I’m writing this from the other side of the looking glass. Where I am, the 2019 election campaign has two weeks to go and everyone is terrified: where you are, it’s over and everyone is thoroughly satisfied that all issues have been successfully resolved.
It’s probably appropriate I’m writing from inside a cloud of unknowing, since most of the election campaign was conducted under one from the start. When a television network replaces political leaders with blocks of ice, when ministers bend the laws of language and arithmetic to define nurses staying on in their jobs as “more nurses”, when a serving prime minister can’t answer a simple question like “How many children do you have?” then something unreal is afoot.
Maybe it’s because the campaign took place in the run-up to Christmas that it involved so many people talking reverentially about things that were clearly made up and which not many people believed in. The electorate were called upon to have faith in statements never meant for rational analysis (“A Brexit trade deal will get done in six months”; “There is no anti-Semitism in the Labour Party”; “I’m Jo Swinson, and you’re looking at your next prime minister”).
I’m about to release my new film, The Personal History of David Copperfield, and much of my time has been spent in press interviews drawing attention to Dickens’s sharp eye for social injustice and the plight of those in poverty. I’ve been pushing him as a writer who has stark relevance today and as someone who plugs his keen imagination into the reality he sees around him. But what I gradually saw as the election campaign unfurled, is that what connects the novel David Copperfield with today’s political climate is that both are major works of fiction.
I can’t think of a better way of describing the state we’re in than as an increasingly fictional one. With the internet seeming to open so many more avenues to the truth, why do we always feel the truth is no nearer to us than a distant horizon? With more debates held, more carefully costed reports issued, and more living flesh being pressed than ever before, why do we still feel unheard and that we’d get more truthful answers from Santa’s grotto than in an Andrew Neil interview?
The answer is as frightening as it’s obvious: this whole thing is an entertainment; a complete work of fiction designed to captivate and distract our minds in the dark winter. An election is never about political issues because its sole purpose is to distract us from them. This was made explicit when Conservative Central Office explained that Boris Johnson was avoiding tough interviewers such as Andrew Neil because he was too busy running an election campaign. It made flesh the glorious indefinable mystery of modern politics: that it is now no longer an opportunity for us to meet and question our political representatives because those representatives are too busy out and about answering our questions somewhere else.
A campaign is a sequence of installations and performance spaces in which a number of people act out the role of political leader; their popularity is dependent on how convincingly they persuade us that they are capable, not of running the country, but of performing the role of a campaign leader. If they get in a good applause line in a debate, then that’s a win; if they mumble in front of a member of the public, it’s a loss. But what is understood by all is that it’s a game following a set of rules that run independent of reality.
As in any board or video game, you adopt a persona that may have nothing to do with your actual self. So in the game of politics, people take on avatars of candidates, and follow the rules of the game: you can call out your opponent if you think they’re vulnerable, you can insult them as long as the insult is witty, you can say things that sound impressive and memorable, you can give the answer you want to give and not the one your inquisitor wants to hear as long as you do it deftly, you can duck an interview if you think you can absorb the deduction in points. Players of this game think we play it as well, but we don’t. So, while they all sit in back rooms congratulating each other on how well they’ve played, we sit in our front rooms with our heads in our hands.
Up until now, like the rules of Fight Club, the rules of the game of politics were never discussed openly. This election, though, gamers got cocky and started voicing the unspoken for the first time.
For me, the moment of singularity came when the Conservatives changed the name of their Twitter account to FactCheckUK to diss anything Jeremy Corbyn said. It takes both guile and chutzpah to bring the two words “Fact” and “Check” into disrepute, but somehow they managed it in seconds. They were pleased with themselves because it got people talking, and Dominic Raab defiantly stared down the critics, saying that “no one gives a toss” about what goes on in social media. His “no one gives a toss” was the campaign’s version of Donald Trump’s “I could stand in Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” It was a very British version – less violent, no guns – but it marked the same moment: that we’re regarded as spectators rather than participants in the political diorama.
So, what happened on 12 December? You know, and as I write I don’t. I’m still in my Schrödinger’s Election where, as long as I don’t open the box, I’m unaffected by the decision. It’s an election in which people either called out the lies and the fiction or were beguiled by it. It marked either a more honest start to politics or the passing of the tipping point in the decline of truth.
So, what did you ask for this Christmas: politics or pantomime?
Armando Iannucci is the director and co-writer of “The Personal History of David Copperfield”, in cinemas from 24 January