“Obviously the most important duty of our new prime minister is to acquaint himself with the circumstances of those whom he is about to immiserate. I suggest a brisk tour of the horizon of poverty and deprivation in order to ready him for the wielding of the axe. Why not begin with Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London? As an ex-public school boy he may find it easier to empathise with an Old Etonian on the skids – alternatively, Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier gives a journalistic – if still convincing – portrayal of what life is like for a working class deprived of both work and a social safety net. For a more elegiac account of poverty, try Knut Hamsun’s classic Hunger – the title says it all.
“Of course, it’s also important that the prime minister have some sympathy for all the non-doms and oligarchs who are hitting the skids – poor lambs. He should read (or, dare I say, reread) F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in order to grasp the febrile lustre of wealth (something I myself have long since ceased to suspend disbelief in).
“Supposing that there may be some attempt to rebuild a more equitable Britain after the recession, David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain gives a good picture of the swings and roundabouts of the Atlee administration as it tried to forge the welfare state with severely depleted public finances. Alternatively, the prime minister might like to keep his eye on how deep the roots of the current imbroglio actually are, and he could do this by dipping into some of the utopian fiction of the late 19th century. I particularly recommend Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887, which was one of the bestselling novels of its time, yet is now utterly forgotten. Bellamy looked forward to an enlightened state capitalism in the Boston of the 2000s – now we look backward to benighted free-market capitalism. Bellamy’s hero slept for over 100 years due to a mesmerist’s accident – we seem to have slept for the past 30 years due to an accident in mass-hypnosis.
“Most importantly, though, the incoming premier needs to grasp the war-making follies of his predecessors, and the consequences of such unbridled imperialism both domestically and on those bombed back to the stone age. The great postwar Iraqi novel has yet to appear – probably due to the lack of paper, publishers etc – but until it does, why doesn’t the prime minister bite down on Kafka’s In the Penal Colony? It’s only a short story – so it won’t keep him from his red boxes – and it perfectly captures what happens when inexorable, righteous bureaucracy encounters yielding flesh and blood.
“It’s said that when prime ministers enter Downing Street they are confronted by terrible realisation. So, why not read Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, his classic account of how the drug L-dopa awoke victims of the post-first world war encephalitis lethargica epidemic in the late 1960s? This will get the PM in the right frame of mind to deal with a reality that he and his party have been strenuously in denial about throughout their election campaign.
“Lastly, I do think all folie de grandeur could be usefully vitiated by a read of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which hymns the ineffable longeurs of a paper-pusher’s lunch hour – because, when all’s said and done, any prime minister is just another office worker, like most of the rest of us.”
Read the rest of the Guardian’s Advice for a new government here.