Interview with a Political Writer
By: PP Wong
The BW INSIDER SERIES: Part 9
"Everyone has a stance on politics, even if it consists of no more than 'I leave it to others to deal with political issues,' or 'I don’t trust any politician so I have nothing to say about them.' The inescapable reality is that some people have more power than others, and unless society as a whole can make sure powers are exercised for people’s wellbeing, or at least not to exploit and oppress others, then the not-so-powerful will be at the fragile mercy of their tormentors.”
In Part 9 of The BW INSIDER series, we talk to Dr Henry Benedict Tam - a respected author, professor and creator of political blog Question the Powerful. Dr Tam shares his wisdom with burgeoning political writers and talks about the crucial role political authors have in society.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Alice in Wonderland.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A crystal ball and a magic wand.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Question the Powerful.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
H. G. Wells.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Much of your writing focuses on politics and society. What motivates you creatively?
Seeing someone shrug upon hearing the word ‘politics’ is enough to fire me up to write. Ironically, my parents never talked about politics. Perhaps they thought that by sending me to a Catholic boarding school in southern England, I would grow up doing as I was told. Alas, spending endless hours in a library well stocked with books the school never thought any pupil would actually look at (when I borrowed Bertrand Russell’s Why I’m not a Christian it prompted the RE teacher to order its immediate and permanent removal); arguing with other boys about the rights and wrongs of everything under the sun; and writing essays on economic assumptions, political reforms in 19th century Britain, and stories such as Animal Farm drove me to think more and more about how society should be governed.
I went on to read Philosophy, Politics & Economics at the University of Oxford, got a PhD with my thesis on human responsibility, and embarked on a career in the public sector. The combination of academic expertise and public policy experience brought me to the notice of publishers such as Longman, Macmillan, and Polity Press, and I began writing books on politics and government. There are always bad arguments to counter, distortions to correct, and fresh interpretations to put across. In 2000, one of my books Communitarianism: a new agenda on politics and citizenship was nominated by New York University Press for the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order; a few years later, I was appointed the UK Government’s Head of Civil Renewal, in charge of developing policies to promote democratic participation. It all gave me encouragement to keep coming up with interesting ways to write about political issues: such as a global political history, regular topical essays online, and even a series of dystopian novels.
George Orwell said, “In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues…’ Do you think all writers have a political agenda and should writers have a political agenda?
Everyone has a stance on politics, even if it consists of no more than “I leave it to others to deal with political issues”, or “I don’t trust any politician so I have nothing to say about them”. The inescapable reality is that some people have more power than others, and unless society as a whole can make sure powers are exercised for people’s wellbeing, or at least not to exploit and oppress others, then the not-so-powerful will be at the fragile mercy of their tormentors – be these a violent spouse, a callous parent, a maker of dangerous products, a thief, a fraudster, an abusive cult leader, or an irresponsible corporate boss who ruins thousands of lives with one self-serving deal.
Politics is about collective power being organised and exercised for all citizens on an equal footing, so that none can take unfair advantage of another, and all can get a better chance to achieve together what none can manage on one’s own.
As the great leader of Athens, Pericles (5th century BC), said, “We don’t say that those who take no interest in politics is just minding their own business; we say they have no business here at all.”
So I believe we all have a duty to play a part in making politics work for the good of society. Having said that, I don’t think writers have a greater responsibility than anyone else. People have many things to look to: families, friendship, earning a living, enjoyment, communities, health, etc. And there is no reason they should be completely preoccupied with politics. I have embraced it as my vocation only because it happens to be where my skills, passion, and experience converge. For others, so long as they are aware that their stance on politics has consequences for themselves and others, it is up to them how much or little they want to share their thoughts in their writings or other activities they are engaged in.
What attributes do you think good political writers should have?
Good political writers are those who, for a start, have a well thought-out conception of what a good society would involve and how we can advance towards it by means of political action. They are sharply aware of the major barriers, and they can weave words together to present moving arguments or stories to make people think anew about what needs to be done.
Voltaire provides an outstanding example of how a writer can exquisitely use a variety of forms – plays, history, polemical essays, stories – to show up how a ruling society with a set of unquestionable dogmas are laughable and damaging. He popularised complex ideas to promote their adoption, he mocked with sardonic humour untenable defences of outmoded practices, and he captivated his readers with memorable depictions of scenes and characters.
Mary Wollstonecraft is famous for inspiring the feminist movement, but she championed the rights of men as well as women. In addition to producing powerful political arguments, she also wrote ground-breaking works on education, social commentaries on Scandinavian countries, and novels which dealt with not only gender but also class divisions.
One of the most impressive examples of a top political writer is surely H. G. Wells, whose development of sci-fi writings as a form of socio-political criticism would by itself secure his status as one of the greatest political writers. But we can add to that his reviews of the major political development of his time; proposals for international government; novels about love and social status; and accessible introductions to economics and world history. Few can compare with him the range, depth, incisive analysis, innovative prescriptions, and originality he brought to his political writings.
