TV UK, 11 May

'Charles I is another candidate for the dubious honour of being the original Tony Blair, but then so is Oliver Cromwell.'

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

Lenin remarks somewhere that history is a cruel stepmother. He has forgotten to add that she has a vicious sense of humour. Just look at the impending UK general election.

On Thursday 17 May Andrew Marr, the BBC’s political editor, tackles the really hot political issue of the moment: Why Bother? (10.40pm). In a rather surreal-sounding film, Marr spends 10 minutes allegedly grappling with doubts about the whole business of politics.

I say allegedly because it is obvious from the outset that this is a polemic against voter apathy. Marr points out that democracy is an historical rarity, and suggests that we therefore have a responsibility to take part. What with circumstances and all, it is hard to see how this can be anything but a party political broadcast for the Labour Party.

David Starkey’s life of Henry VIII (Channel 4, Monday 7 May) was packed with allusions to modern politics, some less convincing than others. Using footage from the mid-1980s miners’ strike to illustrate the rebellion in the north against Henry’s Reformation was particularly bizarre. Starkey’s point was to suggest a comparison between Henry VIII and Margaret Thatcher. True, both were troublemakers, but surely it is the nature of the trouble, rather than the mere fact of it, that makes history.

Starkey’s parallel between the death of Henry’s mother and the death of Diana was equally unconvincing, but there is something to be said for Tony Blair as Henry VIII. Henry’s coronation was welcomed as the end of a bankrupt old era, and the beginning of something new. Little did ye olde English know what they were letting themselves in for….

Moving things on a bit, Simon Schama began the first programme in the new season of his History of Britain (BBC2, Tuesdays at 9pm) by describing the Civil War as something very un-British: a war of ideas. Looking at the combatants though, Charles I is another candidate for the dubious honour of being the original Tony Blair, but then so is Oliver Cromwell. In any case, Schama isn’t so much into transhistorical comparisons, which is probably a good thing.

On the downside, this means that The History of Britain struggles a bit for visuals. References to Scotland always seem to be accompanied by pictures of mountains and rocks. (I grew up there and never saw a rock until I was 17.) Still, Scotland is given its proper place here as the birthplace of the Civil War. It was Charles I’s ruck with Calvinism, not Papism, that first got him into serious trouble domestically.

It seems that such tussling over mere ideas is a thing of the past, however. In The End of Politics (Channel 4, Sunday 13 May at 8pm), Noreena Hertz examines the rise of consumerism at the expense of political engagement. The theory is that big business has usurped government and that the public now exercise power as consumers rather than citizens. Little wonder, then, if the election excites little interest.

Hertz, like Naomi Klein, is regarded as a theorist of the global anti-capitalist movement. So has the battle of ideas simply shifted from the national to the global arena, and from parliaments to shopping streets? Actually, Hertz’s programme is less a manifesto for a new ideology than a call for government to pull the reins in on the market and take more responsibility for society. What Henry VIII would have done for an opposition like that!

The man himself will be taking questions from a studio audience on Wednesday night in Ask Tony Blair (Wednesday 16 May, ITV at 11pm). Maybe somebody should ask him with which historical figure he most identifies. My guess, Tony Blair.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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