Write Honourable Members: Why Do Politicians Become Novelists?

Written by Jess Bowie on 4 June 2014 in Interview
Interview
What makes a politician, in the midst of a very busy schedule, put pen to paper and produce ‘the novel inside’? Jess Bowie opens the pages of an ever-growing reading list...

Every author fears a bad review, but how would Benjamin Disraeli have felt, while writing his novel Sybil, if he’d known its pages would one day be used as toilet paper?  

The MP and future prime minister’s lengthy yarn, which explored the condition of the working class in England, is now seen as a key Victorian text – so who was this reader voting with his bottom? 

“It was 1959 and I decided to hitchhike around South America,” Stanley Johnson recalls. “I didn’t have much space for luggage on me, so I thought, why don’t I take one very long novel which I can read as I go, and, you know, use as loo paper at the same time...” 

In Disraeli’s Sybil, the young Johnson lighted on “the absolutely ideal novel” for his purposes, and it apparently lasted him all across the continent. “So that was my, how shall I put it, my first experience of a novel written by a politician,” he says. 

Johnson went on to become a novel-writing politician himself – with varying degrees of success. During his time as head of pollution prevention in the European Commission he wrote The Urbane Guerrilla, a thriller published before the 1976 bicentennial celebrations in America, in which eco-terrorists decide to make a nuclear bomb out of the clapper of the Liberty Bell. 

“Even a semi-literate monkey could do better than this” was the verdict of one US newspaper. Johnson’s 1988 Brussels-based caper The Commissioner did much better however, and was even made into a film with John Hurt 10 years later. 

Johnson and Disraeli are just two in a long line of politicos who have tried their hand at fiction: everyone from Edwina Currie to Iain Duncan Smith has had a go, to say nothing of Johnson’s son and London mayor Boris, whose comic novel 72 Virgins was published in 2004. 

Why do they do it? You’d think being well-known – or infamous – in one sphere would be enough. Isn’t trying to be a novelist as well an ego-trip too far, not least when history shows that reviewers keep extra reserves of vitriol, earmarked specifically for the politician-novelist? 

For those MPs who’ve always yearned to flex their fictional muscles, it’s a risk they have to take.  

“I always knew I wanted to write but I never had the confidence,” says Nadine Dorries, whose first novel The Four Streets was published in April. “People from my background and my upbringing... it just wasn’t the sort of thing you did.” 

For the Mid Bedfordshire MP, the impetus to put pen to paper only came after her youngest daughter went to university. “Suddenly I felt all I had in my life was being an MP. Most people would say that’s enough. Actually it isn’t. I think the worst MPs are the ones who talk about and do nothing other than politics.”

Left at home with an empty nest, Dorries no longer had any excuses. “The house was spotless, there wasn’t another cupboard that needed cleaning out. What was I going to do?”

Former prisons minister Ann Widdecombe, who has had four bestselling novels since leaving parliament, tells a similar story. She had “scribbled from the year dot”, finishing her first novel when she was 18. “I’m very glad I didn’t try to get it published,” she says, “but I’ve always written and I do find it quite irritating that people assume it’s just a by-product of politics, rather than a simultaneous lifelong ambition”. 

While Widdecombe had few problems finding a publisher (“I had a name, so there was a tremendous curiosity,” she says), not everyone finds it so easy. Before landing her six-figure publishing deal, Dorries had sent an early draft of her first novel, a 1950s-set Liverpool saga, to the agent of another well-known novelist-politician. 

“Louise Mensch, who’s been incredibly supportive of my writing, told me to send it to her agent. I did, and he sent it back and told me to stick to the day job. It was such a rejection. For about six months I couldn’t write a word.” 

Nor is breaking into the literary world easy if you’re entrenched in the popular imagination as a violent, leather-clad biker with a sinister Essex twang – that is to say if you’re Norman Tebbit. Even without his Spitting Image caricature, the one-time Thatcherite minister perhaps isn’t someone you’d naturally associate with the world of children’s books. And, as Lord Tebbit found when he was looking for a buyer for his first novel, publishers seemed to feel the same. 

After writing a game-themed cookbook in 2009, Tebbit decided to experiment with children’s fiction. Ben’s Story, which was published last month, is the tale of a labrador who helps his wheelchair-bound friend, Sam, to discover the truth behind his father’s death.

After no publisher expressed an interest, Tebbit surveyed the competition on the children’s shelves at Waterstones. The first book he picked up was a book about a boy suspended for wearing girl’s clothes. “He then goes out shopping and sees his headmaster who’s suspended him, and he’s wearing women’s clothes. And I thought ‘this is not quite what I thought kids’ books were supposed to be about’,” the 83-year-old says, laughing. For a while, he adds, he “began to understand how JK Rowling must have felt” before Harry Potter was finally accepted for publication.

