In bookshops up and down the country, a new kind of literary movement is taking place. Hundreds of young protesters are strolling in to stores and quietly moving copies of Tony Blair’s autobiography from the display stacks on to shelves devoted to mystery and crime fiction. Blair’s smug visage on the dust jacket of A Journey is of a man who knows that the public is finally buying his side of the story, at least technically speaking. By placing that creepy grin firmly underneath a big sign that says “Crime”, these guerrilla librarians are trying to make sure that people know what they’re getting into.
It’s this sort of thing that gives me hope for my generation. The protest group, which coalesced spontaneously online, is polite to the point of self-parody. A serious and energetic discussion is taking place on the group’s Facebook page about whether or not the demonstration will overly inconvenience hard-working bookshop employees.
While they’re about it, there are a few more political tomes that could do with a little reshelving: Phillip Blond’s Red Tory, for example, would fit well in the folklore and fantasy section. Behind the cheeky rag-week japery, however, is a nuanced message about political narrative and how it is deployed.
The public outrage that has accompanied Blair’s book-signings – with shoes and eggs flung at the former premier in Dublin early this month – is no longer really about Blair himself. It’s not even wholly about the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq since 2003 and in Afghanistan since 2001. Ultimately, this is about us – about the generation that came to political awareness in the earliest years of the 21st century and the stories we tell ourselves about neoliberalism, globalisation and the articulation of politics.
The years of Anglo-American warmongering that followed September 2001 shaped my awareness of government and its role. Still far too young to vote, I skipped school to travel to London to protest against the proposed invasion of Iraq in early 2003, shinning up some traffic lights to watch a seething swell of human outrage shuffle politely along Waterloo Bridge to say firmly and definitively: “Not in our name.” Weeks later, we went to war anyway and it was in our names. The memory of that betrayal hasn’t faded.
It was a defining political moment for those of us who gained language after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after what Francis Fukuyama prosaically called “the end of history”. Unlike previous cohorts, we did not grow up with any variant of socialism as an implicit alternative to public policy.Instead, we had the monolithic, cartoonish neoliberalism of the Blair years.
It came as a painful shock when we suddenly learned that neoconservative narratives don’t have to be true or even convincing for the public to swallow them: they just have to tell a strong story.
More protests are planned for every leg of Blair’s book tour, but our rage at Blair is partly angry embarrassment at ourselves for buying his story the first time round. We are justly furious at the public and parliamentary consensus of 2003 for accepting a simple children’s fairy tale of international politics, with goodies and baddies who need to be dealt with. The trouble is that it’s happening again – this time with Tory economic policy.
Little by little, David Cameron’s simple story about the unavoidability of public spending cuts and the importance of sharing the pain equally between single mothers and the long-term sick is gaining public credence.
The fable that Britain has been living beyond its means and now needs to cut back is being swallowed, just as the simple story about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was swallowed in 2003. Nobody is really convinced – but this is the narrative that the public has started to accept, suspending its disbelief yet again, instead of considering that the government might not have the best interests of the people at heart.
That the leering Aesop of neoliberal contumacy – Tony Blair himself – comes out in cheery support of Cameron’s economic policies in the pages
of A Journey should alert us that we are being spun another dodgy story with the potential to shatter lives.
The only proper response to these brutally cartoonish versions of events is to keep moving the suspicious stories to the right part of the bookshop. It’s a habit that needs to be preserved. Even at the height of our dissidence, my generation will never be the type to burn books. We will, however, wilfully and deliberately recategorise them, especially when we feel we’re being sold the wrong story.
Laurie Penny’s column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.