Centre for British Politics

Fiction and British Politics: Abstracts

Panel A

Maureen Whitebrook, Nick Randall, Matthew Bailey

Panel B

Stephen Coleman, Alan Finlayson

Panel C

Edward H Cohen, Sarah Lonsdale, Shannon Granville

Panel D

Valentina Cardo, Aristotelis Nikolaidis, Clare Griffiths, Laura Beers


Related Links



Panel A

Maureen Whitebrook, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield

'Reflecting on politics and fiction'

This paper will raise a number of key issues associated with the fictional depiction of politics, ones embedded in the quotes listed below.

... the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate ... I think aesthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching because it deals with life in its highest complexity. But if it ceases to be purely aesthetic - if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram - it becomes the most offensive of all teaching ... [George Eliot, in response to a suggestion that she incorporate ideas of Comtean positivism in a novel]

... the special job of literature is, as Marianne Moore puts it, the creation of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” ... although the novel in certain of its forms resembles the accumulatory and classificatory sciences ... in certain other of its forms the novel approximates the sciences of experiment. And an experiment is very like an imaginary garden which is laid out for the express purpose of supporting a real toad of fact. The apparatus of the researcher’s bench is not nature itself, but an artificial and extravagant contrivance, much like a novelist’s plot, which is devised to foster or force a fact into being.” [Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination]

“Politics in a work of literature,” wrote Stendhal, “is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar, and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.”

The remark is very shrewd, though one wishes that Stendhal, all of whose concerts are interrupted by burst of gunfire, had troubled to say a little more. Once the pistol is fired, what happens to the music? Can the noise of the interruption ever become part of the performance? When is the interruption welcome and when is it resented? [Irving Howe, opening comment to Politics and the Novel]

It’s not a re-enactment, it’s a reflection [the producer on the film Frost-Nixon]

Nick Randall, Newcastle University

You might very well think that, but can we possibly comment? Political fictions in British film and on TV as vernacular theories of British politics .

Political film and television have been approached from a variety of different perspectives – as instruments to achieve political ends, as windows upon the political configuration of a past period, as exercises in political mythmaking and as instruments of political socialization. One persistent tendency across such approaches is to highlight the imperfections of such fictional representations of politics in moving images. For example, Gianos identifies conventions that lead (American) political fiction films to sugarcoat and personalise their subject matter, choose safe topics, avoid characters with clear partisan identifications and strive to present political issues in the most ambivalent ways possible.  Similarly, Christiensen bemoans that American political films “could be stronger, more complex and more profound”.

This paper will suggest that, notwithstanding such tendencies, we should view political fictions in British film and on TV as acts of conscious political thinking which, implicitly or explicitly, advance a range of theoretical contentions about the nature of British politics. Accordingly, the paper will review a selection of fictional representations of British politics on TV and in film in the last thirty years with the aim of identifying such theoretical contentions across issues including the nature of political leadership, the role of the media, the nature of political parties and the character of the British state. Working from the presumption that these will constitute a body of ‘vernacular theory’ distinct from those theories which circulate amongst practitioners and scholars of British politics, it will compare and contrast the two bodies of theories. The paper will conclude by reflecting upon and accounting for the intersections and divergences between these theoretical perspectives.

Matthew Bailey, Research Fellow, Centre for British Politics, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham

‘You make Machiavelli sound like Godfrey Winn’: should British political fiction be more like The West Wing?

With the success in the UK (at least in certain quarters) of the US series The West Wing, several commentators have posed the question of why British fictional depictions of the political process cannot attain or aspire to that series’ seductiveness and, more importantly, its idealism. Instead, various concerned parties – including Cabinet Ministers - have worried about the sclerotic effect that television programmes and novels such as Yes, Minister, Jonathan Coe’s The Closed Circle, and most recently The Thick of It, might have in their representation of a political world that is (at best) off-putting to the average voter.

Such concerns are nothing new: Labour MPs in the House of Commons and in reviews were horrified at the possible effects for both Party and politics from the publication of Wilfred Fienberg’s posthumous 1959 novel No Love for Johnnie. Indeed British political fiction can appear to be awash with insincere, Machiavellian or just plain useless politicians; or if the politician is not overtly corrupt or contaminated, the system in which they operate usually is. Against this background, attempts at a portrayal of a different kind of politics - such as the recent television drama The Amazing Mrs Pritchard - seem conspicuous by their failure to convince. This paper then, will seek to address this apparent propensity towards the cynical depiction of politics and politicians in British fiction.

[Return to Top ]

Panel B

Alan Finlayson, Department of Politics and Cultural Studies, Swansea University & Elizabeth Frazer, Department of Politics, Oxford University

‘Fictions of Sovereignty: Shakespeare, Theatre and the Representation of Rule’

This paper argues that there is a special significance for politics, to be found in theatrical representations of sovereign rule. It explores this through examples found in Shakespearean drama.

