Why waste time tanning Kilroy’s hide?

The only thing lamer than Robert Kilroy-Silk is a professional Kilroy-basher.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

How has Robert Kilroy-Silk, the famously orange TV presenter turned maverick politician, become such a big talking point in British politics? It’s not as though he has anything of note to say, or much of a support base to say it to. He joined the cranky UK Independence Party (UKIP) in 2004 and was later voted Member of European Parliament for East Midlands, in an election that most of us (62 per cent) sat out, for an institution that few of us care about. He quit UKIP at the start of 2005, denouncing the party as ‘shameless’ and a ‘joke’, and has since set up his own party – a one-man band called Veritas.

Before all this his claim to fame was that he used to be a Labour MP who was forever clashing with Militant, leaving the party in 1986 to pursue a career in TV. His Kilroy Show on BBC1 – clearly targeted at those who found ITV’s Trisha too intellectually taxing – made him the king of daytime TV, with audience discussions on issues such as paedophilia, asylum seekers, family fallouts, and paedophilia. He was sacked by the BBC in January 2004 after writing a ranting column about Arabs for the Sunday Express (1), and has now gone back into politics.

Yet this failed politician turned failed TV presenter turned, er, failed politician seems to be everywhere. He is, according to one commentator, Britain’s second most recognised political face, behind Blair. BBC 2 broadcast a one-hour documentary about him called Behind the Tan on 5 February and he takes up far more than his fair share of newspaper column inches, even making it on to the front pages in December when an anti-Kilroy protester chucked slurry all over him (‘the shit hits the tan’, went the joke). His supporters talk him up as a ‘force for truth’ in politics; his opponents denounce him as a danger to democracy.

In truth, he’s neither. Kilroy-Silk has risen to this new political position not by any virtue of his own (apart from his ‘concern’ about immigration and Arabs, can you name another of his policies?) but courtesy of commentators who have turned him into the bogeyman of British politics. Lazy liberals have made a punchbag of Kilroy-Silk, pounding him at every opportunity in an attempt to demonstrate their own inherent honesty and goodness. And in the process they’ve provided him with exactly what he craves – a national platform, clicking cameras, and a bit more celebrity for a celebrity well past his sell-by date.

The received wisdom is that Kilroy-Silk is getting ahead in politics because he’s ‘media-savvy’, well-versed in the art of snappy soundbites, smiles to camera and all the rest of it. He’s certainly a man of the media; indeed, he may be the perfect politician for our media age, substituting one-liners for policy documents and press calls for talking to his grassroots support (which doesn’t really exist). But it takes two to press release – one to send it out (in this case Kilroy-Silk’s long-suffering wife Jan) and another to lap it up and splash it all over the papers. So at the launch of the new Kilroy-Silk vehicle Veritas on 2 February, Independent columnist Johann Hari slated the tanned one for playing up to the cameras: ‘He pouts. He shimmers. He bathes in their flashes.’ (2) Yet journalists turned up in droves to watch, record and write about Kilroy-Silk’s latest exercise in public preening; otherwise, media-savvy or not, he’d be pouting in front of a mirror on his lonesome.

It was Behind the Tan, the BBC documentary by dreadlocked filmmaker and Louis Theroux wannabe Emeka Onono, that provided Kilroy-Silk with his greatest opportunity to ‘bathe in the flashes’ of the cameras (though it was sometimes hard to tell whether the film was about Kilroy-Silk or Onono himself). Onono, who used to work on the Kilroy Show, followed his subject around for six (yes, six) months, filming him and his even sadder UKIP colleagues as they pottered around the European Parliament. So for all those viewers who know little and care less about what the TV has-been gets up to these days – and who thought they’d seen the end of him on the box after he was given the bullet by the BBC – Onono brought him back into our living rooms in a primetime slot on a Saturday night. (With a twist of irony and a pinch of politics, of course.)

Some commentators seem to think Kilroy-Silk is the most dangerous politician in Britain. Observer columnist Nick Cohen reckons ‘Kilroy may not be the obscure figure he appears. He may just be a guide to the future’, arguing that ‘across the world media-populists are winning political power’. He points to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as an example, ‘whose influence is based on his near-monopoly of Italian television’ – seeming to overlook the little fact that Kilroy-Silk has lost his only regular TV outlet (which was a piece-of-shit programme anyway, watched by unemployed people and housewives) and has none of the extensive political and business links of a Berlusconi. Still, Cohen warns, ‘Kilroy embodies in extreme form the power and vices of British television, and shows how they can be transferred to politics’ (3).

