Greg Taylor is a political consultant and was formerly public affairs manager at the Local Government Association and in the Mayor of London’s office.
Over the summer recess, Conservative brains will be mulling over how to re-craft the Party’s story, to build up a punchy narrative focusing on hope, opportunity and freedom, and emerge from the long shadow of a manifesto that seemingly offered none. And they’ll worry that the left has monopolised positivity and excitement, seemingly leaving the centre-right to build an alternative story with a less showy mixture of prudence, logic and experience.
One is reminded of any number of ’80s teen films in which parents are cautious but nurturing, while frivolous friends hang around outside the window promising a cornucopia of wild nights, extravagant gestures and decadence. Inevitably, it’s the friend who brings the temptation and the trouble and the parents who pick up the pieces. Sound familiar?
Cinema creates our most pervasive and influential modern narratives. Tales of superheroes and arch-villains, monsters and mutants, are wedged deep into the zeitgeist and form the basis for how many people begin to understand the world. Watership Down, for example, gave this writer, at four years old, great insight into country life, and ensured I remained a townie ever since. It may be helpful, then, to consider how blockbuster cinema promulgates and supports centre-right ideals of individualism, optimism and non-intrusive government, and consider how they can inspire future political narratives as they inspire billions of movie-goers. Across this summer’s biggest movies useful key themes quickly emerge – all value and champion the exploits and freedoms of the individual over the state and all are cautious, if not damning, about the nefarious tentacles of big government.
Consider Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, big daddy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s a genius, rebel and pioneer, a billionaire with a social conscience who saves the world, helps hold together a big society of superheroes, and mentors the next generation of guardians. All without big government forcing him. He’s a creator and visionary (and an egotistical alcoholic, but let’s not worry about that) who is nurturing, curious and resolutely independent-minded, exactly the traits we want to instil in our next generation. His light-touch mentoring of Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming offers a template for the role the private sector should play in moulding future talent, something Conservatives have championed through apprenticeships and business mentor schemes. And Stark’s advice to Parker – to start his career by visibly improving his neighbourhood and helping his local community – is sound guidance for anybody wanting to put the Conservative ethos to good, practical use.
Captain Jack Sparrow, the free-wheeling anti-hero of the Pirates of the Caribbean series is a resolutely anti-government and pro-freedom buccaneer (though neither ConHome nor Captain Goodman condones his career choice) with a thirst for adventure and success (and rum). His visionary call of “Bring me the horizon” is imbued with the kind of restless drive and creativity at the core of the centre-right’s ethos, while his carefully-disguised but all-too-evident heart and character sees him intervening when help is needed. It’s an attitude to be applauded.
The Transformers saga also values rugged individualism over meddling government – Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager (yes, really) is an inventor and businessman, fiercely committed to his family and friends, rightly suspicious of government intrusion, and willing to help those in need develop the skills they need. He’s a blue collar, ambitious everyday hero, exactly the kind of person the Conservatives need to reach and champion. It is he, rather than the bumbling incompetents and corrupt charlatans of Washington, who the noble Autobots turn to to help them get rid of the evil Decepticons, and it’s Yeager who has the real-world experience and nous to actually make a difference on the ground. “You gotta have faith”, he says, “in who we can be”. His ethics and idealism are pure-blue conservatism.
And while individualism is lauded, another great blockbuster trope is that big government is secretive, dangerous and not to be trusted. Think of poor Jason Bourne, exploited by a clandestine governmental group who build him into a remorseless super-soldier before pursuing him to the ends of the earth when he goes rogue (there are several former Cabinet ministers who will empathise with his plight). It’s only when government insiders shine a light on the merciless Project Treadstone that some kind of balance is restored. Think of Treadstone as a giant government IT project, but with killer instincts and a bad attitude, and the analogy is clearer. Like Bourne, the renegade Wolverine (linchpin of this summer’s Logan) has been blighted by governmental intrusion, but is stirred to take action to protect small business and individual freedoms in face of criminal big business. He is an adamantium-clawed advert for careful but full-throttle interventionism.
Of even greater concern is the supra-governmental hero-hoover S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, a quango BEIS and the FCO would squabble over) which brings together Iron Man, Captain America and their merry band of do-gooders. In theory, S.H.I.E.L.D. is sound – delivering strong guidance from beady-eyed hard man Nick Fury and a host of flashy tech that probably hasn’t been cost-effectively procured. But cracks appear – 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier revealed S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by the fascistic H.Y.D.R.A. and is pursuing a dark path towards world domination with little opposition. A disturbing example of insidious governmental mission creep threatening civil liberties, the kind of revelation that would certainly see David Davis trigger a by-election.
The aforementioned Spider-Man: Homecoming begins with a case study in dreadful local administration. Adrian Toomes is a hard-working businessman whose construction company has a contract to clear rubble from New York after a huge Avengers dust-up. Suddenly though, generic and personality-free government suits turn up and give him and his staff the boot with no explanation or compensation, leaving him confused and scared for his family’s future. This incompetent and secretive public sector procurement, with government ineffectively taking over a job that would be more effectively done by an experienced, job-creating business, forces Toomes to don metallic wings and turn into The Vulture, blowing stuff up and selling souped-up alien weaponry to low-level hoodlums. Local authority procurement teams should pay careful heed.
All these films have influenced audiences across the world: the characters adorn duvets, walls and even skin from Inverness to Indonesia. And they tell well-honed, timeless tales of individualism, freedom, everyday heroism and optimism. They value self-sufficient mentors and entrepreneurs over over-reaching government, and showcase a world where heroes are compassionate, brave and independent. So when Tory thinkers are contemplating a rebooted Conservative narrative that places these attributes at its heart, they could worse than popping to their local cinemas for inspiration.