How was your political ideology formed?
My political outlook is shaped by many factors, but three probably stand out from the rest.
First of all, I would mention my father. Although he never talked about politics (except for saying how dangerous it was – John F. Kennedy’s assassination was often cited), my father was always reminding me how important it was to follow the golden rule: do to others as you would have others do to you. He said we must consider how we might feel if we were in others’ shoes. Another favourite saying of his was that enough ants could bring down an elephant – in other words, what are small and vulnerable on their own can by working together overcome far more powerful forces. From an early age, I was disposed to think that people should look out for each other reciprocally, and cooperate to be stronger than they would be on their own.
Next came the books I read in my formative years – writings by J. S. Mill, David Hume, George Orwell, Karl Popper, Voltaire, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Robert Owen, Francis Bacon, John Dewey, the Mohists, the Levellers, Albert Camus, Richard Rorty (I read them roughly in that order). These are a very diverse group of thinkers, but drawing from their insights and developing them into an ethos of responsible questioning of how society should change, laid the foundation of my own political ideas.
Finally, my work in local and central government, with council leaders, Secretaries of State, political advisors, policy chiefs, public officials at all levels, helped me understand how politics actually works in practice. So many people repeat misguided generalisations about politicians or dismiss government initiatives without any knowledge about them. Twenty years as a senior public official also meant that I was able to discover at first hand how my political thinking can be translated into actions that impact on people’s lives.
What would you say to someone who thinks that getting involved in political writing is a waste of time, as it won’t make a “real” difference to society?
Think of all the people who give what may in a broad sense be called ‘medical advice’. Some of them are learned experts who prescribe what have been well tried and tested. Some recommend drugs that are appropriate but unfortunately are in short supply. Some know only a little and talk in vague generalities that are not really useful to anyone when a real problem arises. And some are rightly suspected as mere quacks.
So does medical advice help people?
Obviously it depends on how good and relevant the advice is. It’s the same with political writing. If it contains sound ideas, expresses them in an engaging manner, and prompts the reader to consider how they may relate to contemporary problems, it will make a difference. Of course the precise impact will vary in qualitative and quantitative terms.
There are political works that nudge people to think more deeply about the challenges facing their society; some target a small readership in setting out alternative approaches; and there are those that help to transform the outlook of a generation. Nearly every reformist will list amongst their sources of inspiration political writings they have read. But even if what one writes widens the interest and understanding of just a small number of people in why and how political improvements should be pursued, that would be a difference well worth making.
In Asia, I’ve heard people argue that democracy is no longer the best system for running a country successfully and important decisions for the country cannot be left into the hands of lay people who do not know enough. In short, the general wellbeing of the country should be left to the "experts" instead of inexperienced people who might vote for all kinds of selfish reasons. What are your thoughts on this?
‘Democracy’ has become one of the most misunderstood concepts in the world. In essence, it signifies that ruling power in a society is vested in the people collectively, and not just in an unaccountable elite – be that a monarch, a clique of aristocrats, a single party, or an alliance of corporate leaders. It should be understood not as a formal system, but more as an evolving process.
You cannot point to one specific set of political arrangements and say that is a democracy, and declare everything else as non-democratic. You have to look at the extent to which all citizens can learn about public affairs; discuss them in an honest and informed manner; deliberate without irrational fears, intimidation or devious manipulation; and reach an agreement as to what decisions they will make, or who will make the decisions on their behalf. The further we are away from these conditions, the closer we are to arbitrary rule. The nearer we are to them, the more we are governing ourselves in the spirit of democracy. Clearly there is no simple divide between a democratic West and an undemocratic Asia. Different countries in the West have different challenges in becoming more democratic. And Asian countries differ in what aspects of their society are guided by decisions made with more or less democratic input.
Some people (and you will find them in the West as much as in Asia) may well prefer to get on with their own lives and leave the decision-making concerning society to a wise and trusted leader. But unless there are effective ways to find out what leaders are really doing, and hold them to account, the people with power over others can just look to their own interests at the expense of everyone else. And even where they sincerely try to do good, they can make the worst mistakes, and go on making more, because no one is in a position to make them change course.
The absence of democracy is a serious threat because it leaves the door open for unremitting oppression and irrevocable folly. In the West, we have some democratic processes, but if politics is to work for the common good, we need to democratise much more.
The support Donald Trump has been getting in the US by stoking people’s prejudices and conjuring up outrageous policies; or the countless lies told by anti-EU politicians in the UK to win a majority in the referendum for leaving the EU; these are not reflections of the failings of democracy, but indications of how deficient we are in securing proper democratic deliberations.
You’ve published both non-fiction and fiction books. Could you share about the publishing process for your books?
It is often said that in business what matters is, not what you know, but who you know. It is no different in publishing, although what you know does under favourable circumstances help you get to know the people who can help.
