Friday, 27 May 2011

Political narratives - a few basics

If you're like me you hear the term 'narrative' all over the place these days: "What's the political narrative?" "We need a compelling narrative." "Their narrative is unclear or even non-existent." I'm certain most people have little idea what is really meant by the term.

That pertinent observation comes from Shawn Callahan of Anecdote. He has written a great post that clears up much of the confusion around what a narrative is.

Replying to an article by John Hagel, Shawn says:

A narrative must have a narrative structure. That is, it is told as a story . . . For example, John comes close to giving us narrative structure when describing the Christian narrative when he says, "people are born in sin but have an opportunity for redemption through a Savior." This is a statement rather than the narrative but anyone familiar with Christian ways will immediately fill in this statement with the stories that help us make sense of it. The narrative version of this statement is simply "people are born in sin but THEN have an opportunity for redemption through a Savior." Two events connected. Without the 'then' it's not a narrative. Narratives, like stories, are made from events. Their connections infer causality.

These observations are very relevant to politics. To make a political narrative stick, you need a causality, a ‘then’. “Free, fair and green” is not a narrative. It’s a (bad) slogan. So is “muscular liberalism”. Don’t get me started again on “alarm clock Britain”.

“Liberal Democrats believe in healthcare available to all, free at point of delivery, based on clinical need, not ability to pay”
is not a narrative either. It’s a statement of belief.

Here’s an outline of what an accompanying narrative would look like.

In March 2011, the Liberal Democrat spring conference voted overwhelmingly for more accountability and openness in commissioning, to reject turning the health service into for safeguards against cherry-picking by private sector providers… and against the undermining of local NHS services. Then, Nick Clegg insisted on scrapping the requirement that Monitor, the NHS regulator, compels hospitals to compete with each other. Clegg has since put himself on collision course with the Tory health secretary, Andrew Lansley by saying that a clause in the health and social care bill encouraging "any qualified provider" to take over services from the NHS should be radically rethought or dropped.

Tell that story according to your political tastes. Nick Clegg the fearless fighter for the NHS, a liberal creation. Or Nick Clegg, the potential wrecker of the coalition.

After explaining the difference between a description of the narrative (which is a statement) and the narrative itself, Shawn goes on to stress:

Narratives require a narrative structure. Story structure provides a narrative with its power.

He reminds us about the key elements of a story:

Stories are not merely about plots and action. Stories are about people, events and something unanticipated (Jerome Bruner). Jay Callahan, the celebrated professional storyteller, puts it another way: stories are about people, events and trouble. You just can't have a story without characters.

My Nick Clegg / NHS example has characters – the deputy PM, the Lib Dem conference and the health secretary. The events were the Lib Dem spring conferences and Nick Clegg’s subsequent demands to change the NHS reforms.

Other political narratives have been based on characters, “good” versus “bad”. Ronald Reagan versus the evil empire. Margaret Thatcher versus the Argentinean generals and, later, the miners. Tony Blair versus Gordon Brown - -though most people had trouble working out who was the “good” and who was the “bad”. “The west” versus Al Queda.

In each case, something important and quite unanticipated, if not troublesome, took place. Reagan held summits with Gorbachev and called on the Soviet Union to “tear down this wall”. Thatcher had the Falklands War and the miners strike. Blair vs. Brown seemed like an unending psychodrama, yet there it had many signposts and highlights along the way. 9/11 and the killing of Osama Bin Laden were two ends of an especially grim story arc.

But there are four important features that mark political narratives out from business and other narratives. First, the story and the events must affect people and their world views. They must evoke an emotional reaction. The emotions are usually either hope or fear. They can also be compassion, empathy, patriotism, loyalty and other feelings of identity and belonging, anger, contempt or nostalgia.

Second, political storytellers should explain the world to their listeners and enable them to understand their place within it, to reframe their plans for the future. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem,” said Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address.

Margaret Thatcher blamed previous Labour and Tory governments for their lax fiscal and monetary policies, as well as the trade union leaders who had brought the country to its knees, for Britain’s economic woes. Her narrative was about standing up for Britain, its people and its aspirations, and against their enemies, both within and without. The characters and how people felt about them were always clear. So was the underlying morality.

During the 2010 general election campaign, Nick Clegg struck a chord when he decried “the old politics” and blamed “the old parties” for letting Britain down. He, too, was telling a morality tale. But he was also singing new versions of old tunes by David Steel and Paddy Ashdown.

Third, a true political storyteller will give people hope – or at least, reassurance about themselves and their future. S/he will explain what happens next and why and how the story will have a happy ending or, at least, a next stage that is good. There may not be an “unanticipated (past) event” but the clever political storyteller will make this future story bigger, better and, above all, more plausible than a simple recitation of their election promises. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” tv spot in 1984 is still hard to beat. But Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can change” rhetoric from 2008 is up there too.

Fourth, politicians need to remember who owns the narrative. It’s not them. Here’s one of Shawn’s most acute insights:

Narratives emerge from a combination of events and people deciding what aspects of those events they want to retell; what gets amplified. It's much like history really, an emergent process. Regardless of what we do narrative patterns will emerge and only when we are mindful of these narrative patterns will we are able to choose those patterns to nurture and the ones to disrupt. Nurturing comes from retelling stories. Disruption happens when new stories are triggered that counter the narrative. If the disruption is big enough (think Egypt) then a new narrative is born.

Politicians try to tell stories about themselves, but they are invariably overwhelmed by the stories that other people – the media especially – say about them. It’s unhappy for some of us, but Nick Clegg is a classic example. He was the hero of the 2010 campaign and now, the political villain of 2011. I wonder what kind of “disruption” will create a new narrative for him.

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