Fictional leaders

Fascinating discussion over on Crooked Timber about the nature of fictional political leaders such as Francis Urquhart, Harry Perkins, Jed Bartlett, Jack Ryan, and Jim Hacker. The thesis is that the American fictional presidents are ideals, perfect men in every way, and while this isn’t really true I understand what the writer means. El presidente in a TV programme is someone you’d vote for, someone who engenders the thought that this is the way the real guy should be doing it, and why doesn’t he get that? British PMs on screen are not in any way like that: Urquhart is rampagingly cool but not in any way whatsoever someone you’d vote for; Hacker is hilarious, but, again, not a vote target. The only fictional British PM who does have that “he’s my guy! why don’t the real people get it?” vibe is Harry Perkins from A Very British Coup and the story isn’t about his greatness, it’s about how he got his arse kicked by the Civil Service. I think that some of this is about the power embedded in the office; the PM is supposed to be literally just the prime minister: the first among equals. (Without wishing to delve too far into political ranting, I get the impression that this annoys the shit out of Tony.) The US President has real personal power all his own; he gets to say “Make it so“, Picard-like, much more than our PM does. So your ideal fictional one should say “Make it so” for all the right reasons and on all the right issues, and, lo, we have utopia. Political utopias are a much rarer commodity in fiction regarding Britain; look at 1984, the canonical book about British politics. Look at V For Vendetta. As mentioned, the only potential utopic story was A Very British Coup, and that’s about how a guy tried to make a utopia and got screwed!
I can’t imagine the programme 10 Downing Street, the UK equivalent of The West Wing. I think that Americans see politics as a knife-in-the-back grubby business and chastise their politicians for not being the Platonic form of a perfect politician. Here, on the other hand, no-one really expects politicians to be virtuous—the complaints come about when a politician shows explicit un-virtuousness, but if they exhibit the status quo of not being explicitly nasty but not being nice either, no-one thinks twice about it. Politics is a grubby business and politicians don’t care about us. There are, notably, exceptions, but they’re not exceptions who are doing what everyone expects of politicians (and therefore everyone else is falling down on the job), they’re exceptions who rise above the norm and the expectation.


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