At dinner parties in Camden, Haringey, Hackney, or Southwark, according to Christina Patterson, the writer for the Independent, you hear people saying things about politics like ‘what we need is a clearer narrative’. I was delighted that she added: ‘I’m still not sure what narrative means.’
I do not go to parties in Haringey or Hackney (not invited), but the demand for narrative has reached even my well padded corner. In the Guardian Madeleine Bunting, from her own family supper table, wrote about the Scottish independence horror, remarking: ‘Scroll through comments on blogs, and what emerges is an unattractive narrative of the English being ignored.’
If narrative just meant ‘telling tales’, I wouldn’t mind. We are used to politicians doing that. But those who use the term assume an air of possessing a conceptual insight that we poor onlookers lack. I had hoped that the vogue for narrative had evaporated. As a pseudo-technical term it started life as the English for a concept used by the tiresome Roland Barthes. He had the word récits in the title of an essay translated by Stephen Heath in 1977 as ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’. The French like things to be grands (projets, fauves, vitesse), and in 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard introduced the term grand récit, ‘grand narrative’. ‘I will use the term modern,’ he wrote, ‘to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative.’ Bully for him, but I still cannot see the attraction to today’s Conservative party of vacuous Gallic theorists dancing round the embers of Marx. Perhaps narrative has been kept warm since the 1970s by theologians. They came up with narrative theology. Like most qualifications of plain theology (process theology, liberation theology, queer theology) it constricts the field by its chosen focus. And despite the passing fashion for Phillip Blond, there remains little theological influence in Tory party ideology.
Whatever the Conservatives need now, it is unlikely to prove more effective by being called a narrative. That snobby old immoralist Lord Chesterfield made one observation that might still prove valuable. ‘To have frequent recourse to narrative,’ he wrote in a letter in 1748, ‘betrays great want of imagination.’
Roland Barthes? I'll have no truck with him.