Jackanory

Politicians tell us stories. The best of them tell us stories which inspire us or make us angry or in one way or another motivate us. Truly outstanding politicians can break through the the apathy and re-engage people with democratic politics. Very exceptionally, politicians can do all this while being perfectly honest. But they all tell us stories. And they’re never more full of stories than when there’s an election on. That’s when the stories come thick and fast.

As voters, our role in the democratic process is to listen to the stories told by politicians and decide which is the most persuasive. Or which is the most appealing, even if it is not persuasive at all. Mostly these stories are about what the politician is going to do in exchange for our votes. Actually, that’s not true. Mostly the stories are about how little other politicians are offering. Or about how those other politicians have failed to make their stories come true in the past. Mostly politicians would prefer not to tell us stories about what they’re going to do in exchange for our votes because those stories tend to come back to haunt them in future elections when other politicians tell their stories about how your stories didn’t materialise. What this means is that we end up getting lots of stories which are not persuasive in the sense of convincing us of a better than tenuous connection to present reality or a possible future reality but which are appealing anyway. They’re just good stories. We settle for that.

Perhaps the most important factor in the type of story told by a politician is the level of expectation. If a politician is neither expecting nor expected to be in a position where they might be expected to meet the expectations raised by their stories then they can pretty much tell whatever stories they like. It’s a distinct advantage of being a ‘fringe’ party that you can promise anything safe in the knowledge that you will never have the power that would place on you an obligation to deliver.

More mainstream politicians have to be more circumspect. They can’t go around promising free stuff lest they wake up one morning to find themselves in charge and facing angry demands for all that free stuff. Which doesn’t mean they won’t promise free stuff. Or lovely stuff at minimal cost. It just means that before doing so they will have figured out how they can get away with not delivering. They’ve worked out who they can blame when their stories don’t translate to reality.

It’s a minefield. In a sense, it’s easy to forgive voters who just throw up their hands in despair. At least they can be bothered throwing up their hands. That’s something. It’s even easier to forgive the voters who remain engaged to the extent that they sort of listen to some of the stories but can’t be arsed with the complexity and just go with the one that cheers them up a bit. So many of the stories are depressing. In fact, just about all of them are depressing at least in part. That’s because politicians want to appear serious and ‘realistic’. The last thing they want is to leave themselves open to accusations of being a dreamer. Which is a pity. Because every great social reform from votes for women to the baby box started with a dream.

Dream. Plan. Realisation. That’s how it went. First there was the dream of ending some injustice or righting some wrong or bringing some great benefit. Then there was the plan for making it all happen. Then there was implementation of the plan so as to make the dream real. Time was, politicians told us stories about dreams. Theirs and ours. Sometimes their became ours. Sometimes ours became theirs. Now there’s just stories. The dreams got smaller. The fantasies got bigger. Fantasies don’t need a plan. Fantasies don’t have to be realised. Their only purpose is to be a story that appeals to jaded voters.

A good story – the sort of story that will appeal regardless of how fantastical it is – must have what media analysts call a McGuffin. This is a device which exists solely to drive the plot and motivate the characters. It needn’t be intrinsically important. It needn’t even be real. It just has to provide a point around which the story can revolve or change direction or pace ar resolve some snag. If this sounds a wee bit vague then it’s because a McGuffin can be just about anything. And just about anything can be a McGuffin. The context can take a thing and make of it a McGuffin in a particular context.

Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver is a McGuffin. The buried treasure in a pirate story is a McGuffin. The thing about a McGuffin is that you needn’t know what it is to recognise it when you see it. Sometimes, it can be very subtle. Other times, in theatrical farce for example, it tends to be glaringly obvious. Its obviousness lending to the farcical nature of the characters’ failure to recognise it.

The supermajority is a McGuffin. It’s the McGuffin in the story being told by Alba Party politicians. It serves no purpose other than to make the story more appealing.



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