TheWestWingLabour Uncut is always a good place to go to for outlandish claims that bear no relationship to reality, and the opening of this piece is no exception:

Probably the greatest hour in modern television history is the magisterial finale of the second season of The West Wing: Two Cathedrals.

I’m not convinced it’s even the best episode of The West Wing, and the idea of it being the greatest piece of modern television feels somewhat akin to stating that Liz Kendall would be a popular choice for leader amongst Labour party members. I can think of a dozen Breaking Bad or The Wire episodes that are better than Two Cathedrals, and I’m sure people reading this can come up with lists of episodes from other series just as easily.

However, I’m not intending this to be a post about favourite TV episodes. It’s very common to see politicos and aspiring politicos cite The West Wing (and its hipster equivalent, Borgen) as being amongst their favourite TV. It’s an interesting phenomenon, given that it’s rare for people in any other profession to look upon depictions of their jobs in the same way. Indeed, the most common reaction of most people is to point out that dramas tend to hyper-idealise their profession and depict everyone involved as being way more competent than reality. In reality, we see things like the ‘CSI effect‘ where forensic scientists are seen as being able to achieve much more than they can, or that doctors and nurses complain how people see defibrilators as near-magic. Meanwhile, politicos are gazing on an obviously idealised portrayal of themselves and their abilities and are choosing to praise it rather than point out the flaws in it.

I’ve written before about how people – especially those in politics – think that ‘political drama’ and ‘drama about politicians’ are the same thing. It’s a building block in the idea that politics is just about the games white men (and the occasional woman) in suits play, while they walk up and down corridors being very clever at each other. The actual effects of the policies they’re talking about, and especially the people affected by them, rarely feature in them. Politics as depicted by The West Wing is all about the process, making big meaningful speeches (sometimes in Latin) and beating the other team, when the real thing is a lot more complicated than that. The trouble is that we have a generation of young politicos who think that’s all it is about, and it’s having the same effect as if we had a generation of A&E doctors basing their treatment plans on what they’d seen on Casualty.

What makes for good drama – and The West Wing is good drama, even if better has been made since – isn’t the compromises, muddled resolutions, and unclear endings that characterise reality. When there are so many people involved in politics who think that a drama about politics encapsulates all they need to know about it, it’s no wonder that we have such a shallow political culture that sees the main focus of politics as being the men at the top having showy disagreements instead of the effects their arguments have on the people at the bottom. You can keep watching it, but don’t imagine it teaches you anything about actual politics and what’s really important.


Being pro-politics is not the same as being pro-politician

Lib Dem Voice have produced a remake of the old ‘where is the British West Wing?’ posts of a few years ago by asking ‘where is the British Borgen?

(The answer to that question is ‘waiting for someone to forget the poor ratings previous dramas about politicians got or for someone to come up with a good story’, by the way)

However, the part that struck me (from Alistair Campbell’s tweet that kicked it off and used repeatedly in the following discussions) is the idea that there aren’t ‘pro-politics’ dramas on British TV. The problem with that belief is that there are lots of incredibly political dramas on British TV, it’s just that they’re not about politicians. Campbell et al believe that ‘politics’ solely relates to ‘what we do’ – usually white men in suits arguing with each other – whereas politics actually covers a much wider range of interactions between people and power.

For instance, Jimmy McGovern’s stories are usually intensely political, showing what effect the system and its policies can have on people, but they rarely feature actual politicians. Spooks – particularly in the early series – often addressed the fundamental political issue of where the balance between liberty and security should be struck, and how dangerous it can be to give the state too much power. Even Holby City and Casualty have regularly shown the effects of changes to NHS policy over the years.

‘Political drama’ does not have to mean ‘drama about politicians’ – indeed, making it about politicians can get in the way of making a political point. The old adage of storytelling and scriptwriting is ‘show, don’t tell’, and a political drama needs to show the effects of the policies it’s looking at. Those effects aren’t normally felt within the corridors of the power (except sometimes changing who gets to walk them) but they are felt outside Whitehall and Parliament. Great storytelling is about great characters and the way they deal with the world around them, and the story of someone dealing with the consequences of a political decision and how it affects their life is normally a much more interesting story to watch than the debates that led up to that policy being enacted.

Politicians forget that they’re just a part of the political process and that their little bubble of process isn’t the entirety of it. Britain has a long and fine tradition of drama that’s pro-politics, and doesn’t flinch from showing the effects policy has on people’s lives. To ignore that, and imagine that politics is only important when it’s about politicians is another reflection of how the practice and the reality of politics are becoming completely separated in this country.

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