The first part of the paper makes a case for the importance of the fictional representation of politics. The capacity to produce and circulate such representations is a manifestation and demonstration of the democratic freedom for anyone to say whatever they want about the community, to make up and imagine it as they might. Furthermore, such fictions are also one of the sources and types of knowledge about the community. The second part argues that in this context theatrical and dramatic representations of politics are of particular significance. There is a close connection between theatrical performance and political performance; the fictions of the stage and the fictions of rule. Theatre/drama offers an opportunity to explore the staging and performing of sovereignty (and this is as evident in contemporary popular television political drama as it is in classical and Elizabethan theatre). However, it is important not to see stage representations as simply and only exposing the falsehood of rule. What matters is not that sovereignty be real rather than fictional but how it is performed and whether or not such a performance is adequate to the needs of a particular moment. Theatre, we argue, is an excellent medium for asking just this question and Shakespeare exemplary at staging it. In the third part we discuss a number of scenes from Shakespeare in which performances of sovereignty are at issue: the Cade rebellion in 2, Henry VI; Lear’s refusal of rule; Coriolanus’ failure to perform; Vincentio and Angelo in Measure for Measure.

In conclusion we reiterate that exposure of sovereignty as a performance does not alone invalidate it; the important matter is whether or not it is performed ‘well’. This is a lesson to be taken on board by contemporary dramatists - be they of the stage or the legislature.

Stephen Coleman, Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds

‘Imagining the Voter’

Voting is a central symbolic and instrumental act in democratic societies, but voters have rarely been the subject of fiction. It is as if the act of voting is so secret, mysterious and (perhaps) shameful that it cannot be depicted.

This paper will consider four narratives of voting. First, voting as ideal deliberation. The example here will be the film, Twelve Angry Men, which imagines voting as a dramatic conclusion to a long and painful process of deliberation. Second, voting as ritual. This will draw upon the long, and often forgotten, history, of elections as great dramaturgical moments. Dickens’ account of the Eatanswill election in The Pickwick Papers will be the example considered here. Third, voting as routine. The example here will be Matt Charman’s 2009 play, The Observer, in which an election monitor in an un-named democratising state is torn between standards of electoral regulation and aspirations for political justice. Finally, voting as anomaly. This will draw upon examples of voting going wrong. William Douglas Home’s 1947 play, The Chiltern Hundreds, which, through its inversion of class partisan loyalties, will be the example here.

The paper will argue that, as in all social performances, voting is a product of complex and contested narratives which partly constitute what they claim to represent. It will invite readers to think imaginatively about the social performance of voting and will refer to my collaboration with a group of dramatists whose production based on my own interviews with voters is going to be performed at the Battersea Arts Centre and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 

[Return to Top ]

Panel C

Edward H. Cohen, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, USA

Politics and Truth in the Sherlock Holmes Stories

'It is because fiction does not normally deal with "politics" directly'-writes Catherine Belsey-'that it is ostensibly innocent and therefore ideologically effective.'  This paper examines just how innocent and how ideologically effective are representations of politics and politicians in the Sherlock Holmes stories, especially those that center upon (what Watson denominates) the 'official scandals of the late Victorian era.'

In several of Holmes's adventures-'The Naval Treaty', 'The Second Stain', and 'The Bruce-Partington Plans', among others-the credibility of the scandals and of their actors depends on Doyle's strategies of deconstructing the fictionality of the stories themselves. These cases negotiate curious juxtapositions between truth and deception, honor and disgrace, detection and diplomacy; and the political figures in them are at once open and closed, secure and vulnerable, admirable and reprehensible. Those who hold political offices and appointments-from an old school chum who serves as MP for his district to the secretary for European affairs to the prime minister himself-are depicted both positively and negatively.  But to what end? How does this tension promote Doyle's project, which Belsey identifies as 'the truth about ideology, the truth which ideology represses, its own existence as ideology itself’?

Shannon Granville, Independent Scholar

Yes, Prime Minister and the Westland Affair: A Tale of Two Resignations

On the morning of 9 January 1986, the controversy over the Westland helicopter defence contract reached a high point of drama when Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine walked out of a Cabinet meeting and subsequently tendered his resignation to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Later that same evening, the first episode of Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s satirical sitcom Yes, Prime Minister aired on BBC2 —and despite the turmoil in her government, Margaret Thatcher tuned in to watch her fictional counterpart Jim Hacker struggle with the demands of his new job.

