An interview with Henry Tam – political writer, Cambridge academic, activist, and Shout Out ambassador, about his new novel, ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Whitehall-through-Looking-Glass-Novel-ebook/dp/B00J3VRGEU/
1. Your last book was called ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’, I’m sure most of our readers will have not failed to miss the reference to Lewis Carrol’s Alice books. How does Whitehall Through the Looking Glass follow on from your last book, and why did you choose to make such explicit reference to Alice in both titles?
Lewis Carroll was fascinated with logical puzzles and he created surreal worlds in his stories to engage readers, old and young, in thinking about those puzzles when a more formal presentation of them would have bored them. I’ve always been a great admirer of Carroll. But for me, the surreal worlds I create are to engage people in thinking about political puzzles – what is wrong with certain forms of society? what can be done about them? ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’ is more of an allegorical tale – it’s part ‘Animal Farm’, part ‘Star Trek’, but turns out to be something completely different with the final twist. ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’ is in part a prequel to ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’, but also takes the story beyond where the first novel ended. It’s essentially a political thriller – a mix of ‘1984’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and Sinclair Lewis’ ‘It Can’t Happen Here’. And, yes, Orwell is a big influence on me.
2. Why do you think a novel is such a great form through which to explore political ideas?
My favourite genre is the dystopian novel. It gives the writer the opportunity to paint a vivid picture of what would happen if certain political ideas and practices win out against others. Not many people enjoy reading through detailed policy analyses or dense expositions of political theories. But few can resist a good story. It is particularly powerful when you can present the reader with both characters they can come to empathise with, and characters they can look upon with derision. Once drawn into the fictional universe, they relate to events and problems with far greater intensity than they would in relation to abstract facts and figures.
3. How does writing out your philosophy, opinion and concerns in a literary form compare with straight, article, or academic writing?
In writing articles for practitioners who want mainly to know how to devise and implement public policies, I aim for text that is short and to the point. For academic books, such as the ones I have written on responsibility, community and power inequalities, I set out detailed and extensive arguments and address different interpretations and criticisms that others have put forward. But for readers of fiction, I know that what is important is having a captivating story and a set of interesting characters. If the story engages the readers, then the underlying theme and messages will be picked up. I do not elaborate on any argument in my novels, because for anyone interested, they can turn to my non-fiction writing.
4. Upon who did you model the characters that dominate and reside within your Whitehall?
Nearly all the characters in the novel owe something to people I have met or worked with in Whitehall, especially in the senior civil service. There is no simple one-to-one correspondence. Each fictional figure is a composite drawn from a number of real-life people, with in many cases a good dose of Dickensian exaggeration stirred in. You wouldn’t expect me to name those who were the source of the less estimable traits. But I can confirm that many former colleagues have said that although the novel is set in a technologically more advanced London in the future, the personalities and behaviour of many of the characters were instantly recognisable.
5. How did you conceive the ideas behind this book? What inspired this vision of the future in politics, social dynamics and technology?
After my first novel, ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’, which was set in what appeared to be an other-worldly realm, I wanted to turn to the world we inhabit. And three trends struck me as more menacing than anything else: first, the way plutocrats were tightening their grip on government policies; secondly, how the public were increasingly deflected by the media controlled by large corporations so they overlooked the key political issues of the day; and thirdly, the rapid technological development that was making data capture about every minute aspect of our lives a simple and routine task. I asked myself what it would look like if these trends were to continue unabated, and the corporate elite at the heart of all of them were able to pull them together into a strategy of dominance. The Consortium was born.
6. In the book there is a strong suggestion of constitutional frailties leading us into difficulty, however, many would discuss such concerns as academic and irrelevant in consideration of political reality. Were you making use of artistic license on these regards or do you believe there is something here that needs fixing?
You won’t find terms such as ‘constitutional frailties’ in the novel. What the plot does reveal is that for a powerful organisation like the Consortium, taking over the government can be done primarily by manipulating the electorate. In the UK or US, we don’t actually have mechanisms to scrutinise what political parties claim, or set any limits on how much influence corporate wealth can buy. Those with enough money can saturate the media with lies and stoke hatred against scapegoats. They win enough electoral support, and they can lay claim to ‘democratic’ legitimacy in getting rid of anyone who dare to take a stand against them.
7. In the book you describe ‘The Consortium’ a league of large corporations acting together to exercise total dominance over the UK and US, do you see big business being able to put aside concerns over their own balance sheets and stop competing with one another in order to act with solidarity for the greater consolidation of power to big business?
The powerful, be they medieval barons or modern corporate giants, have always zigzagged between fighting amongst themselves and joining forces to crush common enemy. I don’t think they can stay united on a permanent basis, and the novel hints at internal problems within the Consortium as time goes on. But there will be times when they think the gain in coming together is great enough to make it worth their while to eliminate those who get in their way. The law is the only thing that has historically stood in the way of monopolies and cartels, it shouldn’t be surprising that given half a chance, big businesses will rewrite the law to enable them to grow richer and stronger without any serious competition.