Some politician-novelists do things the other way around. Douglas Hurd, Michael Dobbs and Chris Mullin had already written novels before entering Parliament – although all three were well acquainted with the world of Westminster. Mullin, a key associate of Tony Benn, was editing The Tribune when his 1982 political thriller A Very British Coup was published.  

At the time, Mullin explains, the Establishment was working itself into a frenzy at the prospect of Benn becoming prime minister. And far from being part of a paranoid left-wing fantasy, many of the events he posited in his novel had already happened. 

“In 1968, for example, the newspaper baron, Cecil King, tried to overthrow the Wilson government and replace it with a government of businessmen headed by Lord Mountbatten,” Mullin says.

Other events in his novel – a spook on the general council of the CND; the vetting of BBC employees by MI5 – were rumours which later turned out to be true. It’s no wonder Mullin was probed by the US embassy soon after the book came out. “I was flattered – it’s much better to be noticed than ignored,” he says, before recounting a curious exchange with the minister at the US embassy, who had invited Mullin for lunch at his residence in Kensington. Mullin asked why the embassy was bothering with “a minnow like him”, to which the minister replied: “I reckon you’re among the top 1,000 opinion formers in this country.” Mullin answered that if that were true, he “must be about number 999” – to which the reply came: “The other 999 have been here, too.” 

Another novelist who worried the authorities – in her own party at least – was the bestselling chicklit author and Tory candidate Louise Mensch (then Bagshawe). Mensch, who had been writing popular romantic fiction since her early 20s, is perhaps the most striking example of a firmly-established novelist who became a politician. Indeed, her novels nearly stopped her from becoming an MP at all.  

“The reason I didn’t go into politics for so long, even though I was a big Conservative activist, was because of my books,” Mensch says on the phone from New York, where she moved after quitting parliament in 2012. 

“Clearly, from the first book, they were absolutely full of, you know, passionate love scenes. I really didn’t think any Tory association was going to look at someone who’d written those kinds of scenes, so I never even thought about applying.”

It wasn’t until David Cameron arrived with his pledge to modernise the party that Mensch reconsidered – although her assumption that her novels would cause a stir proved accurate. While a prospective candidate in Battersea, before her selection for Corby, “an activist said: ‘what are you going to do if your Labour opponent puts something out in a leaflet about your sexy books?’ 

“And I remember saying ‘my books are so filthy, they’ll be unable to reproduce them in a political leaflet, so you’re quite safe aren’t you?’ That got a big laugh and they put me through to the next round.”

Even after Mensch was chosen for Corby in an open primary in 2006, scandalised grassroots members continued to murmur. 

“One woman from the neighbouring Tory association wrote to my chairman saying she’d just read one of my books and they were disgusting and immoral, and surely the good people of Corby hadn’t known about this when they foolishly selected me, and was I going to put out a leaflet saying that I had rediscovered my faith as a Christian and would now disavow the sexy times which I’d put in my novels?” 

Mensch did no such thing. She goes on to describe how, since swapping Westminster for New York and resuming writing full time, her novels have attracted the attention of newspaper critics who never bothered to review them before. And from her vantage point, the negative broadsheet response to her latest book, Beauty (“more like a girlish cosmetics blog than a novel,” The Independent said), seems a bit “agenda-y”. 

Agenda-y reviews are a near inevitability for the politician-turned-novelist. Widdecombe remembers one critic’s shock that her fictional debut The Clematis Tree contained “emotional literacy”. “I thought, well you cheeky devil! You assume that just because people disagree with you politically they’ve got no insights into anything,” she says.

One of Widdecombe’s most scathing reviews actually came from a former Tory colleague – another female MP-novelist, no less. Writing in the Mail, Edwina Currie called The Clematis Tree “the product of a perceptive but warped mind”. Its style, she added: “is almost dottily old-fashioned”.

Widdecombe took it on the chin, however. “I’d have been amazed if Edwina Currie had ever written anything remotely generous,” she says before remembering her pleasure when – to her surprise – Ian Hislop was “extremely complimentary” about the book in a TV programme. 

Dorries’ debut novel was given particularly short shrift by the broadsheets. She says The Telegraph ran six nasty articles in seven days, and spiked a positive piece about The Four Streets which it had commissioned the journalist Cristina Odone to write, in favour of a one-star review by Christopher Howse, a former member of the controversial Catholic group Opus Dei, and, in Dorries’ words, “an elderly, male, bearded Latin scholar”.

“Why would you commission someone who was a former member of Opus Dei to review a book that has a child-abusing priest as one of its characters?”

Dorries thinks she has the answer: “It’s because I’m a woman and I’m from a working class background and The Telegraph, which is run by a bunch of public-school toffs, doesn’t like that.” 

