Narrative makes sense of the things we cannot understand but fundamentally affect us. The coalition of 2010 was undoubtedly one such event: a happening that we cannot yet fully grasp. Like last time, it is probable no one will outright win the upcoming election; as such, politicians will spin their own stories to give a sense to this state of affairs. Recently, Channel 4 gave a non-politician, the chance to give sense to those fateful days.
Adopting a politically neutral perspective is easier said than done; unlike other stories, this is a political story, and what sense can (or cannot) be given, is perhaps intrinsically contestable. To his credit, writer Mark Gatiss is partially successful in maintaining neutrality.Sadly he pays too high a price for this feat.
The coherence Gattis finds in the days between the election results and the coalition settlement is thoroughly apolitical. Indeed from Coalition, one gets the impression these events were not the result of conflicting ideologies and principles, but a result of conflicting personalities in the game of realpolitik. This interpretation avoids partisanship by reducing politics to power plays: everybody is tarred with the same brush. This neutrality inevitaby comes at a cost.
Gatiss claims that Coalition attempts to dispel the current cynicism towards politics. On one level he achieves this. Coalition takes us into the nitty gritty of impossible decisions burdened by unbearably high stakes as the country waits with baited breath. Correspondingly, all the characters are shown frantically trying to second-guess each other with none of them really getting it right. The duress of these circumstances goes a long way in humanising the participants by showing them in all their human fallibility.
Gatiss may be thus successful in combating the alienation between the public and the political class by giving us the opportunity to be sympathetic with the difficulty of their position. But on another level, a story of competing ambitions stokes the very fire of cynicism that it is trying to extinguish. What comes across is not a story of principles competing for representation in government, but a story of characters trying to dupe each other in a bid for power. Showing human fallibility seems to come at the price of showing political integrity. No matter how sympathetic and indeed non-partisan, this interpretation may be, it surely won’t make us any less cynical.
Indeed, the film not only presents an implicitly cynical view of politics, it also seems to endorse this cynicism. Most prominently we see this in how Clegg’s campaign is represented. From the outset, his predicament is described (to use the line scripted for him) as a conflict between his head and his heart: a flimsy deal with Labour versus getting into bed with the Conservatives. How this choice is presented is highly telling. We are constantly reminded how a deal with Labour would be the principled thing to do; Brown spends half his lines telling a skeptical Peter Mandelson the Lib Dems would never sell out, while Paddy Ashdown spends half his screen time looking despondent and conflicted as a tory deal looks ever more likely. The framework for the humanising dramatic conflict is thus the decision between power and principle.
The film’s cynicism is manifest in how it implicitly endorses the former. Take the presentation of Brown and Ashdown, the film’s two voices of political conscious. Brown is unflatteringly presented as an ideological caveman, yet he is also the figure who most strongly represents the idea of politics as a question of principle. We see him pathetically heaving down a telephone as he makes a desperate plea for Clegg to follow his heart, ditch the tories and pursue progressive reform. It is therefore telling that he should also be the tragic figure of the piece. His final scene shows him in melancholic resignation as he realizes he has no chance (a fact the film seems to assume). When Brown makes his impassioned ideological telephone calls, we are shown Clegg holding the receiver away from his ear with a look of exasperation.
It’s not just the characters that don’t take him seriously, the film itself makes an effort to make him look faintly ridiculous. At one point we are unnecessarily shown Brown spilling food all over his shirt. Paddy Ashdown, however, the other ideologue, follows an opposite path. Like Brown he feels the Lib Dems would be paying too high a price if they made a deal with the Tories. Unlike Brown, he is shown eventually coming to endorse the coalition.
Indeed when Ashdown is confronted with the crucial question of whether power is worth the sacrifice of principle, he answers, “fuck it” for it is more important that for the first time the Lib Dems actually “matter”. Campbell comes round to the film’s cynicism in accepting the exchange of principle for power as necessary. The grandstanding speech that marks his conversion is accompanied by uplifting string music and a posy of cheering backbenchers. Incidentally, at no point does the film present Campbell with embarrassing food related accidents.
The cynicism in Coalition both at the level of its character’s motivations and its overall view of politics is nevertheless dramatically effective. There are many engrossing and even humorous moments. Mandelson, played by Gatiss himself, steals most of his scenes by being comically Machiavellian. The appearance of other well-known figures like Balls, Milliband, Osborne and Danny Alexander make for some entertaining additions. Osborne in particular is played as a puerile smartass, while Ed Balls as a more obviously arrogant (and badly dressed) version of Osborne.
Ed Miliband makes a passing appearance eating what I think was a bacon sandwich in the background but oddly had no lines given the coming election. The most intriguing characters however were the conservative backbenchers. Though presumably fictional, one such character has an ominous chat with Cameron in the bathroom where he tells him that if he betrays the backbenchers, there will be “managed regicide”. If nothing else, a cynical view of politics makes it appear much more entertaining than it probably is.
All in all, Coalition is a fascinating addition to the pre-election hype. It betrays something of the character of our contemporary understanding of politics. By humanising politicians it aims to create a character-centered narrative that gives some sense to the momentous events leading to the coalition. It also aims to harness the power of dramatic conflict to reengage us with politics. But the very humanisation required for this reengagement is made possible against a view of politics responsible for this very disengagement: politics as a game for power devoid of principle and integrity.
It seems that today, a ‘realistic’ depiction of politics means an unfavorable view of politicians. How justified this is, is perhaps a question for another day. But by setting up a dramatic conflict that makes power mutually exclusive with principle, the film unwittingly commits itself to making drama mutually exclusive with political optimism. Are these but false dilemmas in the in the interests of television? I certainly hope so. But then again all fiction also has a kernel of truth. On the 7th of May, perhaps we will at least know what the public regards as true.