The backstabbing brutality of Game of Thrones has taken over politics

Kevin McKenna


There are few situations more superficial and contrived than when a politician insists on borrowing themes from the realm of popular television and drama.

Donald Trump tried it on with Game of Thrones last week on his Twitter account and was immediately rebuked by the makers of the show. During this year’s autumn party conference season I expect around a dozen references to Game of Thrones. We are transfixed by its graphic violence and scholars sagely agree that this is an accurate depiction of life in medieval England. It’s lucky that we have become much more civilised, isn’t it?

A scan of the cast of Brexit productions these past three years and their plans for restoring the British empire would suggest that the form of government favoured in Westeros is a sophisticated and enlightened thing. A glance at the lineup of the new Brexit party candidates on Thursday made you yearn for one of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons to breenge in and set fire to them all.

Unusually, for a drama series that has become a primer for serial killers on new ways to dispatch their fellow humans, GoT has worked hard at being inclusive and diverse. The show’s top character has been wee Tyrion Lannister, the sexy and urbane dwarf whose linguistic barbs are as devastating as the roastings and disembowellings. The two most effectively brutal characters are young women whose response to sexual harassment in their fiery kingdoms might have been “Me too, ya bas”. One of them is mum to two dragons whose breath can consume entire armies.

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Yet, as a column in the Guardian pointed out, the world created by GoT is an eerily white one, where muscular and pale-faced warriors face off against each other and the first black people we saw were depicted as savages before they got civilised by a bunch of chalky Celts. In response to this reasonable rebuke, some of the show’s supporters pointed out that there probably weren’t that many black people in the medieval England that forms the show’s cultural and civic backdrop. This didn’t stop the makers of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991 casting Morgan Freeman as Hood’s Muslim friend and cutting a swath through 12th-century England. In one scene, big Morgan prays to Allah on a windswept Nottinghamshire hillside before eviscerating the sheriff’s men.

In the early years of the new millennium, political correspondents began to notice that spin doctors and special advisers began to dress better and talk at an unfeasibly high speed, while deploying phrases such as “walk with me” as they strode briskly from meeting to meeting. These were the children of The West Wing, a drama that spawned a spike in sales of Matalan suits and mini-rucksacks.

You could conclude that The West Wing signalled a civilising and high-minded approach to politics. It was quite possible that, for a time, aspiring young politicos aspired to something more than the merely tribal, encouraged by the values of President Jed Bartlett and his team of smart, young White House staffers. Perhaps, for a time, they genuinely saw politics not as a means to acquiring power and amassing state-funded expenses but to making the world a better place. If The West Wing ever accurately reflected the noble purpose of politics that era is over, replaced by a Game of Thrones approach. In England, party allegiances seem to have been submerged by something more atavistic during the Brexit debate. When George Galloway decides that he’s voting for Ukip in the European elections and Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Catholic more pontifical than the pope, is lionised by Protestant Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, you know that politics has become a more visceral and primitive thing. Allegiances resemble the treacherous tides in GoT where alliances begin and end with the swing of an axe.

Related: Nicola Sturgeon tells EU citizens in Scotland: ‘You are welcome here’

In Scotland, we like to think our politics is driven by something more refined and less antagonistic. Holyrood keeps to family-friendly business hours and the SNP government scans the country seeking new minorities to champion and writing letters to Scotland’s EU citizens assuring them of a welcome in our wee bit hill and glen.

Even our Tories seem a mild and affable bunch, if not particularly blessed with wit and subtlety. They are led by an awfully nice woman who jouks about the countryside at weekends with the Territorial Army and who gets together with the female leaders of other parties to watch Andy Murray in Nicola Sturgeon’s office. This is Game of Scones.

It all seems jingly-jangly and civilised, but occasionally something more sinister seeps up through this well-constructed edifice. At Holyrood, a third attempt is being made by members of all parties to introduce an assisted suicide bill, following two previous failed attempts. Rates of multiple deprivation, child poverty, and health and education inequality are static in devolved Scotland, while food banks are common throughout working-class communities.

In the medieval world of Game of Thrones, suicide was offered graciously to a beaten opponent as a noble means of surrender. In Scotland, the bill for providing loving and compassionate end-of-life care would be money well spent in an enlightened country that believes in the care of its most vulnerable and infirm.

• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist