How politics works?

For the comedy approach to how British politics works, we have the immortal Yes, Minister starring Sir Humphrey et al. And then the series moves on when the bungling Jim Hacker MP becomes prime minister as the candidate least offensive to either wing of his party.

The less amusing version of a man wholly unsuited to becoming prime minister is in Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards, which is probably more recently better known as the inspiration for the US television series of the same name, starring none other than Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.


It’s an interesting combination. In the book, we have Francis Urquhart, the Chief Whip, who decides that he would prefer to be prime minister. How he goes about this is an exercise in the mind of a villain. In the TV series, we have Francis (Frank) Underwood, whose ambition is to become President. Again, his character is wonderfully bad. And in both cases, we find ourselves rooting for someone we would in real life want to have put in jail (and who should, in fact, be there). No matter what the men do, no matter how good the motives and actions of those opposed to them, we are drawn to the central characters. It’s awful, but we seem not to care.

In the book, we have insights into the philosophy of Francis Urquhart in the form of little soundbites at the beginning of the chapters.

Some politicians think of high office like a sailor thinks of the sea, as a great adventure, full of unpredictability and excitement. They see it as the way to their destiny. I see it as something they will probably drown in.

Loyalty may be good news, but it is rarely good advice.

Politics. The word is taken from the Ancient Greek. ‘Poly’ means ‘many.’ And ticks are tiny, bloodsucking insects.

It’s a very effective way of showing us the way Urquhart thinks in just a couple of lines a chapter. The TV series achieves something similar by having Underwood turn to the camera and give his commentary to us, the viewer, and the feeling is very similar to being the reader, seeing everything, hearing everything, and knowing the thoughts of the main character. It also keeps us close to Underwood through his machinations, feeling we are one of his confidants.

Behind all this is Michael Dobbs. He was chief of staff and deputy chairman of the UK Conservative Party and the first person to tell Margaret Thatcher that she had become prime minister. He now sits in the House of Lords. He knows of what he writes, even if it is rightly embellished to turn his knowledge into effective fiction.

As a result, like Yes, Minister, what lies behind the fictional plot feels worryingly close to the truth.

An unelected prime minister, in his position largely through his manipulation of the behind the scenes process for being appointed by the MPs in his (or her) party… a few hundred people out of a population of millions. Perhaps even without any eventual opposition. Well, we have had two of them in the last decade, haven’t we?

This is how the fictional king describes such a prime minister:

May I remind you that you have not been elected as Prime Minister, not by the people. You have no mandate. Until the next election you are no better than a constitutional caretaker.

Then there is the question of whether to hold an early election to secure such a mandate during the ‘honeymoon’ period. Recent history suggests that prime ministers in that position prefer to hold on to their power rather than risk the outcome of a democratic process.

We have a fixation with the relationship with the owners of the various media outlets and the press this can garner for or against them. With the mutual back scratching which takes place, circumventing any concept of democracy. We are left with the distinct impression that we are being manipulated. You knew I meant in the novel, right?

And we see the difficulty for anyone who tries to stand up to the (abuse of) power they see being played out. The network of relationships which shuts them out, puts pressure on them to leave things be, the subtle and not so subtle threats which non-conformity will bring with it.

Highly recommended as a good read. And a good watch.

As to whether this novel (or the TV series) holds up a mirror to the current practices of our government? As Francis Urquhart would say, ‘You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.’

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