Christopher Brookmyre on the maturing of Holyrood
EXCLUSIVE: Bestselling crime writer and satirist Christopher Brookmyre reflects on the indyref, long-term politics and the maturing of a parliament
Christopher Brookmyre at the Scottish Parliament - David Anderson/Holyrood
“The new parliament was an infant with much growing to do. It wasn’t supposed to spring fully-formed from the loins of Zeus.”
So concluded fictional journalist Jack Parlabane in Christopher Brookmyre’s 2000 bestseller Boiling a Frog, which took an acerbic look at the New Labour spin, tabloid gossip and lobbying which characterised the infant years of Scotland’s new devolved seat of power.
Brookmyre returned to the parliament recently as part of the Our Future Scotland challenge set by Scotland’s Futures Forum and the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy.
It was the perfect opportunity for Holyrood to ask Brookmyre how he felt the parliament he had satirised in its first year had grown.
He says it is his recent science-fiction novel Places in the Darkness and its “altruistic long view” which qualified him for inclusion in the Our Future Scotland panel and regards the Our Future challenge as a “refreshing and optimistic perspective” in the face of political cynicism.
“One of the things which has disillusioned me over the last 10 years or so in politics has been short-termism,” Brookmyre tells Holyrood.
“I don’t think it has ever had such a manifestation as under Cameron and Osborne, where it just seemed to be all about the next news cycle or the next by-election. As a result of that, there were policies being generated almost bespoke for a particular by-election or a sort of putative floating voter rather than thinking ‘what is the longer picture here?’”
Arguably, the longer view of Scotland’s future became more prominent during the civic debate of the 2014 independence referendum. Brookmyre describes comforting his 14-year-old son the day after the referendum by pointing out how political language had changed.
“I was saying: ‘what you don’t understand is there is language in the lexicon now around here in the political mainstream that when I was your age was completely fringe’. In fact, five years before that it would have been considered as barely fringe,” he remembers.
But four years on, has politics really changed?
“Ah, but again, that’s a short-termism, because we think it came very close to going a certain way, and you’re immediately calibrating your scale of slippage instead of thinking this is something for ten years or even 20 years.
“It might well come to pass, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it came to pass after all the bluster and ridicule over Nicola Sturgeon talking about a ‘once in a generation’ vote. It might well be once in a generation. I mean, 18-20 years will come around faster than people realise, because as we see with Brexit, politics can gobble up the agenda for years at a time with something you didn’t anticipate.”
Brookmyre is keen to emphasise that Boiling a Frog was not an attempt to satirise the institution itself.
“I could see, even before it opened, the way the sands were shifting and that there was going to be a whole new politics in Scotland, the first time in a long time.
“The main thing I noticed at the time was the sabre-rattling by the religious lobby, because here was, essentially, the four estates, traditionally in Scotland, and one of them had gone missing for 300 years. With the return of this estate, that other estate, the church, was suddenly aware they were going to be marginalised and so were trying to inject themselves into the agenda … So I was partly satirising that but also partly satirising the New Labour thing about image over substance. I mean, that was kind of an open goal, to be honest.”
He describes it as a satire that was more optimistic than cynical, mocking traditional tabloid journalism which used “dirt on people to rein them in”.
Holyrood suggests tabloid dirt is far less effective at sticking than it used to be.
“Not in the Trump era, no. And when you think of the type of things that would have brought down a Conservative politician – or any politician – in the past, Boris Johnson has pretty much got the Panini full set of cards. Whether its scandal, corruption, affairs, you name it. And screaming incompetence. All of those things in the past would’ve seen you forced to resign.”
Boiling a Frog describes how a promise of more consensual politics “very quickly began to resemble all the old back stabbing, eye-gouging eras”.
Brookmyre recalls local disputes in the 1980s.
“I was quite shocked by the ferocity of hatred between Labour and the SNP."