Left-wing publications were also politically biased, she says. “The Guardian and the New Statesman talked about my position on late-term abortion in their reviews. What has that got to do with my book? Absolutely nothing,” she says. 

Critics have always been tempted to read a novel through the prism of its author’s biography. When a politician is the author that temptation, it seems, becomes irresistible. 

But surely Dorries’ inclusion of an undertaker called Clegg in her novel is a veiled reference to the death of the coalition? “Nope,” she says. “Clegg’s is in Bootle in Liverpool. It’s is a real undertaker,” she says. If people insist on looking for a political message in her book, she adds, it is that “the Big Society was born in Liverpool in the 1950s.” 

Yet for Steven Fielding, professor of political history at Nottingham University, all fiction, whoever its author, is political on some level. “It’s implicated in what the person who’s writing the novel thinks about the world and, whether they mean it to or not, it will reflect that,” he says. 

Fielding, whose latest book A State of Play examines fictional depictions of British politics over the ages, also says that politicians who write novels will sometimes let ideas slip into their books that they might not feel able to express elsewhere. Douglas Hurd, for example, has always denied that his novels have any serious political intent. But Fielding points to a passage in Palace of Enchantments, which Hurd co-wrote with Stephen Lamport in 1985, and suggests something else is going on. During a discussion about the electorate, one character says:

“They vote Conservative, but constantly disappoint the Conservatives because they are not entrepreneurs. You can cut their taxes, but you can’t get them to take risks.”

As Fielding reads it, “it’s a kind of critique of the Thatcherites who wanted everybody to be entrepreneurs. Hurd is obviously from more of a One Nation wing of the party, and I looked at that as a kind of a sly way of having a dig at some of his Cabinet colleagues.”

Fielding’s favourite novel by a politician is The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, one of Britain’s first woman MPs. Although Wilkinson and her book – published in 1932 between stints as a Labour MP – have fallen into relative obscurity, the novel was well regarded in its time. It was in many ways semi-autobiographical and, Fielding believes, ‘let slip’ her fears about parliament’s lack of power in the face of business. 

“It’s set at a time of economic crisis and Wilkinson reflects on what parliament can really do in this crisis and on who really runs parliament – and whether it’s actually the bankers from America. So it also has a contemporary theme,” Fielding says. 

“What’s interesting is that in her public speeches at the time, she’s praising parliament for being this wonderful institution, but in her fiction, her darker thoughts are coming out about the possible irrelevance of parliament.” 

There is at least one politician-novelist who’s willing to admit his fiction has a close relationship with real life. Back in 2009, Stanley Johnson was working on a new novel. It featured evil men who want to infiltrate the incoming administration. To do so, they target winnable seats with a list of politically correct candidates. 

The story was set in 2010, following a Tory victory in the polls, and the first name of Johnson’s fictional modernising leader was Donald (one of David Cameron’s middle names). The novel’s name: The A-List.

Whatever happened to it? 

“A very, very good point! What happened to it?” Johnson cries, delighted to be reminded of his forgotten satire. 

“I should have gone on writing that book, it was romping ahead but I just got too busy, and then it got overtaken by events. Who knows what will happen? Did the coalition scupper the A-List? I think not. I think we’re going to find that they’re there and they’ll rise to the top, and you know, it’s too early to tell whether that sinister plot which was behind the A-List worked or didn’t work…”

Wait, are we’re still talking fiction here?

“I won’t know until I finish the novel!” Johnson replies laughing. ■

 

Winston Churchill
Savrola (1899) 
Churchill’s one novel, a melodramatic adventure story, wasn’t a rip-roaring success, but (50 or so years later) he would at least be able to comfort himself with the Nobel Prize in Literature, in recognition of his other writings.

Maurice Edelman
The Prime Minister’s Daughter (1965)
Labour MP Edelman’s novels were as popular as political fiction gets, and during the 50s and 60s were adapted for stage and screen.

David Walder
The House Party (1966) 
According to the cover blurb of this one-time Tory MP’s third novel, it is “magnificently funny” and a sizzling cocktail for those who cannot take their politicians neat”.

Michael Dobbs
House of Cards (1989) 
“Westminster’s baby-faced hit man” channelled years as a top Tory operator into his debut novel. A shelf of bestselling books and two award-winning TV series later, the life peer remains arguably parliament’s greatest storyteller.

Edwina Currie
A Parliamentary Affair (1994) 
A Westminster-based ‘bonk-buster’ (and fictionalised version of Currie’s affair with John Major). For a treat, go on to YouTube for a video of the former Tory minister herself giving a recital of one of the book’s sex scenes.

 

Tags: Chris Mullin, Douglas Hurd novel, Louise Mensch novels, Nadine Dorries novel, Politician novelists, Stanley Johnson

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