John Sutherland: Without Walter Mitty, Eeyore and Flashman, we'd be lost for words

Sometimes just the mention of a character from fiction is enough to sum up an entire personality

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Liam Fox's good friends tried to protect their man by labelling his very special friend "a Walter Mitty character". It's a threadbare but still effectively deadly literary allusion. A pedant might object, however, that it doesn't really fit. In James Thurber's charming tale, Walter is a middle-aged mamma's boy who compensates for the maternal tyranny under which he lives his pointless life by fantasising all sort of heroics: at sea (as a daring skipper in a typhoon), in the air (as a fighter ace), on a Mississippi riverboat (as a dashing gambler). Meanwhile he has to get the chains put on Mom's tyres in preparation for the Ohio winter. He's not man enough to do the chain stuff himself. Real men are required. If one's being literary about it, Mr Werritty, lobbyist extraordinaire that he seems to be, is less a Mitty than a Munchausen. It's not what he fantasises about but what he seems to have achieved (is there a Lobbyist of the Year award?) which truly amazes one.

One has to suspect that whatever rotter slapped the Mitty label on Werritty has never read the Thurber story. No need. It's folkloric: one of that cluster of literary allusions which have taken on a life of their own. Applying them to figures in public life is not that common, but always interesting. Typically, they are used with derogatory intent – and often as a way of implying what it might be too dangerous to come out with openly.

A notable example is the widespread description of Peter Mandelson, in his political heyday, as Tony Blair's Svengali. "Why do they keep calling me that?" Mandelson once asked. He knew, of course. The allusion to George du Maurier's villainous hypnotist was, on the surface, an implication that Blair's consigliere had an illicit power and, more poisonously, it got in an anti-Semitic slur while merely appearing to be the comment of a person rather well up in Victorian fiction. "Blair's Cardinal Richelieu" would not have the same stiletto sly nastiness, even though Dumas' Three Musketeers is quite as well known as du Maurier's Trilby.

Blair himself was, until political commentators learned to be frightened of him, nicknamed "Bambi". The allusion was less inspired by Felix Salten's alpine fable than the Disney movie. Again it wasn't a perfect fit; at least not in the scornful spirit intended. In both film and novel, the little deer matures into a monarch of the forest. So it was with TB.

The literary allusion currently stuck on David Cameron is, like the foregoing, somewhat inappropriate but, if one examines it carefully, richly informative about what, inwardly, we feel about our leader. He's Flashman. In Thomas Hughes's original Tom Brown's Schooldays, Flashman (like Heathcliff he has no forename) is the Rugby School bully who roasts poor Tom over a dorm fire to make the young fellow hand over a winning lottery ticket. The Wednesday suffering of poor little Ed at PMQ is evoked. He rarely escapes without a scorched bum. But the Flashman allusion is loaded in other more complex ways. There is that "not just any old public school but the top public school" implication (is it true, as one has heard, that the Etonians in cabinet refer to Clegg as a "chav" because he went to Westminster?). Hughes's villain was, of course, resurrected in George MacDonald Fraser's magnificent neo-Victorian saga of the doings of Flashy after being expelled (for drunkenness) from Rugby.

There were a number of motives behind Fraser's novels (not least the desire to make more money than the stingy Glasgow Herald paid him). But what really drove the series was the sense that Flashman for all his failings represents something quintessentially worthwhile in the British national character. As Fraser put it: "I led him on his disgraceful way, toadying, lying, cheating, running away, treating women as chattels, abusing inferiors of all colours, with only one redeeming virtue – the honesty with which he admitted to his faults." Put another way, the British will put up with any crap from their government so long as they think the bastards are, in their way, being straight.

The Flashman sobriquet is by no means entirely flattering. But it has done Cameron more good than harm. If his handlers have any sense they will keep it in play. It's hard, however, to think of the literary allusion which would work for Ed Miliband. Alas, he doesn't yet seem to be worth one. Perhaps Sir Andrew ("I was adored once") Aguecheek. Although of course, it's the eyes and the wonky mouth, not the withered cheeks, which are the cartoonist's delight.

Hovering, like a Goodyear blimp leaking gas, over the last Tory conference was the ghost of Mr Micawber, although I don't recall any commentator perceiving it. How does his economic system go? Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

Thus, in his own squeaky way, spake George Osborne (and, very unwisely, Cameron as well, with those ill-judged remarks about credit cards). With the Dickensian bicentenary imminent, it might be a good time for the Cabinet to read David Copperfield and observe how signally Mr Micawber fails to live up to his great economic principle. So too, one fears, will the Chancellor find it difficult. We shall see – probably before the bicentenary year is out.

This year, as few alas have noted, is the bicentenary of Dickens's great rival, William Makepeace Thackeray. It's lucky for the current occupant of 11 Downing Street that few have noted that he's the namesake of the insufferable George Osborne in Vanity Fair. Thackeray invented the term snob in its modern sense, and there is no more odious snob in literature than his Osborne. He's a Flashman without that one redeeming feature that Fraser noted. The Rt Hon Osborne is nothing like his Thackerayan namesake, I'm sure. But whenever I see him at the dispatch box, on the podium, or sidestepping Paxman's lunges, I can't help thinking how glad I am when the fictional George gets that French musket ball in his guts at Waterloo.

It's odd, given how saturated our minds are by literature, how little of it seeps through into our routine depictions of public figures and their doings. There's the ubiquitous "Quixotic", of course. One has seen it applied to Obama – particularly in the early stages of his presidency when he was pushing his outrageous project to give all Americans, even those losers unable to pay for it, health care. Windmills, windmills, windmills. He might even have been called Panglossian with such an unrealistic idea.

Who, while one's being literarily adjectival, is the most Falstaffian among current politicians? Eric Pickles, if one's thinking of avoirdupois, Ken Clarke if one's thinking of sherry and good cheer. Which politician "Hamletises" most tragically? It must, of course, be Andrew Lansley, trapped, paralytically, between thought and deed.

Where literature does scoreis in anatomising types with a subtlety beyond the cut and dried definitions of the psychoanalist, criminologist or sociologist. Everyone (even those who have never read Winnie the Pooh), for example, knows what is meant when – for example – someone is labelled "Eeyorish", or "Tiggerish", or (one of A A Milne's characters Simon Heffer must wish was never invented) a "Heffalump". But try to put into clear descriptive prose what a reference to that glum old donkey, bouncing great cat, and elusive pachyderm convey. It can't be done. It all melts back into a word and an image.

After Dickens we're coming up to another literary bicentenary, that of Anthony Trollope, in 2015. If I could import one literary allusion into current discourse on politics it would be that term which Trollope highlights in the fourth part of his Palliser sequence, The Prime Minister. His series hero, Plantagenet Palliser, has at last ascended to the top of the slippery pole (as Trollope's loathed Disraeli called it). What Planty Pal discovers, having achieved his heart's desire, is that he can best serve the country by doing absolutely nothing; or, as it is described in the novel, by being a "faineant" PM. Let well alone, he is instructed by his mentor. Frustrating as it is he does just that. And the country benefits enormously.

Harold Macmillan was steeped in Trollope's fiction – his ancestors published some of it. I like to think he absorbed the thinking of Trollope's fine novel when he came to Downing Street. It was Macmillan, with a benign comment about winds of change, who let go huge chunks of empire won by British blood, and who denied the population at home any radical reforms on the grounds that "you've never had it so good". And, if things are good, why fix them? Perhaps, along with David Copperfield, the Cabinet might take away The Prime Minister on the Christmas recess. But chances are, they'll stick with the latest Jeffrey Archer.

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