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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

It’s that referendum thing

Some two years ago Andrew Marr was at work on his first novel. Since it deals with a crucial referendum on British membership of the European Union, it’s worth a second look just now. When it was published, in the autumn of 2014, Head of State had a rather mixed reception. Part of what follows is recycled from a review I wrote at the time, but what is more interesting now is the detailed description of what went on in the run-up to the Referendum.

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public” wrote Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations. A note at the front of Head of State tells us that its author had long wanted to write a political satire. So, when his agent arranged a meeting with Lord Chadlington, who supplied him with a plot involving a daring conspiracy at the heart of Government, he grabbed at the opportunity. As you might expect, the plot idea from the former head of Shandwick included some intricate manipulation of the media, allowing Marr to combine his knowledge of politics and journalism.

The action takes place in September 2017, so Marr was more than a year out in his fantasy forecast.  Of course, with anything set in the near future, there are always going to be some recognisable figures of the present still around, and Marr didn’t hesitate to use them alongside his fictional characters. The Government of the day (Conservative) is supporting a ‘Yes’ vote in the Referendum – so he got that right. It is led by one Bill Stevenson (William and Stevenson are the author’s middle two names). Germany’s Chancellor is now a man – David McAllister (these Scots creep in everywhere!), the US President is now a woman (guess who?) and Nicolas Sarkozy has returned as President of France. David Cameron and Boris Johnson have somehow wandered off-stage, the latter after “a short-lived administration”. So, surprisingly, has Nigel Farage, referred to only in an aside as “the insurgent UKIP leader”. And the country now has a King, not named but again recognisable, his private study “filled with the King’s own watercolours of Scotland, India and Windsor”. As you can gather from the above, Marr indulged in some gentle mockery.  One of the key figures in the conspiracy is Nelson Fraser – a reversal of the name of the current Editor of The Spectator – while the Editor of the New Statesman appears only as car, and a “slick, tinny and noisy” one at that.  

Deeply divided

The Government is deeply divided over the Referendum – so he got that right too. But the “No to Europe – Democracy First” campaign is led by a formidable former Home Secretary (so he got that wrong) called Olivia Kite (waving a flag, or flying a kite?), operating from a country house in Essex. The conspiracy involves concealing the awkwardly timed death of the Prime Minister less than a week before Referendum Day (one hopes, for David Cameron’s sake, that he got that one wrong too). Most of its levers are pulled by Professional Logistical Services, a secretive group of influential figures rather resembling a domestic Club of Rome. Much of the action takes place in 10 Downing Street, which Marr carefully researched to provide accuracy of detail. Some of this I found surprising, having been concerned with a book about the place back in the 1970s. I don’t remember a “narrow brick Tudor corridor connecting No.10 to the Cabinet Office”, though I know some remnants of Whitehall Palace were found in the 1960s when the house was given a two-bay eastern extension. But the claim that Downing Street was effectively rebuilt from the ground up at that time is surely wrong. Only No.12 at the western end of the street was pulled down and replaced.

Extracts from the National Courier (The Times retitled?) bracket the novel’s fourteen chapters. The first, dated June 22, 2017 (a year less a day from the date of our upcoming Referendum) covers the PM’s announcement of his September date; the second, dated 10 October 2017 describes the previous day’s memorial service in Westminster for the departed Prime Minister (curiously, attended by “the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge” who would hardly be known by those titles after the accession of the Duke’s father!). A rather more serious error was the title of the novel itself. I know that many journalists, even those concerned with politics, confuse the Head of State with the Head of Government, but it was not something one would have expected of Andrew Marr.

As a novel it’s all a bit of a mish-mash. There are dozens of walk-on parts, both real and fictional, and the narrative is frequently interrupted by flashbacks (a bid to sell film rights here?). It just about works, but Marr is so good at so many things that perhaps he should have left novel-writing to others. Illustration too, to judge by the book’s endpaper drawings. But “a political entertainment”, as Lord Chadlington refers to it in his Foreword, it certainly was.

So what about the big question? Which view triumphed in the Referendum? I can’t be accused of a spoiler so long after publication, so you may as well know that the ‘No’ campaign won. Bets had been placed – are they being placed right now? – and some parties did very well out of the result. By mid-summer we shall know whether Andrew Marr got that one right.

By Roger Bush