High-Stakes Political Drama, British Style

  • The Knives
  • By Richard T. Kelly
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber, London, 2016
  • PB, 496 pages, US$10.29
  • ISBN: 978-0-571 29666-8

  • Click here to buy The Knives


Novels based on U.S. politics have, in the last half-century or so, resonated with American readers. Advise and Consent, Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus about a Senate confirmation battle over a controversial nominee for Secretary of State, holds up as well today as when it hit the bookstores in 1959.

The same could be said of The Last Hurrah, Edwin O’Connor’s timeless saga of an aging big-city mayor making his re-election bid as politics and campaigns are changing. Less celebrated, but characterizing politics almost as powerfully, is The Gay Place, Billy Lee Brammer’s three-part chronicle of a capital city hauntingly like Austin, Texas and a savvy governor who is inarguably based on Lyndon Johnson.

All these volumes have meshed suspense and masterful story-telling with the true “insider stuff” of politics at the national, state, and local levels. Now, one must add Richard T. Kelly’s The Knives, a thriller about a British Home Secretary (interior minister) in the near-future.

In Kelly’s United Kingdom, immigration is uncontrollable and the Conservative government must deal with domestic terror threats, mosques, Muslim radio preachers, and agitators. Violence is on the upswing, including the shooting of a policeman in a country in which law-enforcement officials don’t carry guns.

There also is the tension caused by Duncan Swarthe, a successful businessman who rolls his own cigarettes and leads the anti-immigrant Free Briton Brigade (thinly-disguised, the United Kingdom Independence Party and its chain-smoking leader Nigel Farage).

Forced to grapple with it all—as well as deal with his constituency on weekends as an MP (Member of Parliament) – is Home Secretary David Blaylock. The son of a middle-class family and onetime United Nations “peacekeeper” in Bosnia while a British Army captain, Blaylock deals with controversy of his own with his support for a national ID card as the solution to the ever-serious distresses caused by immigration.

But Blaylock has other demons. His hair-trigger temper leads to a much-publicized fist-fight with street toughs he encounters on his morning jog. Moreover, there is a shoving match with a Free Briton marcher who storms Blaylock’s ceremony for newly-minted citizens.

Divorced, with former wife Jenny a human rights barrister who often clashes with the Home Office, Blaylock faces the personal turmoil of a father who sees his children only one day a week. Privately, he engages in a romantic affair with a journalist who covers him (a no-no for politicians and reporters in any country).

Amid all this, “the knives” are clearly out for him: from inter-office enemies, such as political rival and Junior Security Minister Paul Payne to the mysterious caller who has Blaylock’s cellphone number and makes chilling and repeated threats on the minister’s life.

Followers of British politics will quickly unmask Kelly’s characters around Blaylock at Westminster. Good-natured Prime Minister Patrick Vaughan, a product of the upper class who loves to host his ministers at his Scottish castle, is the author’s own David Cameron, prime minister until last year. One also sees present Prime Minister Theresa May in Chancellor of the Exchequer Caroline Tennant, “like an admired head teacher who wore her authority lightly.”

What Advise and Consent did for the U.S. Senate and The Last Hurrah did for City Hall politics, Kelly’s new book does for British politics—right up to the gripping last chapter. At a time when Brexit and a change of leaders has made Britain a lead story worldwide, The Knives is timely and worthwhile reading.

John Gizzi is the White House correspondent and chief political columnist for Newsmax. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.