There may be magic, dragons and three-eyed ravens, but any Game of Thrones fan knows that it’s the politics of the Iron Throne that really drive this epic series.
Quite frankly, you don’t have to dig deep to look for similarities between Westeros and western democracy. Enter Colin Talbot, Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Manchester.
“There are obvious parallels in modern politics, with what’s going on in western democracies at the moment,” Talbot tells us: “longstanding institutions, major political parties like the Liberals and Democrats in the United States and Tories and the Labour Party in this country going into crisis and being threatened by all sorts of fragmentary forces.
“Essentially the story of the first five series has been what was a fairly strong, cohesive, dominant alliance – the Starks, the Baratheons and the Lannisters – falling apart. All the component parts have also now fallen apart and it’s sparked civil wars within it,” Talbot says. “You’ve even got the Iron Bank of Braavos in the background – a potential banking crisis!”
But while the rise and fall of central powers is a story as old as time, it’s where Thrones meets religious extremism that the comparisons become most striking. Last year the series introduced the Sparrows, a group of pious and often violent religious fanatics.
“The Sparrows storyline has got a lot of contemporary resonance,” adds Talbot, in light of current threats of terrorism from militant groups like Islamic State.
“Certainly 30 years ago very few people were writing either fantasy politics or realistic politics that took religion very seriously. Most people really believed religion was dying out and would never be a big force in politics again. They’ve been proved very badly wrong.”
And yet, the Sparrows’ very similarity to real-life religious groups could signal their undoing.
“As with these sorts of religious movements in the real world, they can be quite powerful but they rarely have the majority appeal,” says Talbot. “Winning over the majority or taking power would run counter to their message of being anti-establishment.”
What can the real world teach us about Game of Thrones politics?
Religious extremism is currently one of the Iron Throne’s biggest threats – and is something which needs to be nipped in the bud.
Westeros’s current leader, teenager Tommen Baratheon, isn’t equipped to deal with such challenges, suggests Talbot. Instead, “the only people who could preserve stability in the short term are Cersei and Jaime Lannister. Anybody else has too many other forces lined up against them.”
On the other side of the Narrow Sea, another figure who has the potential to secure peace is Tyrion, says Talbot. “He’s got a very strong strategic brain. He is extremely observant and very well read. He knows the history, the mistakes people have made in the past, and he’s acutely aware of the current state of Westeros. He could potentially be a huge asset to Daenerys.”
What is the Mother of Dragons missing? A coalition government. “She has no allies. She’s adopted a very naïve approach and she’s failed construct an effective coalition or to maintain her power base.”
“Just having charismatic leadership and a few good ideas isn’t enough,” adds Talbot. “If you take Daenerys as an example, she’s charismatic, she’s got the symbolic advantage, the Targaryen name and a few simple ideas about how to do things. They worked in the short term and she made a lot of gains initially but it’s all fallen apart on her. She doesn’t have the political skills.
“There are some really interesting lessons there about how sometimes things which appear to be very successful actually have the seeds of their own destruction built into them.”
Daenerys, the Nick Clegg of Game of Thrones? Please don’t send Drogon after us…
Jon Snow is another character whose failings in leadership led to his (apparent) demise. “The Starks are clearly a powerful force in the North and they need a figurehead to lead them. He has a feeling for how ordinary people live and doesn’t have any particular pretensions himself. He absolutely has the potential to change the course of Westerosi history,” says Talbot.
But, “He paid too much attention to the bigger picture and neglected those close to him.”
In short, when it comes to securing peace in Westeros, all the contenders for the Iron Throne will struggle.
“There are several destabilising factors which make it extremely difficult to put back together the sort of stability that there was when the Baratheons, Starks and Lannisters were working together,” says Talbot.
“A deal would have to be negotiated, a division of power amongst the major families, so that they all felt they had enough out of it to be satisfied. The chances of doing that now are slim. This is likely to come down to to an apocalyptic confrontation. That’s where Westeros is heading.”
Here’s hoping Game of Thrones doesn’t mirror modern politics too closely, then.
Game of Thrones season six continues on Mondays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic