It’s Friday night here in Japan and I have better things to do with my time than political punditry, but I’m very interested in the shock results coming in from the UK general election. It appears that, against the flow of two years of opinion polls, the conservative party (the Tories) have not just held on to their hung parliament, but may have actually seized enough seats to rule in their own right. If they don’t get those seats it looks likely that they’ll be able to rule with the help of either just UKIP or just the Democratic Unionist Party.

It’s too early to tell but it looks to me like Tory gains have come primarily at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, who have been (deservedly, in my opinion) slaughtered at the ballet box, with the Guardian at this point in the count suggesting only 8 seats remain – down from 53. Another three might cling on, but even the best case scenario is a disaster.

The obvious dark horse in this race was the Scottish National Party, which took Scotland from Labour – they gained 50 seats, almost all of which were from Labour, and have basically ejected Labour from the North. This would not, however, by itself have been enough to prevent Labour from governing, if they had been able to get enough seats by themselves to form a majority with SNP support. Labour leader Milliband (immorally, in my view) refused to enter a coalition with the SNP, but he could have changed his mind on that had he seized enough seats in his own right. And this is where Labour failed – they couldn’t take seats back from the Tories south of Scotland, and this election, obviously, was a referendum on the performance of the ruling coalition. This coalition is very unpopular, but they only suffered (at this early stage) a 0.44% swing against them to Labour, indicating a dismal failure to punish the Tories for their unpopularity at the ballot box.

I think this is possibly because of the spoiling role that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) have played in many Labour seats. According to the Guardian, UKIP issued a statement that said

In many constituencies we are the opposition, on behalf of working class voters who have been neglected and taken for granted for decades. This is true of both Northern England where we are the opposition to Labour and in Southern England where we are the opposition to the Conservatives.

We’ve provided hope and truth for the electorate and driven the political agenda.

In Britain’s first past-the-post system, it’s possible that the spoiling role of UKIP in conservative seats was not enough to win Labour the vote, or that it was equally spread between the two parties, so Labour couldn’t capitalize on Tory unpopularity. Did UKIP cost Labour the chance to lead?

Of course this question would be moot if the UK had a functioning electoral system, with preference allocation, held on a Saturday. More working people would have come out to the vote, and those UKIP votes would have flowed back to the party they defected from. But the ruling parties have both resolutely refused to consider electoral reform. This election shows in stark detail the consequences of continuing with the UK’s flawed electoral system: it benefits regional parties, which both major parties have claimed don’t have Britain’s interests at heart, but worse still it disenfranchises a huge proportion of the electorate. Between them UKIP and the Greens won 16% of the vote but hold 2 seats out of 650; while the Scottish National Party won just 5% of the vote and hold 50 seats. This is because the SNP is a holdout from the time of local politics, while UKIP and the Greens are parties of national opinion – broad movements across the whole country, connected not through local constituencies but through national issues. In a system like Australia these parties would gain significant representation in the Senate, where they are nationally representative – but the UK “Senate,” the House of Lords, is unelected and the ruling parties have refused to give UKIP and the Greens seats in the Lords consistent with their vote share. In a system like New Zealands, these parties would gain some representation through lower house lists – but the UK ruling parties refuse to countenance any change to first-past-the-post systems.

Essentially the UK ruling parties want to cling to a system that dates back to the 19th century, when politics was by necessity local, or the immediate post-war era when politics was strictly defined on class lines and classes were strictly segregated by region and area. Labour thrived under this system 50 years ago as the party of the industrial north, and the Tories as the party of the landed gentry; residual class barriers and geographic prejudices mean they can maintain this benefit for the short term, but at a huge cost to the political aspirations of a large minority of the country. You may not like UKIP or Green politics, but their voters have a right to be heard; you may like SNP politics, but that doesn’t mean they deserve representation in parliament well beyond their ultimately very localized base. Yet this is the result of the current system in the UK.

I hope that the sudden surge in the SNP presence in parliament will get the major parties to finally seriously think about electoral reform. If they don’t do something about it, then at some point in the future the conservative vote will collapse, as always happens in the electoral cycle, and the country will find itself being ruled by a coalition of labour unions and Scottish nationalists. If the conservatives care at all for the future of their country they will look on that prospect with genuine fear, and start working on real electoral reform. Or not … given that if they do UKIP will eat them from the right.

Oh the horrors of being a British voter …

This is a novel about a magician-policeman set in modern London. The policeman, Peter Grant, is drafted from the normal police service to work for a special investigations department that consists of a single policeman, Inspector Nightingale, and takes on all the investigations into things that no one else believes are real. In order to work in this department, Grant must also become the apprentice to Inspector Nightingale, and thus also begins learning the rudiments of “modern” magic – that is, magic as systematized by Sir Isaac Newton back in the day.

In essence, then, this is a kind of Harry Dresden story, but set in London rather than Chicago, and featuring a policeman rather than a private investigator. It’s the first, apparently, of a series. I hope no one from Chicago will be displeased with or misinterpret me when I say that London is a much more romantic and interesting setting for a novel of this kind than Chicago, and this is not the first novel to use London’s historical complexity and its modern multicultural mish-mash as a setting for the bizarre or the unusual: Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s UnLunDun are two other good examples of stories in this field, and both draw heavily on London’s peculiar synthesis of the historical and the modern to lend their tale an additional edge of romance that more uniformly modern cities cannot get. It’s particularly well-suited to a magical policeman story because, well, because London is a city full of crime and trouble. It has a violent and depressing history, and a violent and depressing present, which makes it a bad place to live but a very good place to set a fantastic story of this kind – especially since in novels all the little irritations of London life can be ignored, and the picture can be painted using the broad brushstrokes of history, crime, modernity and multiculturalism.

