There is an incoherence in our politics, a lack of storytelling, which is now so familiar we barely even notice. Take for example the State Opening of parliament and the King’s Speech on 7 November… it included self-driving vans, bad Mick Lynch, cigarettes. Rapists. But not all rapists. Bang them up. Empty the prisons. Oil and gas licences. Also net zero.
Am I being mean? This was a highly political, rightwards-jinking pre-election legislative menu of the kind many a government would reach for. But these are extremely dangerous and significant times. I cannot be alone in yearning for better, more serious storytelling about them. By storytelling I don’t mean lies. I mean the duty of elected politicians to give their societies a sense of where they’re placed in the world, and where they’re heading.
In the furore of these overheating days and Western decline, does anyone in Whitehall have clear thoughts, or a clear plan, about the future? It’s time to acknowledge the obvious: we have a moral and intellectual hole sitting in the middle of our democracy.
This thought, perhaps more of a howl, has been provoked by two people. One is Robert Habeck, the vice-chancellor of Germany and a Green politician. In a recent video – look it up online – he made a serious explanation of the danger of anti-Semitism to German democracy. He spoke with a moral force that brings a lump to the throat or a tear to the eye. I cannot imagine any British politician speaking so well.
The second was a more predictable pin-up: the former US president Barack Obama talking on 3 November about the need to admit complexity and hold apparently opposite ideas in one’s head in order to win the argument about peace in the Middle East. Obama’s record as president in the region was mixed: his “red lines” on the prohibition of chemical weapons use in Syria were flouted by the Assad regime; the Americans left Libya in chaos after Muammar al-Gaddafi was ousted in 2011. But more recently the way he spoke about Israel and Gaza was eloquent, realistic, sophisticated.
[See also: Has Starmer dared Sunak to sack Braverman?]
Storytelling is not a frippery but perhaps the hardest thing any politician can do – concentrate on the realities of the world, apply a moral and intellectually coherent take on them, and speak in such a way as to try to change the minds of those listening. An ambitious storyteller finds no hiding place for weak analysis or wishful thinking; for dancing away from the nub of the matter, as so many do in interviews; or for self-congratulatory bombast of a kind we may find familiar.
I’ve been lucky enough to hear good storytellers. Neil Kinnock, gloriously riffing on a written text like Charlie Parker with his fingers over a tune; or Margaret Thatcher with her back resolutely up against a wall, were two obvious examples. Tony Blair tried to make sense of his world and assumed it was part of the job; and Gordon Brown, grinding out moral certainties like rough-hewn blocks of granite in a speech on economics, is not to be forgotten.
This is partly about eloquence but not entirely. When I first arrived in the Commons as a young reporter, two MPs could empty the bars and restaurants as soon as their names appeared on the old annunciator – Tony Benn and Enoch Powell. People would leave their drinks to listen because these were compelling speakers – but really, few in the audience believed or signed up to their stories. Nor am I talking about the simple demolition-job oratory, the greatest example of which I heard was Robin Cook’s devastating take-down of the reasons for going to war in Iraq on 17 March 2003 – when Cook spoke on the bigger “ethical foreign policy” vista he was much less persuasive.
The pity is that today the “condition-of-Britain question” is so interesting and requires the attention of good storytellers urgently, but there aren’t any. After Brexit we are outside the big blocs, and haven’t a clue as to whether we should be a potent, friendly satellite of the EU, or Little America – even if it’s a US under a second, even angrier, term of President Trump.
Should we turn our back on Chinese-dominated globalisation and try to “re-shore” manufacturing, or is that a hopeless ambition for a country of our size? We are listened to on climate change if – and only if – we play our part. As a country that now threatens or intimidates nobody, we can today explore soft power and influence in ways that could be very creative – as Simon McDonald, the former Foreign Office permanent secretary, recommends in a new book, Beyond Britannia. Has anyone in power read it?
More immediately, as the intolerable horror in Gaza brings many thousands of people to the British streets, beyond the blandest platitudes about a two-state solution, what kind of future do our leaders see for that region?
They know perfectly well – they must – that the killing and dismemberment of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military will lead to a new generation of vengeful soldiers, who may feel compelled to attack both the Middle East and Europe in 20 years’ time. So, when will our politicians turn to the glaring injustice that is the West Bank? When will they speak directly to distressed British Muslims, acknowledging that the dead children under piles of rubble in Gaza are just as great a loss to the world as the children murdered by Hamas in Israel?
In our secular and post-Christian culture, how do Britain’s leading politicians propose to deal with the fringe of militant Islamism inside the country? So far, they seem to be outsourcing the entire problem to Suella Braverman. This does not seem a good idea.
I can’t be alone in yearning for some political storytelling on these wider themes. Keir Starmer has now made two strong conference speeches, laying out a domestic agenda. But they are stronger on the need to rebuild after the chaos of the Tory years, and on education and class, than on why a Labour Britain will feel like a better place to live in; and we have had far too little on foreign policy from him.
This may be based on a belief that voters are less interested in foreign affairs. But after the past few weeks, that must be changing. Neil Kinnock used to say that foreign affairs didn’t matter until, suddenly, it was the only thing that did. With a possible economic shock coming as a result of the Israel-Hamas war, we are back into that territory.
In the age of Twitter/X (which sounds, appropriately, like the title of a dystopian comic book), political life has become faster and more pressurised – though the Commons seems to manage to sit less often than ever. In the hunger for soundbites, snack-sized interviews and instant-response politics, it’s easy to see why the bigger-scale, more thoughtful storytelling has been lost. But it’s a huge loss.
For obvious reasons, in the 2020s British politicians may be queasy about asserting moral judgements; they may wonder how much authority they still have. Yet political storytelling is the heart of a successful democracy. And right now, for all its pomp and circumstance, ours feels like a strangely heartless one.
Andrew Marr appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, speaking to David Reynolds about Winston Churchill and the leaders who shaped him, on 18 November (cambridgeliteraryfestival.com)
This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury