Friday, 22 October 2010

Fantasy politics - a world without the Party

I have been reading one of those substantial, detailed fantasy epics. You know the sort – sweeping vistas, warring kingdoms, dark lords and magic everywhere. This one – Wolfblade – is slightly unusual in that it’s written by a woman, which seems not to change the nature of the narrative style or the complicated array of lords, barons and knights so typical of the genre.

However, the description of politics in a fantasy world got me to thinking about how a polity without political parties founded in ideology might look. And how the politics might play out in such a place. Even – and I’ve restrained my fantastical urges here – where there are no mages, sorcerers or wizards.

We have got used to a land where political parties are the entire – or almost the entire – basis for political competition. Even down to the level of little town councils in small market towns, we find elections contested between the parties of left and right, liberal and conservative, authoritarian and free. The presentation of politics by the media, the analysis by academics and even the cynical public bar conversation – all these are formed round the assumption that politics needs the political party.

But let’s fantasise for a moment. Let’s consider a world without political parties. Where everyone is “independent”, where there are no whips, no ‘lines to follow’, no tribal politics. Rest assured my friends, I’m not getting like that dreadful fraud, John Lennon, and imagining some nonsensical utopia – indeed the world without political parties may be dystopian rather than utopian!

Which takes us back to Wolfblade and the world of fantasy. The book details a politics founded on competition between Warlords moderated by the need to retain national unity against the possible – even probable – external threat. The contest is driven by two factors – self-interest and strategic difference. And we should note that these factors are not separate but weave together in determining the factions, interests and politics of the realm. This is the world without political parties – at least as we know them. Different factions – parties if you must – exist but their contest is not ideological but practical, strategic – even tactical.

In the world without political parties, we focus more strongly on leadership, on character and – trumping all this – on our own self-interest. Our support – whether it be votes in an election or troops in a battle - is governed not by ideology or the political tribe but by which person best represents our interests. It becomes a true politics, one determined by consideration rather than habit and where we choose as out representative one who represents our interest not that of some distant party headquarters.

Or at least that might be so. But just as likely is the triumph of the courtier – the man whose sole purpose is to secure power. For sure, these men – and women – abound in our politics already. For every honest politician – for each Philip Davies or John McDonnell – there’s a dozen or more interested mostly in preferment and in power. In a world without parties – in my fantasy – we might find ourselves in a darker world of corruption, power-broking and destructive government.

And this is the theme of so much fantasy literature – the contest between a fearful, corrupt world under some dark lord and a brighter, chivalrous world under some shining king or queen. But what we should remember – and Tolkien knew this – is that even the best can be corrupted by power:

In the place of a Dark Lord you would have a Queen! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morn! Treacherous as the Seas! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth! All shall love me and despair!


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