8. How closer do things like TTIPs (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and the obsession of successive government with Public/Private partnership get us to the world of Whitehall Through the Looking Glass?
TTIP, Public-Private Finance Initiatives, corporate lobbying on an industrial scale, party donations followed by the award of billions of pounds’ worth of public contracts, board positions waiting for government Ministers when they leave office, secondment of top accountancy firms’ staff into government to advise on the drafting of tax regulations before the same staff return to their firms to advise their clients on tax avoidance – these all suggest that we are not far from the world of Whitehall through the Looking Glass. Large corporations have been securing an insidiously powerful influence over every major aspect of government. If you look at what billionaires such as the Koch brothers are doing in America, and how the Republican Party is becoming simply the political wing of transnational corporations, the nightmare scenario of the novel is really not far off at all.
9. With all mainstream parties increasingly in favour of Public/Private partnership (if not all out privatisation) and ever quiet on the sort of international trade agreements that allow large amounts of power to big business, What do you believe those who share the concerns expressed in your book should be doing as we get ever closer to the 2015 general election?
I think the 99% movement has framed the political issue of our time perfectly. Every electoral contest now is between those who want to help the very small super-rich minority at the expense of everyone else, and those who want to see resources that everyone has worked for shared out more fairly and productively. The problem is that the former are very adept at serving up scapegoats and getting people to vote against imaginary enemies rather than for the common good. So anyone who shares the novel’s objection to the rule by the Consortium, go out and urge others to look beyond the superficial rhetoric of politicians and see who are really trying to help the great majority of people, and who are constantly creating smokescreen behind which they are gifting more wealth and resources to those who have the most already. Remind your friends and family that on that basis alone they should cast their vote in 2015. And under a first-past-the-post system, that vote should go to the party which has a realistic chance of getting a majority in the House of Commons, since otherwise electoral victory might in effect be handed to the party dedicated to the 1%.
10. Is Whitehall Through The Looking Class limited in its appeal to those who are on the left of politics?
I believe around 20% of people on average want to stand up for the vulnerable against bullies; object to a few taking advantage of others; prefer to be inclusive towards most people; and think society is better off when everyone pulls together for the common good. There are another 20% who think the weak have no one to blame but themselves; that it is the prerogative of the strong and cunning to make gains out of others; like to be exclusive wherever possible; and are convinced that individuals are better off if they can get on with their lives with barely any collective control over them. However you want to use the ‘left’ or ‘right’ label, that leaves 60% of people who are in between these dispositions. These people react to circumstances, to the threats and opportunities they perceive, to the social commentary propagated to them, and adjust their behaviour accordingly. I think the first 20% I mentioned would enjoy this novel; the second 20% not so much; but many amongst the 60% would find it a very good read, with its roller-coaster plot, its satirical shots, and perhaps its take on people with too much power.
11. Whereabouts does Whitehall Through The Looking Glass stand between The Thick of It, Atlas Shrugged, Jack Reacher (or other such mystery thrillers), 1984, and Yes Minister?
The Chief Executive of the Civil Service College recently wrote “Forget ‘Yes, Minister’ and ‘The Thick of It’; if you want a sharp satirical look at life inside the corridors of power, read ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’, written by a true insider.” So poking fun at the way Ministers and civil servants work is in the novel’s DNA. But it is also a dark dystopia, like ‘1984’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451’, in pointing out how wretched life would be if people bought into the kind of superficial libertarianism touted in books like ‘Atlas Shrugged’. Having said that, for many readers, what is most immediately appealing about ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’ would be the thriller plot – what do the terrorists really want? Is there an unspeakable conspiracy at the highest level? Who is going to commit treason in order to save the country?
12. As Director of the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy, how large a role do you think there is for fiction and literary arts to get people involved in politics?
There is huge potential to use fiction – novels, drama, films – to get more people to take an active interest in politics. As an academic and an activist, I’m very familiar with the expectations different people have in different contexts. Some people want detailed arguments, statistics, and critical analyses. Some want rousing speeches and rallying calls. But for those who are not open to either of these approaches, we need to go back to the oldest form of human engagement – storytelling. Weave a good tale and let people see what they make of the heroes and villains. Few political writers are making use of popular fiction to reach the public; and not enough people at the forefront of literature are prepared to use their art in the cause of politics for fear of being dismissed as partisan. But hopefully, ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’, and ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’ will show what dystopian novels can really do for political engagement. During the Adult Learners’ Week this summer, for example, I will be working with WEA to run an event called ‘A Novel Exploration of Inequality’, which will consider how sci-fi/fantasy fiction can help to raise political interest. And the Equality Trust is promoting ‘Kuan’s Wonderland’ and a companion learning guide as part of their Young Person’s Guide to Inequality.
Henry Tam’s novel, ‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass’, can be purchased at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Whitehall-through-Looking-Glass-Novel-ebook/dp/B00J3VRGEU/