Although the furore over the Westland affair died down not long after Heseltine’s resignation, the dramatic potential of such an event was not lost on Yes, Prime Minister’s creators. Scarcely two years later, on 3 December 1987, the second series of Yes, Prime Minister opened with a episode that mirrored many of the events of the Westland affair, complete with a Cabinet minister’s indignant resignation. Yes, Prime Minister’s adaptation of the Westland affair is a notable example of political fiction that shares an uneasy border with political reality. A closer examination of the event and the episode that it inspired provides a unique perspective on the opportunities and limitations of political fiction, particularly regarding the need to maintain both its authenticity and its ambiguity in order to have the maximum effect on its audience.

Sarah Lonsdale, Centre for Journalism, University of Kent

From heroes to zeroes: the representation of journalists and the press in British fiction 1909 – 1918’

Successive Education and Reform Acts in the late C19 produced, by the early years of the C20, a progressively literate population and millions more people in Britain interested in politics and current affairs, catered for by Alfred Harmsworth and his imitators. This led to a rapid increase in newspaper circulation and readership and employment opportunities for young writers; thousands of bright young men and women from modest backgrounds found employment in an expanding Fleet Street. This inspired a proliferation (between 1909 – 1914) of novels and other fictional works written by journalists about their ‘bright’ new trade, featuring journalists performing heroic acts in search of the truth and in pursuit of wrongdoers, both political and criminal (e.g. Psmith Journalist by P.G.Wodehouse (1909/10); The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat by Rudyard Kipling (written 1913/14); Street of Adventure by Philip Gibbs (1909); Mightier than the Sword by Alphonse Courlander (1912) and A Hind Let Loose by C E Montague (1910). These works also address other issues of the day relevant to journalists including the links between newspaper ownership and political power, labour relations, the emancipation of women and new technology.

However, by 1918, this ‘heroic’ image had been replaced by ‘yellow pressmen’ being bayoneted by returning soldiers and ‘fat patriots’ sitting in the comfort of their Fleet Street offices stoking up jingoism and propaganda, as depicted by the War Poets such as Sassoon, Owen, Graves and Thomas. This paper examines how the heroic image of the journalist was born, lived briefly and changed so dramatically and concludes that a combination of military censorship, self-censorship, the press’s dissemination of jingoistic lies that were subsequently found out and the ennoblement of press barons brought into Government to take on the role of propagandists changed the image of the journalist forever. In addition I examine how the war correspondents’ accepted reporting style, evolved during the Boer Wars, proved hopelessly inadequate to tell the story of a  tragedy on the scale of the Great War. In short, the press had broken the sacred tenets of Fourth Estate journalism: to tell the people the truth and shine a light in dark places. Subsequent portrayals of journalists in the 1930s and throughout the C20 were to be deeply disenchanted, thoroughly cynical and downright vile.

[Return to Top ]

Panel D

Clare Griffiths, Department of History, University of Sheffield

'Public-spirited fictions: Winifred Holtby and the politics of the middlebrow in 1920s and 1930s Britain’

 When South Riding was published in 1936, the Daily Herald’s reviewer declared Winifred Holtby’s posthumous bestseller to be ‘the most public-spirited novel of her generation’. With a plot revolving around personal principles and social responsibility, South Riding was a novel which exemplified the mood of a series of middlebrow fictions published between the wars, exposing social ills and exploring the role of professionals and public bodies in addressing these.

Yet, despite an overt engagement with public questions, these books were often subtle or non-committal in their political allegiances. Their authors, including writers such as A. J. Cronin, Francis Brett Young and Phyllis Bentley, presented social dramas and principled protagonists in a form which evidently struck a chord with readers. This paper examines the views of society and the ideas about political action which emerge from Holtby’s novels, discussing these in the context of the marketing, reviewing and consumption of middlebrow literature in this period. Whether as the deliberate intention of their authors, or through the manner of their reception amongst the reading public, these books offered a form of civic education about modern society: as it functioned in fact, and as it might be changed for the future. Decried by some on the left as dangerously apolitical and far too comfortable in their presentation of social reality, many of the bestselling novels offered their own critique of the state of the nation, presenting us with an opportunity to think about the role of fiction within the shaping of public opinion and a space for debating many of the key questions of the day, in an arena seemingly far removed from the political sphere.

‘The challenges of being a woman in politics as seen through Ellen Wilkinson’s fiction’

Laura Beers, American University, Washington, DC

In addition to her political career Ellen Wilkinson also wrote two popular novels.  The first, Clash, which was serialized in the Daily Express during the 1929 general election campaign, was described by that paper as “a story about modern politics – and love,” set against the backdrop of the 1926 General Strike.   Her second novel, The Division Bell Mystery, was also initially serialized in the Express. Both are intimately concerned with politics, although Clash is the only one that is actively political.  In the Division Bell Mystery politics, and specifically the goings on in parliament, provide the backdrop against which the rather conventional locked-room murder mystery is played out.  The other concern that ties the two works together is their preoccupation with women.  Both novels have a female heroine who bears a strong resemblance to Wilkinson.  The MP used fiction to explore one of the tensions of her own life and career.  Both in her work with trade union organization and in parliament, she was a woman in a predominantly male world, and it is significant that the heroine of her first novel, Joan Craig, shares her Christian name as Joan of Arc, the quintessential displaced woman. 

