The Knives: the first realist political novel in years

5616The Observer 9 August 2016

As late as the 1970s, it was possible to tell stories about politics that were vaguely realistic. Now there are two approved narratives. Each started as radical in its way, but coagulated into cliche long ago, as radical fashions always do. Both have become barriers, not just to understanding, but also to worthwhile drama.

In the stultifying groupthink that grips the arts, a politician must either be a vacuous pawn of one of Armando Iannucci’s foul-mouthed spin doctors in The Thick of It – a satire so Swiftian in its savagery, so devastating to its targets, that the establishment took its revenge by forcing poor Iannucci to accept an OBE as punishment. Alternatively, the politician is a criminal conspirator in league with paedophile rings, arms manufacturers, big oil or whoever else will pay him to work against the public good.

As Professor Steven Fielding said in A State of Play, his history of how politics is turned into fiction, the only way a writer can convince a British commissioning editor that politics is not boring is to make it sleazy.
You sympathise with Blaycock, unlike the cowardly civil servants around him, who constantly want to fudge and delay

It may not be a loss that you cannot imagine a British West Wing. But it is a scandal that groupthink has produced such an impoverished cultural landscape. How can you write about the state of the nation, when you refuse to see the leaders of the nation for who they are?

Richard T Kelly’s The Knives is a welcome and overdue break from the past – the best novel about modern politics I have read in years. His hero, David Blaycock, is a home secretary in a Conservative government. In the first of the many contemporary taboos he breaks with gusto, Kelly does not show Tories as collectively wicked but as varied individuals. He fills the cabinet with an honourable prime minister; an efficient chancellor; a shallow and scheming business secretary; and Blaycock himself, a working-class conservative from the north-east of England, who appears to be an honest man determined to make the Home Office work.

Kelly has done his research and interviewed civil servants and politicians. He has grasped the speed of politics; how crises fall on ministers like guerrilla attacks. Nowhere more so than at the Home Office. In centralised England, the home secretary is responsible for failings he or she cannot possibly have prevented, which are potentially all the more dangerous because they touch on elemental fears about violence, race and religion.

The reader sympathises with Blaycock. He is an ex-soldier, who does not mind “having a go” when he spots a burglar or sees an immigrant girl threatened by a far-right mob. He rages against officials who are pushing taxpayers’ money towards Islamic organisations that host hate preachers. He seems straightforward and principled, unlike the cowardly civil servants around him, who constantly want to fudge and delay.

Of course, if research were all Kelly could do, he would have produced journalism not fiction. As The Knives progresses, disconcerted readers begin to realise we are in the hands of a deft storyteller, and we should not trust our first impressions. It is as much an exploration of self-destructive male vanity as politics. Its hero is not so heroic. His readiness to cut the crap and have a go masks a quietly furious will to power in the personal as much as the political. He wants to impress women, any woman, even if they fundamentally disagree with him and will never stay impressed. He must dominate, even if domination means enforcing policies he knows can never work. All his apparently decisive interventions boomerang back to harm him, even his generous decisions made in good faith.

By the end, Blaycock is laid bare and torn apart. He could be a tragic figure, were he not so ignorant of his own faults. The destruction of Blaycock is devastating, when so much political fiction is flaccid, because of Kelly’s refusal to bend his knee to fashion. Blaycock’s mistakes do not destroy him because he is a wicked Tory. He is not bribed to his doom by a sinister corporation or led to perdition by one of Iannucci’s spin doctors. He does not fall because he is “the man” but because he is a man, and a complicated and believable man at that.

The Knives is published by Faber £14.99. Click here to order a copy for £12.29

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