What’s wrong with British political storytelling?

Over on his blog Marbury there’s an excellent piece by Ian Marbury on his love of American politics, which was originally written for the RSA’s Fellowship newsletter. It includes this:

But if American politics got under my skin it wasn’t because it represented some noble democratic ideal, but because it was a source of the best and the biggest stories (I’m a writer, after all). An American presidential election is the highest narrative form democracy ever created. It is an epic drama, played out on the grandest of stages, containing all the Greek themes: power, money, war, fate, family, human ambition and human frailty. Its structure is essentially gladitorial: every four years, the combatants enter the arena knowing that by the end only one will be left standing. Their fortunes trace long, criss-crossing arcs that end in disappointment, disaster, or – for one man or woman and their legions of supporters – triumph. In dramatic terms, at least, it beats proportional representation.

When I returned to Britain in 2002, British politics seemed cramped and provincial by comparison. Front page headlines had the flavour of a gossip column in a local newspaper reporting on the machinations of the parish council. Was Gordon upset with Tony this week? It was hard to care.

Like Ian, I find myself fascinated with American politics, and follow it almost as much as I follow the British stuff. And like him, I find the American flavour stronger and more interesting. I’ve always thought the reason for this is at least partly the way mainstream British political coverage is set up to discuss ‘process’ (as Alistair Campbell used to call it) rather than policy.

We see this time and time again from the BBC and the main newspapers. Announcements are discussed not for their content, but for what they might suggest about the way politicians are positioning themselves. I saw it today, when the Coalition government pushed through the highest profile reduction of the welfare state in a generation, when the question being asked more than any other has been “what does this say about the Coalition’s chances at the next election?” Discussions of the merits of the policy, the economics of it, the effects on the ground, are few and far between.

I think political journalists somehow imagine that these tales of manoeuvring among politicos are somehow more compelling than the substantive debates over policy. I think they’re wrong, and I think American media has a different approach. To quote Mr Campbell again, we should cover politics with the same attention to detail, and the same resources, as we cover sport.

Even more, as John Rentoul stated in his recent Independent column, it’s events that dictate politics. Not the other way around:

My conclusion, therefore, is that the next election won’t depend on how far Labour is ahead now. Nor will it depend, in any quantifiable way, on how well the economy does over the next two years. Obviously, if people feel more secure in their jobs and more hopeful about their family finances, that will make it easier for the coalition parties, but it really depends on how much the Chancellor can persuade us that it was down to his stewardship and that he knows what to do next.

As a final point, this Tweet from Daniel Knowles of the Economist earlier today really resonated with me. Interestingly, the Economist is one of the few cultural affairs publications that puts policies above personalities.

 

About Lloyd Shepherd

Lloyd is the author of The English Monster and The Poisoned Island. He lives in London, but dreams of Manchester.

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