With my non-fiction publications, it was in the course of events I took part in as an academic and government official that I met the various publishers who would later commission books from me (these included Longman, Macmillan, Avebury Press, Polity Press). Having met them in person, and they being familiar with my work directly or as a result of talking to people who knew me meant that outline ideas could lead to book proposals quite quickly, and following peer reviews of the proposals and my responses to them, a formal contract and publishing plan would be in place.
However, when I turned to writing my first novel, it was very different. In the UK, there is a sharp divide between fiction and non-fiction publishing, and not knowing anyone in the fiction business made it very difficult to find an agent, without whom it is virtually impossible to get a hearing from a fiction publisher. One agent hilariously suggested that if I published my novel directly and it became a bestseller, he would consider becoming my agent!
What did make sense was for me to expand my educational business, Question the Powerful (QTP), to incorporate a publishing arm and produce and market my novel directly through Amazon. Kuan’s Wonderland attracted positive reviews and the customer feedback was encouraging enough for me to write and launch my second novel, Whitehall through the Looking Glass. These novels use allegorical and futuristic settings to present political themes, and fit in with my overall concern with raising political understanding. Recently, the third novel in the series The Hunting of the Gods was published. QTP is gradually carving out a niche in entertaining adventures that provoke political reflections.
On your blog Question the Powerful, you ask challenging questions about the society you live in. If you had the opportunity to meet three political leaders who would they be and what three questions would you ask them?
I would like to get Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping together and ask both of them about the changes that have happened to the communist superpowers they were once in charge of respectively. They both wanted to modernise and liberalise their countries. While the Soviet Union lost control of the process and disintegrated, China reinforced controls through the Tiananmen intervention which set the tone of central control ever since.
Subsequently, inequalities in Russia and China have widened considerably, and corruption has become a constant threat to political stability.
What would they like to do about these problems?
Knowing what they now know, how might they have acted differently back in the late 1980s? And if they had the chance, would they explore the Scandinavian model of social democracy and apply it to curbing both state intimidation and economic exploitation?
Besides Gorbachev and Deng, if I am granted a chance to meet a third political leader, it would be Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had to deal with hostile big businesses, economic meltdown, mass unemployment, irresponsible banking institutions, threats from Nazi Germany and militarist Japan, and all while he was suffering from a chronic debilitating illness. I would have just one question for him: what is the key to his impressive leadership in tackling all those problems successfully?
In 2015, the UK voted in the first British Chinese MP. Why do you think it has taken so long for a British Chinese person to be voted in?
It takes time for Chinese leaving places with no electoral politics (China, Hong Kong until very recently, in most parts of Asia they previously settled in) to adapt to the democratic culture of countries they emigrate to. It may well take a few generations before it becomes the norm for those of Chinese descent to enter into electoral contests.
The first substantial migration of Chinese people to reach countries with democratic government structures took place from mid-19th century on, with the main destinations being North America and Australia & New Zealand (due to the need for labour for mining and railway work). Chinese were generally discriminated against in those countries, but in time, they were assimilated into the broader culture around them. By the mid/late 20th century, it was no longer rare for Chinese to be politically active in those countries.
In 1966, Harry Chan became the first Chinese Mayor of the city of Darwin in Australia. There are senators and elected officials of Chinese descent across Australia and New Zealand. In 2011, the San Francisco mayoral elections had a turnout of 40%, but the turnout for Chinese voters was 50%. Out of 16 candidates, 5 were of Chinese descent, and Ed Lee won to become the first elected Chinese Mayor of the city. In the same year, two Chinese candidates became MPs in Canada after winning in seats with barely 1% Chinese population.
In contrast, there was no comparable scale of Chinese migration to Britain until the middle of the 20th century. Earlier Chinese settlers arrived there in smaller numbers, and it would take them many more decades to catch up with their counterparts in North America and Australia. It is also worth noting that the culture of North America and Australia in the 19th century was one of bold pioneering. People arrive in those places in the spirit of equality and were committed to make their way in society as actively as anyone else. The culture of Britain has always been more hierarchical with newcomers standing in the margins waiting to be accepted without rocking the boat. Chinese in Britain will become more politically active in time.
I have seen positive signs when I gave talks to young British Chinese about getting involved in politics.
What is next on the agenda of Dr Henry Tam?
I’ve just finished writing a booklet on political literacy and civic thoughtfulness, and will be using it as a shared resource with others to deal with the worrying trends of people either not voting or casting their vote in a misinformed and counter-productive manner.
I’m planning a new academic book on what effective governance should consist of. But most of all, I’m beginning to develop ideas for the fourth novel in my Synetopia Quest series: (do take a look and try out one that most appeals). The first three novels have dealt with themes, characters, plots that are not at all connected with Western publishers’ preconception of what ethnic Chinese fiction should be about. I want to keep pushing those boundaries. BW