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Novel Ambitions

A short list of politicians who write

By Alec Scott
April 10, 2006

Michael Ignatieff. CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand.
Michael Ignatieff. CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand.

Many serious questions surround Michael Ignatieff’s entry into the Liberal leadership race. Will his conditional support for the Iraq war alienate Canadian voters? Is the political neophyte ready to head Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition? These are questions we would prefer to leave to the political pundits. What we’re interested in is the fact that Ignatieff is that rare politician who has tried his hand at fiction: he’s penned three novels, including the Booker Prize-nominated Scar Tissue.

Writing books is a risky business for a politician — published words have a way of coming back to haunt you on the hustings. For instance, in Ignatieff’s successful fight for the nomination in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, opponents cited an allegedly anti-Ukrainian passage in his 1993 non-fiction book Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism; Ignatieff dismissed the quote as out of context, reminding critics of his longstanding advocacy of human rights. As well, if we’re to believe Yes, Minister, Britain’s quintessential political satire, clichés are often a politician’s friend, while they’re a (good) novelist’s sworn enemy.

Despite this seeming incompatibility, Ignatieff isn’t the only politician in history to dabble in novels, or the only novelist to dabble in politics. After all, both activities draw ambitious attention-seekers. In our review of literature, we found some common traits: they share a tin ear for dialogue (apparently, they don't listen well), a fondness for reporting policy-wonk debates blow-by-blow and, surprisingly, a romantic view of the world.


Benjamin Disraeli, 1870. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Benjamin Disraeli, 1870. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Political highlights: Prime Minister of Great Britain under Queen Victoria in 1868 and 1874-80.
Literary career: Eighteen novels. Some are boy-meets-girl romances (Vivian Grey, Sibyl), some political tracts masquerading as fiction. Of Coningsby (1844), Disraeli wrote: “It was opportune… to show that Toryism was not a phrase, but a fact. It was not originally the intention of [this] writer to adopt the form of fiction … but [it] offered the best chance of influencing opinion.”

Sample passage: “Beautiful, brilliant and ambitious, the young and restless Sir Ferdinand Armine quitted, in his 18th year, the house of his fathers, and … entered the imperial service. His blood and creed gained him a flattering reception; his skill and valour soon made him distinguished. The world rang with stories of his romantic bravery, his gallantries, his eccentric manners, and his political intrigues, for he nearly contrived to be elected King of Poland.” (From Henrietta Temple, 1837)

Dialogue snippet: “‘The man of the age is clearly the Duke, the saviour of Europe, in the perfection of manhood, and with an iron constitution.’” (From Endymion, 1880)

Political acumen: 9

Literary talent: 3


Winston Churchill, 1945. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.
Winston Churchill, 1945. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.

Political highlights: Prime minister of England during and after the Second World War (1940-45, 1951-55). Churchill was elected to Parliament for the first time in 1900, and served there for various parties, in various capacities, until he was invited to be prime minister in 1940, after Neville Chamberlain’s efforts to appease Hitler failed.

Literary career: Not to be confused with a largely forgotten American contemporary of the same name (whose novels sold millions), Sir Winston of England wrote only one novel, Savrola (1900). A Churchill-esque hero leads a democratic revolution in a despotic fictional Mediterranean country — and attracts the love of the dictator’s spouse. It was Churchill’s brilliant oratory and umpteen, multi-volume non-fiction works (including The History of the English-Speaking Peoples) — and not his fiction — that won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953.

Sample passage: “Her love seemed all that was left to her now, but with it life was more real and strongly coloured than in the cold days at the palace amid splendor, power and admiration. She had found what she had lacked and so had he.”

Dialogue snippet: “‘I told them in my speech that, in spite of the unsettled state of affairs, we had decided to restore the ancient Constitution of the Republic, but that it had been necessary to purge the register of the disaffected and the rebellious.’”

Political acumen: 10

Literary talent: 2


Jimmy Carter, 2003. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.
Jimmy Carter, 2003. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

Political highlights: Governor of Georgia 1971-1975; President of the United States, 1977-1981; winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2002.

Literary career: The only American president ever to have written a novel. The Hornet’s Nest (2003) is a piece of historical fiction set in Georgia during the American Revolution.

Sample passage: “Although they had enjoyed a delightful and adventurous sexual relationship, it was only after they settled in Hillsborough that Henry and Sophie realized they were deeply in love. They explored the community together on Sundays, and found it easy to share their most intimate thoughts, and yearned
for each other when they were apart.”

Dialogue snippet: “‘We belong to a small organization that is devoted to opposing this unfair and oppressive law, and we’re looking to find kindred souls. We were hoping you could join us for a tankard of ale, or whatever refreshment you prefer.’”

Political acumen: 6.

Literary talent: 2.


Jeffrey Archer, 2000. Photo by Matt Turner/Liaison.
Jeffrey Archer, 2000. Photo by Matt Turner/Liaison.

Political highlights: The biographical blurb on Archer’s latest book, False Impression, sums up the highs and lows of Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare’s checkered political career: “He served five years in Britain’s House of Commons, 14 years in the House of Lords, and two in Her Majesty’s prisons” — the latter for perjury.

Literary career: Combined, Archer’s 12 novels (thrillers all) and five collections of short stories have sold more than 120 million copies.

Sample passage: “At twenty-one, she was not conscious that she lacked anything. Born a Cabot, married into a branch of the Lowell family, and now a first-born son to carry on the tradition.… She was determined to get back into all her dresses by the summer season and reassume her rightful place in all the fashionable magazines. Had not the Prince de Garonne said she was the only beautiful object in Boston?” (From Kane & Abel)

Dialogue snippet: “‘I wired the headmaster of St. Paul's last night. William has been admitted for September, 1918.’” (From Kane & Abel)

Political acumen: 2.

Literary talent: 5 (120 million readers can’t be wrong, can they?).


Michael Ignatieff, 2006. CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand.
Michael Ignatieff, 2006. CP PHOTO/Fred Chartrand.

Political highlights: Elected Liberal Party member for Etobicoke-Lakeshore in Toronto on Jan. 23, 2006; appointed associate critic for Human Resources and Skills Development; announced bid for Liberal leadership on April 7.

Literary: Three novels that trot the globe as much as he does: Asya (1991), set in Russia, Paris and London; the Booker-shortlisted Scar Tissue (1993), set in the U.S.; and Charlie Johnson in the Flames (2005), set in war-torn Yugoslavia. Non-fiction includes the Governor General’s Award-winning Russian Album (1987), in which he climbs his aristocratic, White Russian family tree.

Sample passage: “Like two figures in a tragedy, watching the vanishing order of their world collapse around them, they stood stock-still staring at their hands in recognition of what they had done. Then she fell to her knees with a groan and he followed, and they both began scrabbling about, trying frantically to recover the beads.… Too late to stop them, too late to lift them up, I stood on the stairs watching my parents sobbing on all fours in the dark.” (from Scar Tissue)

Dialogue snippet: “‘I haven’t seen the sun in two years. The sun never shines on the Solevetsky Islands.’” (From Asya)

Political acumen: He’s largely untested so far.

Literary talent: 8.


Alec Scott writes about the arts for

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