Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Narrative - The Poison in the Honey

Back to blogging it seems after a long absence. Doubtless you all noticed. And I promise not to inflict anymore Felix Fabri on you anymore. It wasn't working, despite the attention from my German fans and the wikipedia entry I got on their language version. The internet is a great meritocracy, and what is not good enough is ignored. Combine that with having a lot on at work, and sunny days, and its enough to make anyone give up.

But this is all besides the point, because the anger and disillusionment at this world in which we live still persists, and I've just got to write about it. But I've also been doing my best to read up, so I've kept a good idea at what's being going on in Blogland, even if I haven't been writing. The reason for this blog entry is that I've been reading something that I really feel I've got to share with you all, especially against the background of everything that's been going on in the UK and what we've been putting up with for far too long. So with the help of my girlfriend's greasy recipe book holder, I'm going to type out the relevant passage.

The book behind this post is Peter Oborne's "The Rise of Political Lying." I'd like to share a section with you that made me mutter a long "Jeesssuuusss" as I read it. The book is excellent and I really recommend you read it. (I'm hoping that a plug for the book will make up for my quoting a chunk.) Even if you think you are as cynical as its possible to be, you'll be shocked at the sheer balls of everything that is New Labour all over again.

The theme for this is one of New Labour's favourite words. NARRATIVE. Think about how many times you hear it. We've even had an official narrative of the 7th July bombings, instead of a public inquiry. I'd like you to bear that in mind as you read this. New Labour are very careful about choosing their words. There is seldom a key word used that has not been carefully planned and its meaning is always the most negative and mendacious possible.

I'm quoting from Pg 142 to Pg148, from the chapter entitled "The Construction of the Truth."

"This is an elementary exercise to carry out, greatly helped by the search engine on the Hansard website and the easy availability of newspaper databases. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word narrative has no less than three meanings. There is a strict legal usage, dating back centuries: "that part of a deed or document which contains a statement of the relevant or essential facts." There is a literary usage: "an account or narration; a history, a tale, a story, recital (of facts etc.)" It can also be used to describe "the practice or act of narrating; something to narrate."

Nowhere does the OED refer to the kind of use made of the word "narrative" by postmodern theorists. That is not surprising. This usage, while prevalent in philosophical schools and university English faculties for two decades, did not start to enter more general circulation until the early 1990's. The evidence suggests that this was a direct result of the emergence of New Labour.

The first case I have found of the word being given its novel meaning, but used outside its academic birthplace, comes in spring 1994. The agent of this act of liberation was none other than the New Labour intellectual Geoff Mulgan, founder of the Demos thinktank from whichTony Blair pillaged so many of his ideas, and later to hold powerful jobs in Downing Street and Whitehall. He was writing shortly before the death of John Smith. "But now under John Smith," complained Mulgan, "all sense of narrative seems to drown in a morass of platitudes about social justice and economic efficiency." The Mulgan article appeared at the very end of the two-year period between the resignation of Neil Kinnock and the death of John Smith when the New Labour clique - Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair - were out of sympathy with the leadership and played the role of an internal opposition. Mulgan supported this faction and frequently articulated its concerns. It is highly significant that this very early New Labour use of the term "narrative" in its postmodern mode should crop up in the context of an attack on Smith, scornful as he was of the modernisers and an old-fashioned social democrat politician.

Mulgan seems to have concluded that the word, with all the weight placed on it by postmodern thinkers, was far too good to be wasted upon academics. The following July, the month that Tony Blair was crowned Party Leader, Mulgan temed up with another New Labour intellectual, Charles Leadbeater, to write: "Politics is essentially about communicating ideas, choices and decisions between the governed and the governors. It is about constructing narratives that make sense to people: stories that encompass their identities, aspirations and fears, and the policies that reflect them. Yet it is in these central tasks that politicians seem at times to be most deficient." (The inventive Leadbeater at this stage was an assistant editor of the Independent newspaper where, the same year, with the author Helen Fielding, he dreamed up the Bridget Jones's Diary column.)

Will Hutton, then a fashionable economics commentator friendly to Tony Blair, was swift to spot and make use of the neologism. He lamented in the Guardian on 9 July 1995 that the Labour Party's policy commissions "have not been organised into a strong political narrative and sold hard." Hutton soon embraced the term as if it were his own. The following year he once again scornfully blamed the traditional Left for failure to organise a "strong political narrative." He said that "the Old Labour left still hankers for more traditional responses." Once again the postmodern concept of narrative is being used to express the concerns of the New Labour faction around Tony Blair, and undermine the traditional methods of the Labour Party.

Peter Mandelson, the foremost New Labour strategist, understood the thinking, or at any rate employed the language, of postmodernism. He entertained the proposition that truth is independent from reality with an alarming enthusiasm, announcing to an interviewer in August 1997 that he pleaded guilty to the charge of trying to create the truth. "If you're accusing me of getting the truth across about what the Government has decided to do, that I'm putting the very best face or gloss on the Government's policies, that I'm trying to avoid gaffes or setbacks and that I'm trying to create the truth - if that's news management, I plead guilty." I e-mailed Mandelson some years later to ask him exactly what he meant. He claimed he had meant something else. His full reply as follows: "In haste: the quote (of which I have no memory) reads a bit like a stream of Mandelson consciousness. I was not weighing every word (or so it seems to me). If I am quoted accurately - I cannot verify - its seems fine that I would have meant "establish" rather than "create". You cannot create truth although you can create an understanding of truth."
Purists are entitled to object that there was a Stainist as well as postmodern undertone in this Mandelson remark - a thoroughgoing postmodernist would have said that "I'm trying to create a truth."

