I was sorry to reach the last page of Louise Burfitt-Dons’s first political thriller The Missing Activist, published a few months ago. It had me going to bed as well as waking up with a young political activist who’d gone missing in post Referendum Britain. A bit too real but no less gripping for that. An ‘alternative’ private eye (female of course!) has been called in to investigate. Her search takes her into the secrets of a party system that prizes loyalty above truth (ring any bells?) and unexpectedly dovetails with a female jihadi bride-grooming operation. I must not give too much away. It left with me with a lot of questions to ask the author – a former Tory candidate who has turned to crime fiction.
We publish the first half of my interview with Louise today, and the second tomorrow.
Kathy Gyngell: You’ve been writing non-fiction, plays and screenplays for some while now. Is The Missing Activist your first novel or your first crime novel? Was its plot a long time in conception or directly triggered by the hypertensions of post-Brexit Britain?
Louise Burfitt-Dons: It is both my first novel and my first crime novel. The background to the plot was formed by the following events: I’d spent five years with the Conservative Party working up through the candidate system with the ultimate ambition of becoming an MP. With some practical experience in place, and having moved home to fight what is known affectionately as an ‘unwinnable’ seat in Nottingham North in 2015, after the election I was unceremoniously culled from the list without any explanation or opportunity to appeal against the decision. Of course that scuppered all future opportunities of applying for vacant seats.
Almost instantly followed an awareness of being trapped in a club from which it was nigh impossible to exit easily. I’d immersed myself in a labyrinth of committees and social obligations expected of a prospective candidate. It meant a period of complete and total withdrawal from friends, colleagues and contacts. I was reading John Grisham’s best-selling thriller The Firm at the time and it struck me there were strong similarities between what I was personally experiencing and his crime premise which was that a newly qualified lawyer, having been seduced into joining a glamorous offshore firm, found the only way of leaving was in a six-foot box.
I had only six months earlier attended the funeral of Elliott Johnson, who took his life over bullying. He’d campaigned for me and so I knew first-hand just how much he was immersed in the Conservatives, which had left him in a very vulnerable place should they ever fail to support him. It inspired the idea of a young, committed political activist caught in a Kafka-ish scenario. From there the plot took on a life of its own.
At the time of writing, the early days of Brexit were also unfolding. Much of the outcome of the In-Out vote was due to concerns over immigration and jihadi activity in particular. This led me to create the ‘threat to the nation’ which political thrillers demand. The surprise result of the referendum further inspired the idea of a cast of characters on the point of stepping down from office, but being relaunched once again into the political orbit and being unprepared for it.
K G: You are clearly conservatively minded and a close follower of politics. You dived straight into two extremely controversial and challenging themes – the world of British jihadi brides and the internal (bullying and amoral) culture of the Conservative Party. They feel on reading extremely close to real life. How close are they?
L B-D: I tackled these controversial subjects because they were both areas in which I have a strong personal connection. I was born and brought up in Kuwait. Therefore the battle between the political and religious ideologies, which is causing so many of the international problems today and is fuelling jihadi behaviour, is something I’ve been aware of from a young age. I took a year of Arabic classes at evening college which helped not just with the impossibly difficult language but enlightened me in other ways. It transpired I was studying in a class of essentially modern London Muslim students, mostly women. It was important for me to understand how girls could be drawn from the liberal West to war-torn Syria to support a cause which was completely alien to them and their western backgrounds. I remember forging a romantic connection to the desert when I lived in Kuwait. These were of course unrealistic fantasies of someone who slept in an air-conditioned home at night and swam in a club pool by day. But young women desperate for romantic adventure and relationships make easy targets for grooming, not only by men, but also by more sophisticated women who know how to exploit this drive. It’s an issue feminists have a real problem tackling honestly.
Having set up and run the anti-bullying charity Act Against Bullying since 2000, I am sympathetic to anyone who finds themselves a victim. Over the past eighteen years I’ve come to learn a fair bit about the subject. Is the book true to life? Absolutely.
K G: The latter appears to draw on (with a twist) the bullying scandal/campaign allegations that hit the headlines following the suicide of party activist Elliott Johnson. What got you about that case? Did it mirror any of our own (indirect) experience with the party?
I was particularly saddened by Elliott’s death because I’d got to know him personally due to our shared interest in writing political opinion. He ran his own blog. Plus he was studying at Nottingham University and, as I have already mentioned, he campaigned for me when I was first selected as a candidate. Elliott was from a very close and loving family. The Tories describe themselves as a ‘family’. If you watch the TV series Banged Up Abroad, it’s invariably the mothers and fathers who end up carrying the can, no one else.
Did I personally experience bullying from within the party? Absolutely. It’s how party activity works. My husband served as my campaign manager when I stood in Nottingham. I was not supposed to have supporters, as Nottingham North was not a seat they believed we could win. Therefore one by one anyone who campaigned for me was targeted by a small band of fired-up party-loyal activists to dissuade them from helping me. One of them was offended by phone calls suggesting he was supporting a ‘dead woman’. It seemed at the time a bizarre way of treating party candidates, almost as if they were working for the other parties, and certainly not the way to cement loyal and lasting party bonds.
K G: Do you believe the Conservative Party management and internal politics to be as cynical and essentially corrupt as you portray it to be in the novel?
The Missing Activist is essentially a work of fiction. And, as a book structured specifically for the thriller genre, there is creative licence taken as regards the extent of the corruption I’ve written about. The Conservative Party works on a hierarchical structure. It relies on that model to manage hundreds of highly ambitious and talented wannabe political leaders, so inevitably this gives rise to a culture of intimidation and manipulation. Yes, there are plenty of dirty tricks, probably more than I’ve covered. Politics is all about power. As a candidate, I used to describe the conservative philosophy as ‘how life is’ as opposed to ‘How we would like life to be’, which is the socialist dream.
The second part of this interview follows tomorrow when Louise talks about researching her jihadi bride plotline, of her admiration for the police who’ve foiled more jihadi plots than we know about, plus the state of the current Conservative Party in its Brexit throes.
The Missing Activist is published by New Century Publishing and can be purchased here.