Simon Barrow

It's the narrative, stupid by Simon Barrow

By Simon Barrow
November 22, 2006

Advisers to former US President Bill Clinton once famously devised an election-winning strategy around four words: “It’s the economy, stupid.” And so it proved. In the 1980s and ’90s dozens of Western-influenced parliamentary contests were won or lost largely on the basis of who could persuade the biggest section of voters that they would manage affluence most prudently.

In recent years, however, this slogan has either been put out to pasture or relegated to a back field. This isn’t because the economy is any less important to political success. It’s just that everyone in the ‘mainstream’ pretty much agrees what to do with it. The arguments seem to be about what sums go in which pots, not whether the system needs changing.

At root, modern governments have therefore become fund managers who wear different ties and perform their various market jigs with consummate pragmatism. Demand, supply, borrowing, spending, investment and (cough) taxation? Yeah, whatever. Fixed battles between Keynesian breezers and monetarist bruisers seem a distant memory.

So where do we go next? Well, just as actual economies and virtual money markets interact but rarely connect, so parliamentary activity streams into two distinct but overlapping tasks. Mission and maintenance. The former gets you into the building, the latter keeps you occupied when you get there.

Being in Westminster means working your base. When the TV cameras aren’t looking, MPs and assistants sweat overlong hours dealing with constituency issues, the arcania of parliamentary procedure and (if they’re lucky) the lumbering machinery of governance.

It’s an unglamorous and undervalued job, and it’s vital for those whose real-life issues get dealt with: housing, schooling, health, welfare, immigration, planning.

Meanwhile, the ‘missionary’ bit of parliamentary politics requires framing and communicating “the story”. The biggest buzz-phrase on the pagers, mobiles, corridors and tea-rooms of power now is: “It’s the narrative, stupid.” Not so much what you do, more how you talk about it. That’s what gets results from a spectacle-based voter machine.

A defining moment in our emerging ‘narrative politics’ came just before the 2003 Iraq war, when the Foreign Office employed (I kid you not) a Head of Story Development. That sure had the Tories laughing at New Labour. On the other hand, Cameron’s People have just come up with a Head of Lifestyle and Media.

The less people believe, the more you have to persuade them that there’s really something to care about. That means “the story” needs embodying in aggressive confrontations like the war on terror, the battle against drugs, the struggle for better public services, the fight against climate change, or the tantrum against taxation.

OK, I made that last one up, though it’s true enough. The rest are phrases straight out of the lexicon of contemporary political PR. They are attempts to locate particular policies within an account of the world which tells us what’s at stake, whose side we are on, what we are for/against, and what we should do.

Narratives come in different shapes and sizes. Some are self-serving, others are visionary. Most elide one into the other – and all have their heroes, villains and victorious denouements.

Christian theology knows much about narrative, because story carries its essence. The Word became flesh, and the words it continually generates invite us to live, die and be raised again within the sense that God makes of our everyday joys and toils.

Unlike many political stories however, the Gospel narrative is sceptical about – even hostile to – the kind of ‘victory’ achieved by positioning ourselves favourably in a win-lose game. Christ’s vindication is a self-giving which renders pragmatic manipulation and vengeful apocalyptic redundant.

Unfortunately this narrative of sacrificial compassion, enemy-loving, peacemaking and justice-doing does not translate easily into political wars of position. This is why Christians in politics doubt their own message. Instead they are tempted towards either reductionist ‘realism’ or ineffectual ‘idealism’.

Neither of these adequately translates the hope and challenge of the Christ-story. For that you need a critical community which knows that the loving power behind the narrative is not in our hands, and which seeks an alternative polis that looks weak compared to ones promising cash-and-carry value.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Jesus gets put up for election and loses – very meaningfully. By contrast politics-as-usual knows how to prevail, but the wages of spin prove frustratingly illusory. Maybe we need a new catchphrase to help us re-think modern political narratives. “It’s the plot, stupid.” But not ours.

This is a slightly modified version of an article which appears in the latest issue of Third Way magazine.

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