I have a rule about keeping political posts on the internet to a minimum. I’m about to break it.
Arguing with people about politics on the internet often seems pointless to me. I won’t change anyone’s opinion because frankly I’m not that good in a debate. As a teenager I always wanted to play the showman, and fancied myself as being able to win anything on the basis of being the better speaker rather than having the better argument. One English teacher I had told me I’d make a good politician.
Trouble is, as an adult, I’ve come to loathe this culture of presentation and showboating always seeming to beat reason and thought. It’s a big part of how a man I consider to be a reality denying malignant narcissist got elected US president. It’s a big part of how the British media stirred up enough xenophobia to ensure we voted ourselves out of the EU. When the result came in, I actually didn’t despair over the idea, but more over why so many people chose to vote for it, and how I lived in a country where newspapers could sell copy based on emotion stirring and misinformation rather than because people actually wanted to consider both sides of a debate.
At this point I’d love to play the schoolboy and say ‘If you’re already shaking your head then feel free to get the fuck off my page,’ but this is another thing I can’t stand about politics and the internet: the lack of maturity that goes on. If people disagree with me, they’re free not to read anything I write, but why would I deny myself a reader’s interest over what’s really just differing views? Diplomacy should be given a chance.
Some people voted in both events having thought things through and made a considered opinion, and I respect that some think differently to me. Democracy isn’t always going to give me the result I want. I’ve a right to complain and say ‘Not my government’ and re-tweet clever quips about my rivals that I can’t be bothered to think up on my own, and I’d never let anyone silence me, but I’m not always right. Nor have I ever considered myself fully informed on most political issues, even though I take an interest. I consider apathy dangerous, yet I don’t feel like I have to shout all over social media to prove I’m not apathetic.
So what do I do? I write books and I vote. Even though sometimes I feel like voting for nobody, I go to the polling station and make a choice. At some points in my life, I was very resolute about who I chose and full of strong opinion about why. Do I still agree with myself, when I look back? Hell no. I’ve changed my mind about plenty, on many days I’m mad as hell with both myself and the world for what’s going on in it.
So is there anything else I can do? Yeah, I can join a protest if it represents what I think, but very often these events don’t completely do that. I don’t consider the kind of protest that would get me put in prison to be a good use of myself, because I like the kind of engagement that comes from putting words on the page. And truth is, I’ve got a certain measure of cowardly lion about me. But sue me, I rather prefer to write these things on my sofa with my laptop than on a bed with no mattress with only toilet paper and a leaking biro that cost me three packets of cigarettes just to get smuggled in.
I’m no political martyr in the making, and don’t consider myself a modern day Orwell, but I believe in the idea that someone saying something is better than nobody saying anything.
And the truth is, I like being a bit of a political chameleon, because as a writer of fiction I feel like I owe it to myself to see as many different viewpoints as I can. If I could only get inside the head of ‘good’ characters who always agreed with me, my books would be boring, and that’s the cardinal sin of good fiction. My ability to switch sides and feel like different person both politically and sometimes ethically has helped me write the kind of stuff I write. The best supervillains and antagonists are often the ones who can not only convince themselves they are right, but almost convince a reader at times. My job as the author is made easier for having held political views that I now consider to be nuts, and for talking about principles that I’ve always resolutely stuck to.
Shit, politics is an awesome battleground for a writer to engage in on so many levels. Good and bad leaders drawn from the news sometimes make excellent characters. The West Wing and House of Cards are smash-hits for a reason. Any futuristic society needs a government, even if they aren’t a focus for the story – social structure drives just about anything, when you boil it down. Or at least it does in my books.
I’m going to divide this in two. Part I will be about general stuff I’ve thought over the years, and Part II for those interested is about how it’s fuelled the fiction.
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve supported the idea that if you want money, you work for it. It’s a simple enough trade off for me. I couldn’t live off handouts from the state, because where’s the satisfaction in that? It’s always like running a race to me: there’s no point in pinning the winning medal on myself if I haven’t actually won anything.
Yet here’s the thing: I didn’t get to financial independence without some help. I had family who supported my financially through university, because they were in a position to be able to do that. (Thanks Mum and Dad, if you’re reading this!) Was I going to turn their money down on principle? Absolutely not, I was going to make use of that good fortune I had. I may never have claimed unemployment benefits during my working life, but I can’t pretend that every penny I spent was a penny I earned for myself either. That’s the way it is now, but I didn’t get there alone. And I certainly lived in their house for long enough while I re-trained as a ranger, years after graduating from that other stuff they helped me achieve.
At Uni at around 21 years old, I considered myself a capitalist and a financial conservative. I read The Economist and The Telegraph while most other people at Sussex University read The Guardian and The Observer. I remember going to the Freshers Fair and seeing this society who wanted to crush capitalism and reduce the influence of big businesses, and thinking ‘Hell with that, today’s students are tomorrow’s capitalists. Count me IN, bro!’
I hated how the students would protest at the place getting sponsorship from corporations while they also protested against tuition fees increasing. If they didn’t want to pay for education but wouldn’t let those who actually had money help out, then where was the uni’s funding going to come from, a fucking money tree?