As far as I can discern, the first MP of any party to give the word "narrative" its postmodern meaning in parliament was the modernising Labour MP Patricia Hewitt, soon to accelerate through the ranks of the Blair government, when taking evidence on the Social Security Committee in June 1998. She declared that "for these measures to mean something they have to reflect a story, there has to be a narrative in here." To be sure the old uses of the word persisted. The Labour MP Joyce Quin, not a member of the Blairite vanguard, attempted to stem the tide when she used the word in its increasingly quaint dictionary sense, referring to the "narrative report accompanying the expenditure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office." Lord Donoughue, a Downing Street aide during the long-lost days of the Harold Wilson government, nostalgically informed the House of Lords that "the Victorian County Histories include the narrative and analysis and [are] a key part of our national heritage." Doubtless all this was the case. But resistance was useless. By the start of 2000. the new usage had become commonplace in Parliament. Even comparatively obscure Labour MPs like Angela Eagle were thoughtlessly adopting the postmodern idiom. "We shall be extremely interested to ascertain whether we can establish an effective narrative on rights and responsibilities." Soon it was being let loose on television studios. Ace Labour strategist Douglas Alexander told Newsnight in March 2002 that "we face a challenge of explaining not just policy changes but the political narrative that accompanies it."

Towards the end of 2000 the word starts to crop up in lobby briefings by Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's official spokesman,(PMOS.) In September that year he was telling journalist that "the Prime Minister and Chancellor were absolutely clear that we had an under-invested country and we had to take the decisions necessary to modernise it for the long term. This was the narrative of this Government for this Parliament and it was not going to change."
In December the PMOS pronounced that, "As the Prime Minister had said on Friday there was a clear narrative to this Parliament. We believed the economic foundations that had been laid were strengthening."
The following month the PMOS declared that "we had always recognised there would be an economic narrative to this Parliament" that "there was a narrative for our public services which was unfolding" that " clearly there was an overall narrative to the Government's public service reform agenda" and that "there was a clear narrative for our public services."

Political commentators and, very shortly afterwards, modernising Tories anxious to ape Tony Blair's success, were all at it. The postmodern use of the narrative, released from its thralldom to academia by Geoff Mulgan, had become what the grammarian H.W. Fowler deprecated as a Vogue Word. This is Fowler's definition:

Every now and then a word emerges from obscurity, or even from nothingness, or merely a potential and not actual existence, into sudden popularity. It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meanings as best he can. his wrestlings with it have usually some effect upon it; it does not mean quite what it ought to, but to make up for that it means some things that it ought not to, by the time he has done with it."

In a House of Lords debate on 31 October 2000 the political scientist Lord Dahrendorf noted the derivation, and significance, of the new usage. Talking about the so called "Third Way," and ineffable doctrine conjured up by New Labour thinkers eager to lend coherence to the Blair government, Dahrendorf observed: "The Third Way was never actually a programme. It was intended to be what in postmodern language - not mine really - would be called a narrative." He went on:

"It is a narrative in the sense that it was intended to provide a big story which pulled together the necessary varied and diverse strands of the policy of a government. Such big stories are rare. I am not talking about the very big stories of communism and facism, I am talking about the next level - the national big stories.
There were two big stories, whatever one feels about them. There was the Attlee story of extended citizenship rights for all and everything that goes with the extension of citizenship rights, not least as a response to the experience of the nation during the war.
There was the big story which one might call the Thatcher story of rolling back the state, and perhaps curtailing private power within the country in the interest of a more open economy and society.
If one does not have a narrative of this major kind, one is left with a list of achievements. That is fine. But it marks the difference between great governments and good governments. New Labour at a certain point hoped to have such a narrative."

Lord Dahrendorf's remarks help explain how New Labour appropriated the idea of "narrative" to illuminate its presence in government, and create an explanatory framework that would define the political landscape in its own terms. It is noteworthy that it has its origins in a school of philosophy that holds that standards of truth and falsehood are determined by power and experience. The prime minister has often spoken of his desire to "modernise" Britain. But it is rather more accurate to assert that he and is New Labour co-conspirators set out to postmodernise British political debate. As Tony Blair and his New Labour faction seized power in the Labour Party, they set about - to use their own private language, purloined from French postmodern philosophical salons - the "construction of the truth.""

The rest of the book ably builds on what has gone before. Like I said earlier, I was cynical of this government, but I am beyond even that now if that is possible. If you would like to read the book yourself, and I really do recommend that you do, you can find it here.

Conscious as I am that I am using someone else's writing on my blog rather than my own, I want to finish with this. I really want to commit this to heart.

"Lying has many of the characteristics of an assault, which is why Machiavelli urged it as an alternative to war. It strips the victims of the ability to make a soundly based judgement, treats them as children, converts them into instruments, removes their humanity and turns them into dupes." (Pg 233, The Rise of Political Lying.)