It has endured, he adds. “One of the things which struck me during the referendum was I got the impression Labour were fighting the election they’d lost in 2011 again. Then after that, they were refighting as if they’d lost a referendum they’d won. It all came down to this enduring grudge. And to some extent, I could see it the other way as well. I would see SNP politicians and think ‘you don’t need to have this fight right now’ but their instinct was so strong they couldn’t not.”
Boiling a Frog described Labour in 1999 as in a “centre-right comfort zone” cloaked in “nauseatingly touchy-feely rhetoric” under a “hyper cautious” Donald Dewar, while the SNP, despite “leftist posturing”, was headed in the same direction.
Twenty years later, does Brookmyre feel the SNP has become New Labour?
“I suppose to give New Labour credit, one of the things they were was a template for how to operate as a slick political machine and manage their own message.
“I know everyone is rightly scathing about just how cynical and programmable they all seem to be but having grown up and observed politics in the 80s and 90s, I know why that happened.
“In the days of Neil Kinnock, you could have checked the calendar and as soon as Labour moved a couple of points ahead in an opinion poll, the Daily Mail would have a headline like ‘Kinnock plots slaughter of the firstborn’. Or if there was any minor schism or disagreement over the most nuanced thing between two politicians, it would be front page ‘Labour rift’.
“They realised they had to micromanage their own message to such an extent to circumvent that press message. It became the model, didn’t it?
“What has become frustrating now is politicians not being able to say anything that hasn’t been ratified by someone upstairs.”
Brookmyre’s own political awakening coincided with the 1980s miners’ strike. He had been taken to see the plays of the left-wing theatre company 7:84 at the Citizens Theatre, including Men Should Weep, a play set in 1930s’ depression-era Glasgow.
His school in Barrhead was invited to provide audience members for the BBC show Open to Question, in which young people quizzed a celebrity. As luck would have it, the personality on the show Brookmyre attended was miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.
“I had fashioned a question so it was basically teeing him up to give his side of the miners’ strike,” he laughs.
Theatre, and in particular 7:84 theatre company, remained an interest of Brookmyre’s, studying it at university, and inspired his novel When the Devil Drives.
It “meant a great deal”, then, when the company approached him to adapt Boiling a Frog into a stage play in 2005. He famously sold the rights for a packet of biscuits after director Lorenzo Mele and playwright Christopher Deans turned up at his house with a packet to go with the coffee.
“You give the press something like that and they – if you forgive the pun – eat it up,” Brookmyre remembers.
But if theatre holds a mirror up to society, the Scottish Parliament provided an opportunity to change society, according to Brookmyre in 1999. Boiling a Frog suggested devolution could help the country move away from a kind of ‘wha’s like us’ backslapping myth.
Can it really be said to have had that impact?
“I think we do have a more refined sense of ourselves and therefore a wee bit more honesty,” says Brookmyre, suggesting that Scotland has allowed itself to be more self-critical in the last 20 years.
“I think we were probably at the time more inclined to say you’d let the side down if you even admitted to some of our national flaws. I’d say in that respect, we’re probably more open to self-examination, but we’re still very much prone to a conceit of ourselves that runs towards exceptionalism. You see that all the time.”
Brexit entirely feeds into that, he adds, when the fact the country voted Remain has been used to illustrate all manner of cultural differences.
“Anything like that, you have to look at the finer figures,” he says.
“But at the same time, you can’t dismiss the fact the majority of Scotland voted Remain. I remember scoffing every so often when someone in Labour would show a poll showing that attitudes in Scotland aren’t that different. Actually, when you looked at the numbers – by any statistician’s interpretation – they’re substantially different.”
Brookmyre recognises the interpretation of Scotland by nationalists in 2014 and in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum has relied on a “certain exceptionalism”.
“But as a writer, you understand the importance of telling stories about yourselves, and at least those are positive stories to try and tell about yourself,” he adds.
“If the exceptionalism you are trying to indulge yourself in is that we are open, then at least you can aspire towards that. If the exceptionalism you want to indulge culturally is that we are hard, don’t mess with us, then that is the kind of bulldog spirit we see in English national exceptionalism, ‘We stand alone’. I’d rather our myth was the one that was being artificially inflated than that myth.”