For a young woman in interwar Britain, a career in politics opened up many possibilities, but it also alienated her from the interests and preoccupations of other “ordinary” woman – a theme that Wilkinson explores in Clash. The comfortable intimacy and interaction with men that Wilkinson’s career afforded her led to both opportunities for friendship, and often ambiguous sexual relationships.  The high dose of flirtation and banter that took place in the normal course of the workday could be both exhilarating and confusing – a theme foregrounded in The Division Bell Mystery. Both novels showcase a large supporting cast of female characters. As with other works of fiction, the way in which these women were depicted offers an insight into contemporary attitudes about gender, as well as a more specific insight into the Wilkinson’s perceptions and prejudices about her fellow women.  

Valentina Cardo, School of Political, Social and International Studies, University of East Anglia

‘The Amazing Mrs Politician: British Television Entertainment and Women in Politics’

This paper focuses on the representation of female politicians in popular television programmes, such as A Very British Coup, House of Cards, Margaret Thatcher: the Long Walk to Finchley, Thatcher: the Final Days, The Alan Clark Diaries, The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard. Through a content analysis of selected scenes, the paper analyses the rhetorical frames around which the female characters portrayed in these programmes have been constructed. The questions it addresses are concerned with the standards of representation of political representatives in British fiction. It asks what the relationship between political fiction and political ‘reality’ is and what type of politician the fictionalised female representative embodies: do the ‘rules’ of political representation apply to popular television portrayal of female politicians? Are accountability and trust the bases upon which fictional citizens vote for their representative?

This paper is part of a wider project that is borne out of a larger rationale. That is, the idea that democracy is allegedly in crisis and that citizens lack trust in institutions and their representatives, because politics is being ‘dumbed down’ by popular culture. Much has been written about the links between politics and popular culture. The investigation of political representation mainly focuses on audiences reactions, institutional approaches, celebrity politics and historical comparisons. Similarly, the existing literature on gender, political representation and the mass media mainly investigates the news media. Work on gender, political representation and popular culture tends to focus on celebrity politics, audience research and analyses of American drama series. What appears to be missing form the existing literature is a focus on the construction of images of female politicians in British fiction. Drawing upon political theory’s notion of representation, this paper examines whether the cultural representations of female politicians in television entertainment reproduces traditional gender stereotypes or whether it offers more positive role models. I argue that to understand how women politicians are culturally represented sheds light on changing values of and ideas about political representation.

Aristotelis Nikolaidis, Athens University of Economics and Business

‘The Unexpected Prime Minister: British Politics, Class and Gender in Television Fiction’

This paper provides a comparative analysis of the television dramas A Very British Coup (1988, Channel 4) and The Amazing Mrs Pritchard (2006, BBC One). Both share the format of the mini series (three and six episodes respectively) and depict unconventional characters residing at 10 Downing Street after landslide electoral victories. In the case of the former, Labour leader Harry Perkins, steelworker and trade unionist from Sheffield, becomes Prime Minister on the basis of a radical agenda of nuclear disarming and social reform. In the case of the latter, Ros Pritchard, an ordinary housewife and supermarket manager from Yorkshire, founds a new political party and wins the general election under the banner of honesty, trust and the will to make a difference for the common people.

The paper examines both narratives in relation to their respective historical contexts, namely Thatcherism and the New Labour era; secondly, it analyses the representation of the same set of traditions, conventions and rituals that prevail in British political culture; and thirdly, it examines the portrayal of the Prime Minister in terms of the relation between gender and power and reflects upon the dualistic division between the public and the private. The paper argues that both forms of representation address the issue of popular sovereignty, albeit in substantially different terms. The Labour government of Harry Perkins is conditioned by a narrative framework of polarised class struggle; in contrast, the government of Ros Pritchard signifies a consensual political context. Furthermore, both characters face the dilemma of resignation; nonetheless, Perkins is blackmailed on the basis of fabricated accusations of treason relating to a former love affair, while Pritchard must either step down or divorce her husband due to his involvement in corruption. In this respect, both texts depict a link between the public and the private and place the characters in a condition of crisis which is personal as well as systemic.


Centre for British Politics

School of Politics and International Relations
Law and Social Sciences building
University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

+44 (0)115 846 8135