A government in three acts

The three-act structure is a staple of the movie business. Look behind most popular movies and this structure reveals itself: beginning, middle, end. Or setup, confrontation, resolution.

In act one, we meet the protagonist and other major characters and the nature of the plot is revealed to us. The end of act one sets the story moving properly. Think Elliott meeting ET, or Dorothy landing in Oz.

Act two is about confrontation. The protagonist experiences setbacks and danger. The stakes rise. Things are tried, which fail. But there is forward motion: ET builds his machine from a Speak’n’Spell and starts to form a psychic link to Elliott. Dorothy meets new tin, fur and straw-based companions and skips towards the Emerald City and the wizard.

At the end of act two all seems lost. ET is captured and dies. The wizard turns out to be a man behind a curtain. And here, as at the end of act one, the story turns again. ET is resurrected. There is a way for Dorothy to get home.

Act three takes us from there to the final fade to black. ET escapes with Elliott and his mates, and is picked up by those who left him behind. Dorothy clicks her heels together and repeats “there’s no place like home” and wakes up in black-and-white Kansas.

It’s not just movies that have three acts of one form or another. Books often do. Lives do. Blog posts like this do (welcome to the end of act one). And so do governments.

The current government’s first act ended at about the time Nick Clegg abandoned the pledge not to raise tuition fees. Regardless of the merits or not of the final legislation, the story changed at that point. The honeymoon was over, if you like, and the mid-term blues set in: the act two confrontations of unpopular austerity policies, of riots, and disruption.

I haven’t mentioned one aspect of the theoretical second act: you’ll often find another pivoting point somewhere in the middle of the film, where something happens to raise the stakes or change the game. This helps to avoid the all-too-common second-act lull (second acts tend to be the longest). In ET, the midpoint is where we realise that ET and Elliott are linked — that wonderful sequence cutting between a schoolroom frog dissection and ET watching TV with a beer or two.

We’ve reached the midpoint of the government’s three acts about now. We’re about half-way through the five-year term, there’s just been a cabinet reshuffle, and we’ve had the massive mood-changers of the Olympics and Paralympics.

How these affect the story remains to be seen. It’s especially hard to judge whether London 2012 — in all its aspects — will have a lasting effect. As someone who attended both the Olympics and Paralympics as a spectator, I can only say that I came away with a huge sense of pride at all the achievements — in organisation, in delivery, in service, in sport. We can do better than we think. We have done better.

Do we want to return to the old ways?  To the petty bunfights and playground games of parliament? Will the rest of the second act of this government squander this midpoint twist with the reshuffle’s apparent lurch to the right? And then more cuts: slicing away the remaining safety nets, selling off chunks of the NHS, condemning another generation of schoolchildren to endless educational dogmatic tinkering.

Sadly, this seems inevitable.

But at some point, act three arrives. Something happens to allow the escape to the UFO, or the return to Kansas. The beauty of the three-act structure is that the acts can be as long or as short as they need to be. The “midpoint” needn’t be dead-centre. The act two twist can be right before the end of the movie.

So when does Nick Clegg return to Brussels?

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