Politics amid an economic cataclysm

Book Review: Barbarians focus on the upper reaches of the British Labour Party’s milieu, in power in 2008, as a credit-induced cataclysm begins.

Barbarians by Tim Glencross. Fourth Estate
Powered by automated translation

The financial crisis washes over the bows of the world economy, and a party of left-wing intellectuals hobnobs until daybreak. Barbarians focus on the upper reaches of the British Labour Party’s milieu, in power in 2008, as a credit-induced cataclysm begins.

Buzzy, an arriviste poetess with a grand total of five poems to her name, wrestles with love and status envy, while her infinitely more successful friend Afua gracefully ascends the greasy pole to parliamentary stardom.

The debut novelist Tim Glencross, once a parliamentary researcher, captures many quirks of Westminster’s incestuous world. It’s a world where the stock of cliques rises and falls with good press and hatchet jobs, fickle intellectuals zoom in and out of the public eye, and where The Establishment takes centre stage.

Above all it’s a world in which some people make it, and others pretend to have done so – where individuals are always seeking or falling foul of the favour of the invisible peer group that’s synonymous with politics. Status anxiety is the lot of the political class, because status is success. The social trappings of power are central to its exercise: to make a good impression is to matter.

This is the world Buzzy struggles to make sense of. Living in the house of a Saudi prince under dubious circumstances, the personal and the political combine.

The Belgian heartthrob Marcel, the son of a continental eurocrat, is Buzzy’s slender McGuffin, Afua’s boyfriend, and an unearthly, elegant figure whose inscrutability and detachment separate him from the squalid, personalised world of politics. He’s the antithesis of political life – calm, disinterested, opaque.

Glencross’s study of British political life accurately captures its cut and thrust. It will leave you tired of the sorry, sordid business.

q&a the good ones are rare

What has been happening in Britain lately?

Floods have submerged the south, and politicians have been standing around in wellies, trying to look serious. The coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has been trying to prevent the anti-immigration UK Independence Party from gaining support, while Scotland has been weighing up whether to leave the United Kingdom.

How many British political novels have there been?

Good ones? Very few. Jeffrey Archer, inside and outside of prison, has written many though their calibre is up for debate. As has John Major's former minister and mistress, Edwina Currie. TV has fared better: House of Cards, in both its UK and US incarnations, is excellent – and anyone who wants to follow UK politics should watch The Thick of It.

What’s the author’s background?

Tim Glencross studied modern languages at Cambridge, before becoming a parliamentary researcher and speech writer to a member of the shadow cabinet. Then he left, became a lawyer, and now works for a consultancy that concentrates on European legal issues.

What exactly is a parliamentary researcher?

A lackey in the office of a member of parliament. It’s a familiar stepping stone for young members of the British political classes, because, though lowly, it brings proximity to the individuals who will end up in charge. David Cameron and Ed Miliband took similar routes. But not everyone sticks with it. Some, like the British writer Jesse Armstrong, become comedians – others write.


Follow us on Twitter @Ind_Insights