Spinning around: what our political fables reveal about us

Do the stories we tell ourselves need to be true?

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How should we make sense of politics in an age of uncertainty? In times of doubt and turmoil, we reach for familiar narratives that shape the mess of current affairs into a coherent form. And the messier the present gets, the simpler we need the stories we tell ourselves to be.

“Once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting.” So begins the author Rebecca Solnit’s recent psychological study of Donald Trump – a sinister fairy tale in which the president of the United States is envisaged as a child emperor, cosseted in a palace of mirrors  which are there only to indulge his self-regard.

Writing the appalling rise of Trump as a cautionary tale for children was a stroke of brilliance. It makes the inexplicable explicable: Solnit is knowingly playing on the unsettling sense that something has gone terribly wrong in the grand narrative of modern history – how can this man be president? But it also offers a measure of hope to the reader. We know how such fairy tales end: no one, least of all those in power, will escape being held to account by those below them.

If US politics currently looks like something out of a Brothers Grimm story, post-election Britain resembles Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The New Yorker’s satirical article “The Book of Jeremy Corbyn” recently styled the Labour leader as a sandal-wearing prophet of the people, emerging from the desert to challenge Theresa May’s avaricious “High Priestess”. The right-wing media is implicated: “And the chief scribes wrote upon tablets, saying, Jeremy is false of tongue. He hideth wickedness in his heart. And his sums do not add up . . . And nobody paid any attention.”

These fables, by reaching for the fictional, often cut straight to the truth. They have the ring of psychological accuracy to them. In our “post-truth” world of “alternative facts”, in which the weirdness of current events seems to outstrip even the imaginative capacities of political satire, this kind of storytelling seems to be a particularly fitting medium in which to tell the truth.

How often have you looked at the news during the past few weeks and months and thought, “You couldn’t make it up”? Why not, then, make it up? Why no reach for myths, fairy tales, or archetypes to make sense of reality?

Yet invented stories can distract us from the truth. We call political storytelling “spin” for good reason: we know that there are media moguls and spin doctors out there, behind the scenes, weaving a narrative that distracts us from what is really going on. And the stories that politicians choose to present us with are revealing. You can learn a great deal about a person from their favourite story.

The Conservative Party’s favourite allegory is the assassination of Caesar, which has been used at least since the ousting of Margaret Thatcher to interpret every instance of strife within the party’s upper echelons. When asked for comment on the resignations of Theresa May’s advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, for instance, Jacob Rees-Mogg reportedly quipped, “When Caesar is under attack, the Praetorian guard must sacrifice themselves.”

Rees-Mogg’s spiritual classmate in Latin grammar, Boris Johnson, made a similar analogy following Michael Gove’s leadership bid after the EU referendum, alluding to a speech by Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as he announced his decision to bow out of the leadership race.

This is very telling. It suggests that the Conservative Party has, of late, been focused on its own internecine disputes at the expense of the national interest. While the country is left in disarray – the result of two Conservative prime ministers calling for a national vote in failed attempts to shore up their own power – Tory politicians are busy reaching for grand Shakespearean comparisons for themselves and wondering who is going to stab whom in the back.

You may notice that they play all the main characters in their allegory and that we plebs don’t feature very much in this classical storytelling. In addition, no one seems to have realised that the events of the Ides of March make for a terrible contemporary analogy, because the death of Caesar led to civil war.

Meanwhile, the Brexit negotiations are due to begin this week. May’s language of “hard Brexit” has become increasingly confrontational, to the point that it seems as if she genuinely conceives of Britain’s relationship with the EU as a kind of diplomatic war. Indeed, war stories are frequently reached for by Brexiteers, who describe the referendum as a Battle of Britain-esque stand against Europe (forgetting the Polish, Czech, Irish, French and Belgian squadrons that fought alongside British pilots).

But we are not at war over Brexit, and it damages the political debate to use a poor reading of Second World War history as a way of conceiving of our position in Europe. Narratives are reassuring, but there is a fine line between fiction and fantasy. Telling a story is, in a way, an exercise in power, because the storyteller chooses which parts can be left out of view.

We need to question the stories we are given and why we are being given them. And we need to ask whether the stories we tell ourselves are true. 

Hannah Rose Woods recently completed a PhD in the history of emotions at the University of Cambridge, where she taught modern British history. She is currently writing a book on nostalgia in British culture.