Others seem more delusional still. At the Veritas launch Johann Hari seemed to observe some unearthly, almost alien powers on Kilroy-Silk’s part: ‘A photographer whispers to me, “Is he still breathing? Look very closely. His chest isn’t moving.” It’s true: I see no movement….’ (4) Watching Kilroy-Silk go from UKIP to Veritas, one political blogger wondered: ‘Is he a Mussolini waiting for the right political flavour to come his way?’ Do what? The closest Kilroy-Silk ever got to Mussolini was in those rows he and other sad UKIP MEPs had with Alessandra Mussolini (the dictator’s granddaughter and herself an MEP) about whether women should work or stay at home and ‘clean behind the fridge’ (5).

But don’t be fooled by the bumbling exterior, warns Nick Cohen; behind the cheesiness there might lurk a modern-day Blackshirt. ‘In the past far-right populists wore uniforms and screamed from radios. That world is dead, in Europe at least. Today a toothy smile and ingratiating manner might just work instead….’ (6)

Are they serious? Kilroy-Silk as a modern Mussolini, or at least a Berlusconi, waiting for his moment to marshal the masses in a fury of right-wing hate? That’s about as likely as someone managing to stay alive without the benefit of breathing. Some liberal commentators are projecting their fears and fantasies on to a man who, in the real world, is little more than a chancer, trying his luck at getting elected in order to stay in the limelight and wind people up. Whatever the anti-Kilroy lobby’s views, most of the people who vote for the likes of Kilroy-Silk – whether while he was a UKIPper in 2004 or for Veritas at this year’s general election – are not diehard racists. Rather, a vote for such small and maverick groups is an expression of frustration with mainstream parties, two fingers to traditional politicians. Indeed, some UKIP voters have since distanced themselves from the party’s line on ethnic minorities, including Kilroy-Silk, who denounced his former colleagues as ‘right-wing fascist nutters’ (7).

Commentators have effectively turned Kilroy-Silk into their own Aunt Sally. In politics it helps to have a hate figure, someone you can have a pop at and denounce as wicked and evil and alien (literally, in this instance) to everything you and other Good People stand for. It’s certainly easier than having a proper debate about what politics should be about and what we might be for as well as against.

In today’s anti-Kilroy frenzy there also lurks a barely concealed contempt for the voting masses. The word that pops up most often in critiques of Kilroy-Silk is ‘populist’ – he’s a ‘media populist’, accuses Nick Cohen; he has an ‘abrasive populist manner’ says one commentator; he’s a ‘dangerous populist’ says another. What they’re really saying is that Kilroy-Silk is trying to appeal to the masses and, dumbasses that the masses are, they might just fall for it and give in to his ‘populist patter’. As one contributor to a web discussion board wrote: ‘There is a disenfranchised proletariat rump whose opinions are informed by this sort of xenophobic, populist crap.’ (8)

From this view, the anti-Kilroy camp is actually doing us all a great service by constantly flagging up (or rather blowing up) the threat he poses: they are protecting us from ourselves and what they consider to be our base, racist instincts, by pointing out how wicked this man is and warning us to keep well away from him. Of course the irony is that middle-class commentators appear far more transfixed by Kilroy-Silk and his apparent powers of persuasion than most working men and women.

Kilroy-Silk slags off the media for not taking him seriously while media commentators slag off Kilroy-Silk for being populist and narcissistic. In fact, both parties are locked in a bizarre embrace: Kilroy-Silk needs the media to follow him around and report his every pout, and some in the media need Kilroy-Silk as a column-filling figure of evil. If this is what passes for political debate today, it’s not surprising that so many are switching off and doing something less boring instead. Again, even the new Trisha programme (on Channel 5…) is more intellectually stimulating than this latest Kilroy show.

(1) See The Kilroy side-show, by Brendan O’Neill

(2) Kilroy crusades for the truth – by ignoring the facts, by Johann Hari, Independent

(3) No truth behind Veritas, Nick Cohen, Observer, 6 February 2005

(4) Kilroy crusades for the truth – by ignoring the facts, by Johann Hari, Independent

(5) Kilroy, the apricot jam in the tapioca party, Guardian, 21 July 2004

(6) No truth behind Veritas, Nick Cohen, Observer, 6 February 2005

(7) ‘Right-wing fascist nutters’ – Kilroy-Silk turns on his former friends in Ukip, Telegraph, 30 January 2005

(8) See, 8 January 2004

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Topics Politics


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