"...if we no longer trust politicians why should we trust a playwright’s view of politics? "
On 14 April 2010 a new play, Stiffed!, will start a four-week run at the Tabard Theatre in London. Stiffed! has been written by two journalists ‘who have experienced first hand the workings of politics’ and promises to be ‘a riotous satire on the inner workings of parliament, the press and politicians’ which will poke fun at both Cameron’s Conservatives and New Labour. Stiffed! will open in the midst of the general election campaign in which voter mistrust of politicians is at all time high, and presumably the Tabard hopes to tap into that mood.
The play is described as ‘new’. But all the advance publicity suggests it will however revisit territory already made familiar by first Guy Jenkin (A Very Open Prison, Crossing the Floor) and then Alistair Beaton (A Very Social Secretary and The Trial of Tony Blair) and Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It) since the middle 1990s.
These political satires all start from the same basic proposition: all politicians are bastards. Politicians are presented as weak and if not necessarily corrupt at least as afflicted by serious moral flaws, and consumed by the desire to promote themselves rather than represent the interests of the people. Some of these satires are motivated by serious anger – Beaton for example writes as someone disappointed by New Labour, especially Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.
It is arguable that taken together these satires contribute to the populist distaste for politics. Some might think that last year’s expenses scandal vindicates that distaste: if we mistrust politicians as a class it is not because we have seen a few plays and television shows but because they do not deserve our trust. But given the increasing stress amongst academics on how political ideas are constructed – by the media in general - the possible role played by such fictions in shaping how we see politics is something that requires further exploration.
A significant step in that direction was taken last December when Nottingham University's Centre for British Politics held a conference to look into how politics has been represented in fiction. It benefited from the participation of Alistair Beaton, Tony Saint – who wrote the recent BBC4 comedy On Expenses – and other writers such as Maurice Gran and Lawrence Marks who gave the world Alan B’Stard. Interviews, transcripts and paper summaries generated by the conference have now been put on the Centre website and some of the academic papers will also be published in a special edition of Parliamentary Affairs in 2011. At the very least, the conference provoked the question: if we no longer trust politicians why should we trust a playwright’s view of politics?
Prof Steven Fielding