Which is what we get in this book. Something is up in London, and Grant has to investigate a spate of murders connected to it. The something-that-is-up is connected to a violent grudge that has passed down through history, and is being played out in the very modern setting of post-2007 Covent Garden. There is also a conflict between the different rivers of London – whose spirits are personified in some amusing human forms, and appear to have come to an “arrangement” with the various departments and authorities of the British government. Grant is investigating all this while also studying magic as a new apprentice, trying to get laid, and trying to enjoy his new life as a freshly-graduated police constable. Much of the context of the story is very ordinary and very real – he goes to pubs I’ve walked past, in streets I’ve frequented, and talks of real very recent events that we’re all familiar with. The author also appears to be familiar with police culture and language, and we get a lot of very British policing attitudes coming through. Also interestingly for a novel from London, the author is very aware of London’s overcrowded and multiracial culture, and this is very smoothly worked through the story so that, for those of us who have lived in London, it really does feel like the London we know rather than the sanitized all-cockney-all-the-time London that, say, the Imperial War Museum likes to present. The lead character is himself mixed-race, his mother West African and his father British, and grew up on a council estate in Peckham. Witness reports are particularly amusing because they present us with such a classic hodge-podge of London life as it is now. There’s a classic report of two hare krishnas beating up their troop leader: one is a New Zealander and the other is from Hemel Hampstead. It’s so mundane, and so spot on in its mundanity, and I think this mundane realism serves to ground the magic and mystery of the story very well, so that you really can believe that someone like Peter Grant can learn to use magic and see ghosts and work for the Metropolitan Police Force.

The book also shares with the Dresden Files a well-constructed (so far) theory of and structure for the magic Grant uses. It’s very different to Dresden, and a nice attempt to imagine how magic might feel when you work it – he talks of forms, that you can feel in your mind and have to learn to understand like music. There’s also the first exposition that I’ve ever heard of why magic might need to use language to be cast, and why it must be latin at that. On top of that, the book also attempts to explain magic’s bad effect on modern technology, and Grant of course begins experimenting on this issue as soon as he discovers it, so that not only can we generate a working theory of why the problem happens but he can use it as an investigative tool, and find ways to safeguard his stuff. This is how I imagine a modern wizard would work, and it’s very well done in the story. His depiction of ghosts in modern terms, and his attempts to understand all of magic in terms of the language of computers and science that he grew up with, is also very interesting and I think a quite new take on the genre.

The book is well written and overall the flow of the story is good, though I thought Grant’s first case was a trifle too complex near the end and I’m not sure I understood the relationship between the rivers of London and the case Grant was working on – maybe that will come later. The characters are good and believable and the setting very powerfully like the London I know, but the author has weaved into it all the powerful romance of the city we see in the history books, so that while you always feel like you’re in modern London you don’t forget that this is a London built on layers of history and rich with magic and power. I think in this use of setting the book is definitely superior to a Dresden novel (and, on balance, better written too), and gives a richer and more nuanced vision of a modern magician than Dresden does.

Other comparisons to the Dresden Files also fascinated me while reading this book. The Rivers of London is to the Dresden Files like Coronation Street is to Beverly Hills 90210. In the Dresden Files, the creatures of faerie are always supernaturally beautiful and amazing, and they and the bad guys live in enormous wealthy villas. Dresden gets his girl and is constantly being offered sex by crazed sex goddess super girls, and when he gets a dog it’s a great big supernatural hound of a thing that is more dangerous than most monsters. Finally, of course, there is a lot of heavy weaponry. In The Rives of London, the spirits live in quite mundane buildings – one of the spirits of the river is a traveller – and the characters’ homes are nothing special. Grant doesn’t get his girl and is either warned off the spirit girls, or gets an erection around them while they completely ignore him. He also inherits a dog as a by-blow of a crime scene, but it’s a stupid little ordinary lap dog that doesn’t have any special powers and is a bit overweight and not very helpful. And the only gun that appears in the story is fired once and then disappears, no one can find it and its appearance is frankly shocking because people in London – even criminals – just don’t use guns. I’ve no doubt that things will get more upmarket as the books go on, but it’s an interesting contrast between the artistic styles of the two countries: just like in soaps and dramas, this story conveys that sense of humility and shame-faced shuffling it’s-not-quite-good-enough-is-it?, frayed-carpet and slightly daggy cardigan atmosphere that the British are willing to put into presentations of their own culture. In short, it lacks the brashness of a similar American story. Usually I’m inclined to prefer the brash and the beautiful in American stories to the grotty and mundane in British ones, but in this case I think I like the ordinariness that bleeds out of the pages of this book. I think it helps me to understand Grant as a newly-minted wizard cop better than I understood Harry Dresden.

This is an excellent story, overall, and if this series improves as it goes along (which most series like this do, I think) then it’s well worth getting into. I heartily recommend this tale!