Tom Gallagher was an academic for over thirty years, specialising on conflicts of nationalism and ways of reducing their velocity. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He lives in Edinburgh and has written 14 single-authored books. Among the most recent was ‘Scotland Now: A Warning to the World (2015). Here Country Squire Magazine’s Dominic Wightman interviews Tom about his writing, politics and branching into fiction.
DW: You are a retired political scientist who wrote about the disruptive effects of territorial politics in the British Isles and across different parts of Europe. Why have you now turned your hand to fiction?
TG: These days very little political fiction is being written. The volatile condition of Britain – Brexit, the Scottish independence push, the sharp generational split and the increasing domination of ideas which challenge conventional democracy in the universities and across the media – made me decide to try my hand.
DW: It’s true that various fractures have opened up in British politics and society. But wouldn’t it have been far better to write a book geared for the general reader, perhaps along the lines of Douglas Murray’s ‘The Strange Death of Europe’?
TG: Given the monolithic uniformity that now reigns in London publishing, I think a book criticising the direction of British politics from a conservative perspective would have been unlikely to see the light of day. Commissioning editors and referees would have had heart attacks if the arguments about the corrosion of British politics that I put into the mouths of characters were expressed in a political analysis.
Besides, Douglas Murray is exceptional in being able to break through the media ‘Iron Curtain’ of political correctness. Currently he has no other counterparts critical of the left-wing ascendancy over many areas of policy. By contrast a shouty radical like Owen Jones has dozens of emulators who have no trouble in making their voices heard.
DW: I’m with you there about Douglas and Jones. So what is the novel that you’ve written?
TG: It’s called ‘England Possessed’. Its set in the early 2020’s and describes how inter-generational conflict hardens into strife and, before too long, outright civil-war. I’ve been working on the book for the past eighteen months and had no idea that the 2017 election would make some of the themes topical.
Recent Tory miscalculations and the far-left’s prowess in the area of social communications have created a climate of smouldering revolt at least in London which readers will find recognisable. Politics appears to have caught up with long fermenting cultural shifts, emphasising alienation, disengagement, and a desire to take risks. The book has its Corbyn’s, McDonnell’s and Seamus Milne’s but I certainly didn’t think they would be breaking through as early as 2017.
DW: What kind of characters appear?
TG: The story is told mainly through the eyes of foreigners from Russia, Cameroon, Colombia, and Romania who observe and describe the extraordinary changes in mood and outlook occurring in Britain.
They witness the meteoric rise of True Vanguard and its intense and magnetic leader Clive Sutton. He manages to convince millions of younger citizens that he sincerely wishes to usher in an ultra-egalitarian society in which a fresh set of people who have acquitted themselves in struggle against a rotten establishment, will re-invent Britain.
DW: What kind of action appears in the novel?
TG: Led by Gleb Yashin, a Russian recently set free from prison back home, these people become involved in efforts to resist Vanguard. They are particularly shocked by Sutton’s determination to strip elderly people of many of their civil rights. They witness at first hands his ruthlessness and the willingness of state bodies such as the police to acquiesce in his ageist crackdown. They eventually link up with a resistance movement which has managed to set up a rival government in Liverpool by which time urban violence is sweeping across much of England.
DW: It sounds a very bleak tale. Is there nothing to inspire hope?
TG: Wilford is a place which is meant to symbolise the contented, public-spirited and achievement-orientated England that Gleb and his friends had almost abandoned hope of ever finding. This town in Cheshire has avoided introspection and strife. A new university dedicated to the transmission of knowledge untrammelled by political correctness or speech codes, has sprung up and was attracting worldwide interest just as the crisis erupted. Soon Wilford emerges as the main centre of resistance to Vanguard and the book ends with a major confrontation occurring there.
DW: What was the most challenging aspect of branching into fiction?
TG: There were the usual challenges of devising credible characters who would hold attention, developing plot lines that stand up and describing action. Perhaps the biggest one was in putting across ideas about the parlous state of England. I did this early on in the form of soliloquys from some of the main characters. One of the main themes I strove to put across was that people with irrational ideas can often be more dedicated and skillful in advancing their cause than rivals with a more humane and practical vision. This, I believe, is the case in England right now. If it continues this way, then a soft form of True Vanguard will have become fully established by 2022 the year in which the book was set.
But, looking on the bright side, in Scotland the ultras had more prowess and flair than the moderates up until very recently. Conditions can alter. Unionists waged a determined fight back. On 8 June Alex Salmond returned to being a private citizen after a 20% swing against him in a seat which many assumed would be his for life.
DW: I believe you are planning a sequel that will be mainly set in Scotland?
TG: Yes. A pro-Union government under a charismatic and achievement-orientated young leader, Craig McEwan is in charge. Reluctantly he has declared Scottish independence to prevent Scotland being consumed by the English inferno. Gleb and the characters from the first novel use Scotland as a base to carry out clandestine rescue work in England. They have various adventures in Scotland as well as romantic and life-threatening encounters. Some reach tragic ends. Others blossom.
This is against the background of an escalating power struggle between McEwan and his nationalist rivals. It centres on whether Scotland should offer direct aid to the English resistance fast developing in strength. It is an opportunity to revisit what I see as the negativity of movements like Scottish Nationalism and how they can bring out the worst in large groups of people. However, I hope not to resort to clichés about the supposedly volatile Anglophobic Scots which have been fashionable in recent years. The battle for the soul of Scotland reveals a complex country where personal foibles and impulses feed into, and determine, the fate of wider movements.
DW: Finally, you told me that you have a request you would like to put to readers of Country Squire.
TG: Yes, that’s right. Most of the plot will focus on Edinburgh which turns from being a staid city to one pulsating with intrigue and growing violence. But I want a section of the book to be set in Perthshire or the Moray Firth area. Being a townie, I am quite unfamiliar with political conditions on the ground in these easily overlooked parts of Scotland. If there are any readers from rural/small town Scotland who have observed or participated in politics in the past five years or longer, I’d be interested to hear from them in order to acquire background information that I can use in a strictly fictional work.
DW: Thank you very much, Tom. Best of luck with your endeavours.