got a problem,” Moffat said. “Our cynicism about our politics has resulted in cynical politicians.” A British version of The West Wing is his solution. He has things backwards. We’ve been governed by a political class who have clumsily lived out Sorkin’s show for 25 years. That might be why RPs are so cynical about politicians.
[See also: Rishi Sunak is digging his own grave]
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously