“We’ve all been too disconnected”: Andrew Marr says politics must change as reality outpaces fiction
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As Andrew Marr notes, there are relatively few novels about politics, but the climate couldn’t be better for his debut effort.
Shortly after the BBC journalist released Head of State – a book which sees the prime minister drop dead days before Britain’s EU referendum – Hilary Mantel went one further and assassinated Margaret Thatcher in a controversial new short story. In real life, Britain was also making international headlines as party leaders frantically descended on Scotland in the final stages of another crucial referendum.
For most people, this perfect storm of narrative and politics might sound extraordinarily lucky. In the land of Marr, though, you learn to prepare for surprises.
“The big problem with writing about politics is not making it too extreme, but making it extreme enough,” the former Independent editor, 55, explains. “We live in a world in which reality outpaces novelists every day.
“Imagine if I created a character who defected to Ukip just before a Tory party conference and called him Reckless. I’d be savaged by my critics for being too extreme and unlikely – never mind the Brooks Newmark affair as well. Again and again and again, you pick up the paper and your jaw drops. You think, ‘No! Not really!’ and that’s the world I’m describing, I hope.”
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It’s fair to say Head of State has had mixed reviews, with some critics quick to highlight a seemingly preposterous plot.
Following the death of coalition prime minister Bill Stevenson in 2017, his government decide that, in order to not jeopardise their campaign to stay in the European Union, they should cover up his death until the referendum is over. This, in turn, leads to a satirical farce involving secret Downing Street tunnels, MI6, the monarchy and, erm, Rory Bremner.
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The justification for Marr, who will speak about the book in Primrose Hill tonight (Thursday), is that research suggested practically every one of the book’s happenings is true or plausible. Indeed, for the common observer, the most preposterous element of the story might be Stevenson: a relatable, charismatic and visionary Conservative prime minister.
“He’s meant to be a bit of a hero. I describe him to myself as a Tory Jim Callaghan,” says Marr.
“One of my problems as a political reporter is that we now have a political class who all look and sound much the same. They came in as bag carriers or assistants or advisers and they, by and large, have done very little but politics all their lives.
“I started reporting politics in the early 1980s when there were still quite a lot of real business people on the Tory side who’d built businesses before coming into the Commons, and on the Labour side there were still sheet metal workers and coal miners and primary school teachers: people who had had lives and done things and had experiences before they came to the Commons.”
The idea of the main political parties slowly morphing into the Bullingdon Club is undoubtedly a very real concern among voters. Marr semi-jokingly toys with the idea that MPs shouldn’t be allowed to enter the Commons until the age of 40, so they can first obtain valuable industry experience outside of Westminster.
While that may be fanciful thinking, he’s aware that something needs to be done. “Part of what happened in Scotland wasn’t a revolt against England,” he adds, “It was a revolt against the Westminster political class and I think you can see aspects of the Ukip revolt show the same thing.”
One realisation he found during the referendum was that the public’s imagination can be captured if they believe politics can make a real difference to their lives.
This passion could well rear its head again in a few years, as Marr suggests a vote on EU membership is increasingly unavoidable.
“I kind of think one way or another there’s going to be a referendum for reform. If the Tories don’t bring it in, there’ll be some other coalition under pressure to do so. I can’t explain exactly why I think it’s going to happen, but I just have a hunch.”
So he believes another coalition beckons? “Well, I think, yes, there could very well be a coalition again; we’ve got a fragmentation of both the big parties going on at the moment, but we’ve also got a situation where the EU is slowly morphing into an organisation dominated by the eurozone countries. And we’re outside the eurozone, so being in the EU but outside the eurozone is going to feel a bit more uncomfortable longer term, and I think that will create pressure for a referendum.”
The idea for Head of State came from a chat Marr had with Peter Gummer – now Baron Chadlington – a businessman and PR adviser who had worked with a previous prime minister. One day, when the latter emerged from Downing Street “looking like death”, Gummer wondered what would happen if the prime minister were to die and how the government would cope.
The idea stayed with Marr and, after suffering a stroke in January last year, he suddenly found himself with a lot of down time. “I couldn’t walk around, I couldn’t go and interview people, I couldn’t get to libraries, I certainly couldn’t do any filming, so, apart from my physiotherapy, I was extremely bored.” Consequently, he began writing the novel through an innovative speech recognition programme - which worked well apart from also writing his replies to his wife’s tea break inquiries into drafts.
The passion Marr has retained for politics – and the way in which he has made up for lost ground since the stroke – is remarkable. Before the incident, he suffered but regrettably failed to recognise a series of ‘mini-strokes’ that acted as warning signs; in the aftermath however, he couldn’t have been more diligent, working hard to restore the paralysed left side of his body and moving from Richmond to Primrose Hill with his wife, journalist Jackie Ashley, to make it easier to travel into central London.
After nine months, he made an unlikely return to The Andrew Marr Show last September. Today, he phones me on the way back from the Conservative Party conference, a day after interviewing David Cameron and just a few weeks after the prime minister held a personal launch party for Head of State at Downing Street.
Although the latter was laudably a fundraising event for Action for Rehabilitation from Neurological Injury, many understandably saw it as a reminder of how close-knit the relationship between the press and the government can become.
I ask Marr, a Cambridge graduate, if, in many ways, the press suffers from the same problem as Westminster: too many Oxbridge networkers happy to stay within their bubble.
“Speaking as one involved in it, I have to say we have to put our hands on our hearts and say we’ve all been too disconnected. There has been a Westminster bubble and we have to try to break out of this and listen to what people are saying up and down the country much more attentively.”
Is he already trying to do this? “Well I hope so, yes. I certainly try very, very hard to give complete political balance and neutrality across the party system, but maybe we all have to start to think about going beyond the party system and getting in different kinds of voices.
“All the people who are real critics of what’s going on, for instance, at the moment in Iraq and Syria. We should get more of the distance in society onto mainstream television just for the health of society.”
With plans for another novel – this time focusing on a Labour government – on the way, however, it seems that, away from journalism, Marr is enjoying the discovery of a new profession – albeit one that still revolves around the same insatiable appetite for politics.
“It’s no surprise, I suppose, since I’ve spent all my life as a political journalist and reporter, that I find politicians interesting.
“Even now, among the people at the top of politics, there are some really, really interesting, driven, unusual characters who live life a little bit faster than the rest of us, who take more risks, who take bigger decisions and that’s all inherently interesting and therefore, I think, very good meat for writing novels.”
Primrose Hill Books will be hosting an evening with Andrew Marr tonight (Thursday) at 7.30pm at St Mary the Virgin Church. Tickets are £8. Visit primrosehillbooks.com.