Why does British fiction only portray politics as a mean, childish squabble? The BBC4 drama "The Thick of It" bears out an immature traditionby Jonathan Heawood / July 23, 2005 / Leave a comment
The stand-off between Downing Street and the BBC is well known, as are the scratchy relations with the national press. But now politicians are even starting to get cross with novelists. In a recent essay in the Financial Times magazine, former Europe minister Denis MacShane complained that Jonathan Coe’s The Closed Circle reads like “a kind of unending London Review of Books whine on the events in Britain in the last few years.” MacShane demanded to know why Coe and his contemporaries are incapable of writing about politics: “the very serious use of power undertaken since 1997, the mammoth changes in the way Britain is governed, its international profile, its attempts to rebalance social relations in favour of more fairness”—all this, MacShane argued, surely merits an attempt at art.
Novelists, alas, do not seem to be rising to this challenge. Instead, Jonathan Coe’s arch old Labour protagonist sums up the political history of the last eight years thus: “The left’s moved way over to the right, the right’s moved a tiny bit to the left, the circle’s been closed and everybody else can go fuck themselves.”
Likewise on television it is conventional wisdom that New Labour was born out of a Faustian pact whose signatories sold their socialist souls to the devil of electoral success. From The Project and The Deal to State of Play and BBC4’s new political satire, The Thick of It, the story is repeatedly told. Peter Mandelson, recognising the power of this kind of drama, complained that The Project (first screened on BBC1 in November 2002) was biased, inaccurate and corrosive of public trust (“Would the producers know one end of a national minimum wage from another?”).
Armando Iannucci’s foray into political television may not have the high-minded pretensions of earlier New Labour dramas, but it peddles the old story of spin and betrayal, albeit with comic brilliance. The Thick of It—largely written by Iannucci’s collaborator Jesse Armstrong—features a hapless minister, Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham), secretary of state for social affairs—and his team of useless yet manipulative civil servants. Like Yes, Minister, it is very male—all backslapping and backstabbing—and set in a department which is the home of a million barbs but very little policymaking.
In episode one, Abbot and his advisers are on their way to a press conference when the policy initiative they are to announce is suddenly withdrawn by No 10. They…