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Graeme Archer: Overlapping narratives

One of the (many) bad things about age creeping up on you (the encroachment of the ‘is’, winning daily victories against the ‘ought’) is that you get so fixed in your ways. I now have a catalogue of must-be-done-like-this obsessions: must sit on the first carriage of the train; must always be at least thirty minutes early for an appointment; must wash the white towels, first, at 90 degrees C, and only then consider the coloured cottons at their permissively lower temperatures; must never start to read another novel before finishing the one on the go just now, and so on.

Oh well. I’m on holiday, and though, as with every break from work, I told myself that this time I would relax enough to sort out what it is I really want from life and how to reconfigure myself to achieve it, of course the days are passing fast, I’m nearly back in the office, and almost nothing about me has altered in the slightest. I’m a little browner, and more expert than ever on Brighton’s hostelries, but other than that I’m nearly the same bundle of neuroses and surprised joy that I was ten days ago. But I have made one change. I’ve allowed the books I’m reading to overlap.

Not that this was anything other than a matter of necessity. On my iPad I had nearly finished Simon Brett’s The Witness At The Wedding. Without any slight to Mr Brett, whom I revere, his murder mysteries aren’t very taxing, and help me cope with the daily commute. But I also downloaded Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question after reading the Booker winner’s reviews, and couldn’t resist starting it (it’s very funny). Neither of these, though, being iPad-bound, were much use for the beach. So I picked up a Ruth Rendell, A Judgement In Stone, at the second hand bookstall. I’ve read it about a hundred times but it’s still great, and much more suitable for shoving into the bag with the damp towels.

So I’m lying on the beach, congratulating myself on being all, like, loose and unstructured with the novels, almost post-modern in my new approach to fiction (BS Johnson would approve of letting not only narratives but genres get mixed together, I tell myself, and wonder what happened to the boy who used to love Christie Malry but now lies on a towel re-reading Ruth Rendell: is and ought, again), when it strikes me: this mixing up of books stops me enjoying any one of them. The narratives overlap in my head and so when I look into (that is, read) one of them, I can’t ever forget that I’m involved with the act of reading, because the voices of the stories I’m neglecting are still loud enough to be heard. The point of reading, of course, is that you become unaware of what you’re doing. The narrative captures your mind; and in my case that needs to happen one novel at a time.

I wouldn’t bore you with all this [liar - Ed.] had not the parallel struck me between the mishmash of literary narratives I was suffering on the beach and the travails of our Coalition administration. A government needs a narrative, a simple message, that can sum up the answer to the doorstep question: Why should we vote for you? I’m not arguing for eye-catching style over substance, but in an important sense the narrative of a government is what it’s for: the story of its legislative acts and the cultural axis it wants the nation to tilt towards. The three objectives of this administration are those which any Tory would support: fairness in the benefit system, the liberation of schools, and (the sine qua non) tackling the structural deficit. If I were describing the Tory aims of the government in a book title, I’d call it From Entitlement To Fair Play. This central theme, however, is being drowned out by the increasing noise being made by various Liberal Democrats. Their desire to be heard as a separate story is starting to damage the potency of the entire Coalition’s message.

That none of the three main Coalition aims ought to be antithetical to anyone who calls himself a Liberal seems obvious to me, which is why, last May, I had such high hopes of the Liberal Democrats. In fact, I permitted myself a daydream of re-alignment: once they started to practice power, a very few of the sensible Liberals would detach themselves from their party’s ghastly Hughesite tendency (with surely a sigh of relief?) and first of all sit, and ultimately merge, with the parliamentary Conservative Party. It’s happened before, after all.

But I reckoned without the sheer political death-wish of the parliamentary Liberal Democrats, and their ability to make one huge strategic blunder: that of joining a government of the Centre-Right, but continuing to insist (hysterically) that they themselves belong to the Left. 

The Liberal Democrats should remember the Tory desires which we put on hold in order to build a long-lasting anti-socialist Coalition: the need to sort out the Human Rights Act, and our longing to see marriage recognised in the tax system being just two examples. We are currently, for goodness’ sake, going through the death rattles of a referendum on a vote-counting algorithm with all the joy of a wedding-guest being forced to perform the actions to Agadoo (doo! doo!); and we are doing this for the sole reason that the Liberals wanted such a referendum.

They should look at their poll figures, and remember they are in power to an extent which massively outweighs their electoral support last year. They should remember what’s happened to their popular support since then.

They should contemplate the farce of Vince Cable, their last star performer (Is that a tape recorder tucked under your bosom, or are you just glad to see me?). They should seek to understand the disgust engendered by Chris Huhne’s hysterical linking of Baroness Warsi with a Nazi propagandist. Tim Farron, the Justin Bieber of British politics, should be embarrassed to even obliquely compare himself with Margaret Thatcher, let alone setting himself up as - what? - some sort of anti-Clegg leader across the water.

They should remember that, five-year parliament notwithstanding, it would not be impossible for the Prime Minister to allow a situation to be engineered which could well result in a dissolution: votes for prisoners, for example, which could easily be made to be an issue which requires to be solved with the mechanism of a general election. Imagine the dynamics of a campaign that pivots on that issue! Hi, I’m the Liberal Democrat who voted to treble tuition fees and now thinks prisoners should be able to vote. They should draw no succour from the fact that various intellectuals will shake their head with pity at the rumbling of the Tory stomach in unified opposition to prisoner voting; this is an issue where Eddie Izzard could tour Britain from now until Judgement Day, let alone polling day, for all the impact that his metropolitan opinion would have on the electorate. (Again).

They should remember all these things, and if I’ve upset any Liberal members who may be reading (who am I? after all: just some guy, day-dreaming on a beach), well, of course I’m sorry for that, but I think they ought to ask themselves two things: how did we manage to hack off someone happy to be described as a liberal Tory? And more: what good has it done us to have annoyed so many Conservatives, from every wing of the party? The answer to the last question, Liberal Democrats, is: nothing. Now put those left-wing speeches down and get with the narrative. As with novels, we’d like one government at a time, please.


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