Posted by Paul Samael on Tuesday, March 31, 2015 Under: Book reviews
With the UK general election campaign underway, now seemed a good time to review "The Fifth Lectern", a self-published novel by Andy Cooke about what might have happened if the 2010 UK general election had turned out slightly differently. The key change that the author has made is to have the surge in support for the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) occurring not in 2014-15 (as it has in real life) but back in 2010. The background to this is recounted in a novella-length prequel to "The Fifth Lectern", called "The Fourth Lectern" - the lecterns in question being the ones used in TV debates.
The UKIP surge occurs in 2010 because the party manages to get itself into the TV debates alongside the 3 main established parties (hence the significance of the "fourth lectern"). Whilst UKIP doesn't get many actual MPs elected, its electoral success prevents the Conservatives from forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, as happened in reality. Instead, we get Labour limping on as a minority government - and "The Fifth Lectern" is all about what happens after that.
I enjoyed it - but then I am probably quite a lot more interested in politics than the average person and I also find counterfactuals or "what ifs" rather intriguing. My slight concern is that readers who aren't quite so enthused by either of those things may find some aspects of this book hard going. For example, if names like Steve Hilton, Evan Harris, Stuart Wheeler and Deborah Mattinson mean absolutely nothing to you, you may struggle a bit - because the book rather assumes that you will have some idea who they are and what their role is in party politics (the novel uses a cast of characters drawn from real life). And even I found that my eyes started to glaze over a bit during the election night coverage, when the author somehow managed to work in the names of a fairly high proportion of the UK's 650 constituencies (I'm afraid I've never been one for staying up all night to watch the results roll in, seat by seat).
But despite these reservations, there was a lot that I liked about this book. First and foremost, I found the plot was really quite gripping, as we follow the attempts of all 5 parties (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens) to derive political advantage from the situation (the Greens having managed to get themselves into the TV debates as a fifth national party). Further drama is added by the fact that four out of the five parties face tensions (to varying degrees) over their leadership during this period. This meant that although some passages dragged a bit (as with some of the election night coverage), I still wanted to read on to find out what happened. I also felt that author more than made up for some of the less successful sections with some very sharply observed passages and some nice touches of humour.
Secondly, the author has come up with some interesting and (to me at least) quite plausible scenarios about how this counter-factual would be likely to play out - I won't say much more on that for fear of spoiling the plot, but the key issue he is concerned with is how a 5-way political fight might impact on the UK's "first past the post" electoral system. This is particularly interesting in the run-up to the current election - where the combination of UKIP, the Greens and the Welsh and Scots nationalists may take a lot of votes away from the 3 main parties.
Finally, I liked the fact that the book avoids the unfortunate tendency to characterise all politicians as deeply cynical and only ever out for what they can get for themselves. Instead, politicians from all parts of the spectrum are portrayed (more accurately in my view) as motivated primarily by a desire to make things better - but frequently constrained by their own parties, the demands of the political eco-system in which they operate and their own character flaws. A good example of this is the characterisation of Gordon Brown - whilst the author certainly doesn't gloss over his many faults, particularly in the initial sections, by the end of the novel, you feel considerably more sympathetic towards him. And the novel's climax illustrates how, faced with a crisis, politicians are (despite the constraints I mentioned earlier) capable of taking brave decisions - the pity of it is simply that it often seems to take a serious crisis to bring out the best in them.
I'm not saying we should all start praising politicians to the skies or even feeling sorry for them, but I do feel that the relentlessly negative and one-dimensional portrayal they get most of the time is not helpful to any one, least of all the voters. So for me, this book is a useful counterweight to that kind of lazy media stereotyping.
"The Fourth Lectern" is downloadable from Smashwords (free of charge at the time of this review) and "The Fifth Lectern" can be purchased from either Smashwords or Amazon.
UPDATE 24.4.2015: For anyone not convinced of the relevance of this novel to the current political situation (and how things might play out if, as seems likely, we get a hung Parliament), see this piece from The Guardian - it posits a similar situation to the one depicted in "The Fifth Lectern," only with the governing position of the major parties reversed.
In : Book reviews
Tags: "the fourth lectern" "the fifth lectern" uk politics election counterfactual
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