Margaret Thatcher was famously a big fan of the timeless BBC satirical sitcom Yes, Minister. So much so that in 1984 she penned a Yes, Minister sketch with her press secretary Bernard Ingham, which she then performed at a national TV awards ceremony alongside Paul Eddington (the bumbling politician, Jim Hacker) and Nigel Hawthorne (the Machiavellian senior civil servant, Sir Humphrey).
Quite apart from the fact that Yes, Minister was (and remains) hilarious, it appealed to Thatcher for a more serious reason: she recognised its potency as a critique of ‘big government’. The fictional portrayal of a political machine captured by an Oxbridge-educated elite of highly paid, port-swilling bureaucrats, whose sole principle in life was to look after their own, arguably did far more to change the minds of the British public about the appropriate size of the state than thousands of speeches and public remarks by Thatcher and her cabinet.
Steven Fielding’s forthcoming book A State of Play? (confession: I haven’t actually read it yet, but I like the premise of it) looks at the way British politics has been portrayed in fiction over the last century and a bit. It makes the perhaps obvious point that what most of us think about politics is influenced as much by fiction as by reality. Satire and straight news are just two different lenses through which we view the political process. Much as we may like to think that we base our opinions only on hard facts and evidence-based reporting, our perception of individual politicians, specific issues and how effectively the process as a whole is working is coloured hugely by fictional representations.
But it’s not just outsiders that have their opinions shaped by fiction in this way. Popular culture can also have a big impact on the self-image of people on the inside. Fictional representations of an industry often end up leading to an amplification of the behaviours and cultural traits portrayed in the fictional context. Art holds up a mirror to life, accentuating certain features. Then life imitates art.
This process explains why I believe Oliver Stone is partially responsible for some of the most egregious and harmful behaviour of people working in the financial sector in the run up to 2008. By creating the character of Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko for his 1987 film Wall Street, Stone unwittingly contributed more than most to the establishment of a culture of recklessness, arrogance, self-interest and disdain for ethics that led, just over two decades later, to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the near-implosion of the entire Western financial system.
I would wager that just about everyone who has worked in finance over the last 25 years will have been aware of the Gordon Gekko stereotype and the “Greed is Good” mantra. Similarly, the monikers ‘Master of the Universe’ and ‘Big Swinging Dick’ will have almost certainly seeped into their consciousness regardless of whether they’ve actually read Bonfire of the Vanities or Liar’s Poker. And at some level, they will either have rejected these portrayals (in which case, in the absence of a strong counter-balancing positive stereotype, they may have turned their back on a career in finance altogether) or they will have embraced them.
More significant though than the impact of Stone’s larger than life anti-hero on those who were already working in finance in 1987 is the effect the Gekko factor has had on the type of people recruited into the financial industry since 1987. Those already in the industry will have had a relatively settled image of the sector and their own motives for embarking on a career in finance will have been worked out in a pre-Gekko age.
But for the next generation of potential investment bankers, bond traders and stockbrokers Gekko was a defining character. More and more people entering the profession after 1987 agreed – or at least did not disagree – that greed is good. The idea that they could be a ‘Master of the Universe’ and a ‘Big Swinging Dick’ appealed to them, and so, inevitably, finance attracted more greedy arrogant twats and fewer humble, morally upright individuals.
The same I suspect is true of other larger than life anti-heroes who develop a cult following. I wonder how many decent, idealistic people have been put off a career in politics in the last couple of years by watching Malcolm Tucker verbally abuse all around him? And how many bright, public spirited and reform-minded young people have been put off a career in the civil service because of the image projected by Yes, Minister?
Of course what gives Malcolm Tucker, Sir Humphrey and Gordon Gekko such a powerful hold over our imaginations is their essential authenticity. None of them would be nearly as powerful were they not so believable and realistic. The very same characteristics that make them creations of artistic genius explain their corrupting influence on the professions they represent.
My own experience of the way fiction can impact your career choices came in a rather different guise. Aged 18 I discovered The West Wing and immediately fell in love with the image of idealistic, comradely, progressive politics it presented. During the summer before I went to university I regularly stayed up until dawn binge-watching back-to-back episodes. And when I got to university I watched it all again with friends.
Basing my decision to an embarrassingly large extent on a fictional TV series I duly decided I wanted to work in politics, preferably as a speechwriter and special advisor. The trouble was that the reality I discovered when I actually tried working in and around politics bore very little relation to the world invented by Aaron Sorkin’s fertile mind. In large part because I came to politics a Jed Bartlet-adoring idealist, it took me no more than a couple of months to become embittered and cynical about the whole political industry. Those who have the furthest to fall, fall hardest.
This Friday Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street is launched here in the UK. It tells the story of Jordan Belfort, an apparently hugely successful stockbroker who pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and money laundering in 1999. His career on Wall Street began in October 1987, just two months before Gordon Gekko first appeared on screen. It seems we have come full circle: art imitates life; life imitates art; art imitates life.
The question now is: will Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Belfort be as definitive for the financial industry over the next 25 years as Michael Douglas’s Gekko was for a previous generation? If so, we have a lot to be worried about.
 In Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities, bond trader Sherman McCoy is a self-appointed ‘master of the universe’; Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis’s 1989 semi-autobiographical memoir about life as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers, introduced the term “big swinging dick” – used as a nickname for the firm’s most successful money-makers – to a global audience.