While Brookmyre sounds optimistic when talking politics, his recent novels have tended to be darker and less overtly political, rooted in the ‘tartan noir’ traditions of Scotland’s finest crime writers.
“I was joking at myself being the kind of stereotypical definition of the liberal who is too broadminded to take his own side in an argument.
“You know, the more you learn about things, and the more you try and see other people’s point of view, the less easy it is to just come up with the grotesque satire that I used to.”
Personal politics are more dominant in his writing now, he says, pointing to the take down of institutional sexism in 2016’s Black Widow, which won the inaugural McIlvanney prize at the Bloody Scotland festival.
His 2017 thriller, Want You Gone, foreshadowed the Cambridge Analytica scandal by looking at how much personal lives are entrusted to social media, a place where politicians are increasingly spending more time.
Brookmyre is cynical about politicians being told “by a PR person in the background” to “be more human”.
“I think it works well when you are getting a genuine sense of that person’s personality and values coming through,” he adds.
“With Ruth Davidson, I think there’s a bit of a disconnect between this person who wants to do the fun photo ops that play to a certain image of herself, which doesn’t relate at all to the way she conducts herself on a party political level.
“I think she’s played a blinder in terms of how she’s played the Scottish media, because I don’t think any politician has had such an easy ride from the media in my lifetime.”
Political discourse on social media will have to “grow up” after the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, he suggests, where the influence and strategy of the ‘alt right’ in electing Donald Trump can be charted.
“Stuff you see on YouTube or Facebook, stuff the algorithms are throwing up in front of you. People will start to ask themselves ‘why are you showing me that?’ which they weren’t before.”
Combined with the post-2014 political awareness in Scotland, an awareness that social media, like traditional media, can have an agenda, means Scotland could be already en route to Brookmyre’s wish for political maturity.
“It’s almost like popular culture and political culture have overlapped, and so therefore people are a wee bit more literate about the language of politics and how it overlaps with popular culture,” he suggests.
“People in the past argued the fact it isn’t curated made it more pure, but what we’re seeing is it is being generated by a bot factory, or a troll factory. Astroturfing. It’s one of the things I’m writing about just now. I have a character who is a dark arts PR person, and that’s one area constantly used, faking grassroots opinion. We’ve never had quite a platform for that as social media.”
Anonymous accounts using “bad faith” arguments “pollutes the discourse” Brookmyre adds, and contribute towards a “degree of fatigue”.
“If someone’s fully paid-up, card-carrying, on message, you don’t need to hear what they have to say. You know you’re not going to read anything surprising. The danger is people feel there’s no conversation to be had if everybody’s decided where they stand.”
Brookmyre was on record in 2014 as a Yes supporter, but he says his political positions change more frequently as he gets older.
“I wasn’t somebody who ever thought they’d be in favour of independence. I’m not sure I still am. It’s all up in the air for me just now.
“At the time, I said I was going to vote Yes but I wasn’t evangelical about it, because I didn’t feel I had the arguments or impetus to try and convince somebody else. That’s unusual for me because normally I would be far more vociferous.
“Maybe that’s a sign of some kind of ambivalence about it, but to me, every element of politics is interesting because I’m not sure where I stand on just about everything and am open to be persuaded.
“Apart from Brexit. Because I’ve never seen anything where there was quite so much empirical evidence about something not just being a bad thing but also the majority of people knowing it’s a bad thing – but being compelled to pursue it for all sorts of bizarre and farcical reasons.”
Meanwhile, his message for MSPs is to seek common ground.
“One of the things I liked about the Scottish Parliament from the off was that the layout was not adversarial. That there wasn’t a facing opposition. That’s something I feel needs to be celebrated and enhanced. It should be less adversarial,” he suggests.
“Having probably watched too much Borgen, you realise there’s a different kind of politics generated by the need to find compromise and common ground rather than what we’ve grown up with.”
One for the future, perhaps.
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