We could argue that the state should pay for education all we wanted, but it wasn’t going to happen. If you wanted to stay a student as an adult, you had to pay into the pot. Simple. Whether you took on the debt or family helped you out or in my case a little helping of both, the state weren’t gonna hold your hand once you turned eighteen. That was that. And if you wanted pocket money while you went through all that, you had to get a job on the side of studying and, y’know, actually show up for work mostly sober so you could do it.
It was around this time in my life that I started to fancy myself as a bit of a dark horse. I’d grown up with Tory-hating parents who despised Margret Thatcher (my father once said ‘She’ll burn in Hell and still think she was right,’ and this was coming from an atheist) yet here I was fancying a high flying career with lots of money and voting for low taxes and free markets. Tony Blair’s government seemed to want to tax the shit out of everyone and make the system for claiming money back so complex that most people either wouldn’t bother or wouldn’t know how to claim what they could. The same lot had set a target of over 50% of people going into university education at the time I started my first year, and by the end of my fourth the market was flooded with graduates there simply wasn’t room for. Add a campaign for ID cards we didn’t need and a whole plethora of lies about going a war in Iraq we should have stayed the fuck away from, and there was no way I was ever siding with another Labour government again.
It wasn’t until around ten years later when the conservatives started taking away people’s disability benefits that they lost my vote, having seemingly forgotten that being rich was one thing, but not supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged people in your society was quite another. The survey the conservative government commissioned to assess whether disabled people could work was trying to send people out to look for jobs who had severe brain damage or were virtually immobile. My vote? They weren’t getting it again after that. Especially not after they put the man at the top of it all, George Osbourne, on a stand at the Paralympics making a speech. If I’d been there, this is the one time I might have risked that prison sentence with its steel bed and toilet-paper writing days, and just pelted the egregious bastard with rotting eggs.
That was around the same time that I came to realise that people supposedly ‘sponging off the state’ were really not a huge number, and that if we cut social benefits completely, we wouldn’t make back even a small amount of what the 2008 financial crash had cost us. One that was largely down to de-regulation and irresponsible lending fuelled by business and supported wholeheartedly by the right wing. Who responded by saying that it happened because George W Bush’s government just weren’t republican enough.
There are probably friends and family who still think I’m a bit of a blue collared boy. I don’t blame them; certain things I say still tally up a little with the right hand side of government. I’m not given to donating lots of money to charities. I like drinking expensive scotch and wearing designer clothes because I can afford to, and I still believe in scrapping inheritance tax completely, but through all that I’ve re-grown the kind of altruistic social conscience I once had in my youth.
I stopped believing in tax cuts for the super-rich, because if you left it up to them who they gave money to, most of them would not become philanthropists, and most of them could not gotten to their current position without the country they living having the system that enabled them to do it. Taxes paid for that, and arguably there isn’t enough money in the pot to pay for what’s needed while people like Donald Trump can fund their own election campaigns. Most of these people have received more help from the state than they had admitted to, or perhaps were even aware of.
This was the same time I first heard the term ‘The one percent’ – this figure being the people in the USA who supposedly had the vast majority of the wealth. I read Thomas Frank’s ‘Pity the Billionaires’ and saw a documentary on social inequality which made the same argument: for every self made billionaire, there are thousands if not millions of others who struggle to get decent access to education and health care, let alone think about making any money to support themselves. I might not be anywhere close to the super-rich, but I was fortunate, and this was the problem with conservatives: the inability to recognise that many others are not, and will not thrive in a system where every man has to help himself.
It’s arguable that such a system has never existed anyway. Every rich man has at some point been in debt to somebody. We have a system where there’s a support network for helping each other get places. So why is it that we become more and more dependant on drugs to treat depression when we could be using that system to help each other towards better things?
Did I believe in the extreme reverse now, of the state allocating everyone an equal share of money and resources? No, I didn’t and still don’t believe that extreme socialism or communism works. Any community I’ve ever lived in has had its stories about people arguing in council meetings about stuff that’s really very small. We could never reach the kind of consensus as people that would provide complete equality on a large scale. And besides, in any group of people who start off with an equal role, a leader almost always emerges eventually and rises to the place where the decisions become theirs.
But I do believe that our current systems have a long way to go before we’re looking after each other as we should. The British health service, the NHS, was founded on the basis of keeping people in good health, and treating bad health as something that people shouldn’t be punished for just because they aren’t rich enough to afford treatment with no-one else’s help. Why we seek to unravel that system now and let private companies take it back over now is simply baffling. The USA has an insurance based system that I’ve heard many doctors argue is one of the worst in the world for everyone concerned apart from large businesses. Yes, the British system has it’s financial turmoil – it is highly expensive to run, but why people can’t wake up to the idea that there may be bigger prices to pay than money is simply beyond me.
Where are we heading with all this, if such a state of affairs can even exist? If all the angry voices simply don’t get heard and we vote for change only to undo all the good work it brings by voting crazy people back in, how do you get through to people that we’re all citizens of the world and should perhaps, y’know, think about co-operating instead of fucking each other over for a percentage or because of a religious difference?
Honestly, I’ve often no idea. But when I sit down to write a novel, I sometimes search for one. A friend of mine once told me that writing wasn’t always about publishing something, it was a way of working things out before you even thought about who else might read it.
Yeah, this the part where I might say ‘See those books up there?’ and all the rest, but let’s skip that and just go for saying ‘If you’re still with me, click on part two for a few teasers about how I mesh politics with sci-fi.’