Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Seeing what we want to see

I’m still bemused by the number of people who wonder why narratives are so important in politics.

I’m even more bemused by the number who try to dazzle the rest of us with their knowledge of this clever new concept, as if they were a modern day Moses.

The truth is, everyone uses narratives – that is, everyone tells and hears stories – every single day. That’s because we need them, all the time.

Let’s start by going global. Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times provides an interesting explanation for the growing tension between the United States and China in the wake of the Tibet upheavals.

“China and the U.S. clash partly because of competing interests, but mostly because of competing narratives. To Americans, Tibet fits neatly into a framework of human rights and colonialism. To Chinese, steeped in education of 150 years of “guochi,” or national humiliations by foreigners, the current episode is one more effort by imperialistic and condescending foreigners to tear China apart or hold it back.”

It sounds worryingly like the national “narrative” that Japan developed in the 1930s. My point (for now) is that, just as politicians have party narratives, leaders and countries have national narratives.

What Kristof says is insightful but maybe it should come as no surprise. From an early age, we use narratives – stories – to make sense of what is going on around and to us, to provide some clues as to what happens next and, sometimes, to help us justify our actions and to feel better about ourselves.

In The Story Factor (2006), Annette Simmonds, wrote that:

“A good story simplifies our world into something we feel like we can understand . . . .”


“. . . makes sense of chaos and gives [people] a plot.”

This goes back to the Bible - actually, to the drawings that cave people drew on walls.

Now, come closer to home. In the latest New Statesman, Brian Cathcart brilliantly deconstructs how the media explained the fiasco at Heathrow Terminal Five.

“It was a story rich in meaning, perhaps even a metaphor. This is where we saw the real wallowing, where the full gamut of emotions was run, from A to Z. And, of course, the meanings and metaphors you detected depended very much on the angle from which you were viewing things.

“The Express wondered: "Can we not do anything well any longer?" And the Mail was on the same track: "This is the nation, after all, that once built mighty rail networks not only at home, but across India, Africa and South America . . . Today? With the admirable exception of St Pancras International, the picture is everywhere one of incompetence." Oh woe.

“The Independent and the Guardian believed this should mark the end of any argument for a third runway at Heathrow, and so, less predictably, did the Sunday Times, which promised to "keep up the pressure" for its wacky solution to London's air problem - a whopping great new airport on an artificial island in the Thames estuary . . ."

Then, the search for a scapegoat, the villain of the story.

“The Mail had a tilt at BAA's "predatory, cash-strapped foreign owners", Ferrovial of Spain, while the Times was furious with the monopolists of both airline and airport company for their "cavalier approach to the customer". Will Hutton in the Observer had a more subtle beef, complaining that T5's woes were "symptomatic of deeper weaknesses in our private sector" and warning that "we need to recast the way we do business".

“Most bracing of all, though, were the conclusions of the true conservatives of our time. Peter Hitchens wrote in the Mail on Sunday that the fiasco was the inevitable consequence of the introduction of comprehensive education in around 1968, while Simon Heffer in the Telegraph put it all down to a British workforce which is "poorly educated, poorly managed, is almost impossible to sack when it fouls up, has its failures rewarded and has a lavish welfare state to fall back on".

"Something for everybody, then . . . “

Yes, something for everyone. The story has a beginning, a middle and end with characters, especially villains and of course, a moral to the tale.

Every hour, every day, commentators and the media are helping us to process news into familiar storylines.

The rot has set in. This is country is right and another is wrong. Here’s the hero. There’s the victim. Let’s gang up on the villain. Who has got something they didn’t deserve, so we can resent them. Hey, look, someone’s up on a pedestal – oops, no, we’ve taken them down. To name a few.

The stories work because they are about how people really think.

Political narratives are effective when they tie into or build on these types of stories, providing ready explanations and straightforward solutions.

In promising “we shall never surrender. . . we will fight them on the beaches” in 1940, Winston Churchill harked back to the Spanish Armada and the myth of the “strong island nation”. So did Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War. She also promised to stop the rot – the miners, weak colleagues, scroungers and others.

Historically, the Conservatives have been better at storytelling. But since the mid 1990s Labour has told the stories of aspiration, opportunity and security. Those storylines are getting away from them now.

Liberal Democrats haven’t been so adept at tapping into these storylines or at finding our own storylines and sticking to them. When we do, the results are quite striking. For a third party, “the rot” is one or both of the other parties. Remember the Liberal Party’s showing in February 1974, the SDP-Liberal Alliance result in 1983, the Lib Dems’ breakthrough of 1997 and consolidation in 2001. Vince Cable’s quip that Gordon Brown had undergone a transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean was one of the best soundbites of 2007. This picked up an existing story and built on it, adding metaphor and humour in the process.

The key is not to list policies or values but to offer people a new version of their story as a tool for understanding the world and then to show what happens next: a happy ending.

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