Kamila Shamsie on the crisis in British politics: ‘What kind of democracy is this?’

Growing up in Pakistan, the novelist experienced the euphoria of free elections and the disillusionment when vested interests reasserted themselves. She reflects on the parallels with Westminster today

Last year, while I was working on a late draft of my novel Best of Friends, a story broke about a club known as the advisory board. It was organised by the former Conservative party co-chair Ben Elliot, and made up, at least in part, of donors paying £250,000 to the Tory party. It was an odd thing to read about, given that I had invented for the novel a club called the High Table for political donors who paid £200,000 to the party of government – I’d wondered if I was setting too high an entrance fee. I’m not claiming any kind of clairvoyance, just as I won’t claim clairvoyance for inventing a British-Pakistani Tory home secretary who becomes embroiled in a high-profile citizenship-stripping case in Home Fire, which was published before Sajid Javid became home secretary and stripped Shamima Begum of her British citizenship. All I had been doing in both cases was paying attention to news stories when they were still minor rather than headline news, and thinking about the directions in which they could and probably would move, given Britain’s political climate.

In the case of clubs for political donors, my antenna had started twitching at the end of 2019, when I read an article on openDemocracy about the Leader’s Group, a dining club open only to those who donated £50,000 to the Conservative party. I experienced one of those “Aha!” moments that tells you you’ve found something you were only dimly aware of seeking. I was at the time in the earliest stages of writing Best of Friends, which starts in Karachi with two adolescent girls living through a time of political and personal transformation and would end with both of them in London in their 40s, in something close to the present day. I felt a certain resistance to the stories of migration that are told in terms of the discontinuities between the place that was left and the place that is arrived at – the discontinuities can be destabilising or liberating but, either way, it is difference rather than similarity that is generally highlighted. While there’s good reason to write such stories, what are often missed out are the ways in which one place echoes the other. The story of the Leader’s Group sounded to me like an echo between Pakistan and the UK, though far fainter than others such as cricket, word-play and class stratification. I had no idea how loud it would become in the next couple of years.

Continue reading...


Hilary Mantel remembered: ‘She was the queen of literature’

The beloved writer of the Wolf Hall trilogy and Beyond Black has died. Here, leading contemporaries ...

Read More >

In Literary Fiction, Are Capital-P Politics Always at Play?

Nawaaz Ahmed’s debut, “Radiant Fugitives,” sets an intimate family story against the Obama-era ba...

Read More >

The UK once welcomed refugees - now we detain them indefinitely | Kamila Shamsie

In a few decades, welcome centres for refugees have become detention centres built on violence and h...

Read More >