What Kennedy and Galloway tell us about politics now
Their recent antics reveal the shallow (show-) business that political leadership has become.
Two snapshots (or should that now be digi-pix?) of the condition of British politics at the start of 2006: Charles Kennedy’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats, after his dramatic public confession of alcoholism; and George Galloway, the Respect MP, entering the Celebrity Big Brother house and introducing himself as ‘leader of the British anti-war movement’ to the bemused collection of wannabes and weirdoes within.
The Kennedy and Galloway moments may not appear to have much in common. But each reveals something about the empty, shallow (show-) business that politics and political leadership has become.
Take Kennedy. In another moment of history, such an unremarkable character might have been considered a suitable candidate for a local council. Yet in these times he became an important political leader, on the basis of being indulged by the media as an ‘ordinary, decent bloke’ of the sort one might meet enjoying a pint down the pub. Now he has been brought down by that same media, not because of his politics – of which we know little – but because he turned out to be a very ordinary bloke who drank rather too much for his own good.
The wonder is not that Kennedy has had to resign, but that somebody of such slender political credentials could ever have become leader of the UK’s third-largest party in the first place. Kennedy embodied the lowering of public expectations of what political leadership entails. He became known, not for his political beliefs, but for being personable and blokeish, a ‘chat-show Charlie’ who was game for a laugh and up for a ‘sociable’ drink.
But when he wasn’t getting legless, what did Kennedy stand for? In his resignation speech, he talked about the need to preserve Liberal Democrat principles. Many of those listening would have been at a loss to know what he meant.
The one stance for which Kennedy became known was his popular opposition to the Iraq War. And even that was an ill-deserved accolade, since under him the Lib Dems were never opposed in principle to the 2003 invasion – they simply wanted the US and UK forces to wait until their war had the support of the French, Russians and Chinese on the UN Security Council (See Festival of frustration, by Brendan O’Neill).
Indeed, far from winning support for a clear political alternative, Kennedy’s Lib Dems rose to prominence more as the anti-politics party. At last year’s General Election, they won more votes and seats than ever before by becoming the passive receptacle for all sorts of protest and ‘none of the above’ votes from those disenchanted with the system.
In this, Kennedy can be seen as a politician for a time when politics lacks meaning. With no competing visions of the future, political life has been hollowed out. Without any wider sense of purpose in changing society, politics has become an end in itself – the aim of being in power becomes simply to remain in power, rather than to achieve political ends. Being a politician thus becomes another professional career, where one can get on as in other careers through personal characteristics rather than public actions – and can just as readily be brought down by character flaws.
That is why the comparisons some have drawn between Kennedy and past politicians who liked a drink make little sense. Winston Churchill may well have been able to drink Kennedy under the table. It did not disqualify him as wartime prime minister because others recognised Churchill as a political leader of substance. For better or worse he was defined by his attachment to the British Empire, not the bottle. Lacking any such political foundations, Kennedy was easily toppled by his drinking.
The response of other Liberal Democrat politicians to Kennedy’s plight confirms that the crisis of political leadership today is not restricted to any individual. Many of them appeared paralysed by moral cowardice, seemingly unwilling either to back Kennedy publicly or to put forward a political alternative. Some expressed sympathy for Kennedy on the ground that nobody can help being an alcoholic – further evidence of how little our political class expects of itself today.
While Kennedy was resigning live on the BBC and Sky, over on Channel 4 George Galloway was causing further astonishment by entering the Celebrity Big Brother house alongside the likes of disgraced TV personality Michael Barrymore, cross-dressing ex-basketball star Dennis Rodman, and assorted others. In its own way, Galloway’s circus act also offers some insight into the state of politics.
It is certainly true, as others have noted, that Galloway’s bizarre participation in such a ludicrous celebrity gameshow reveals the egocentric worldview of this alleged leader of the radical left. But it also reveals something real about what constitutes an effective public platform now.
Those who complain that Galloway has not bothered to appear in the House of Commons as a Respect MP miss the point. One expression of the demise of traditional politics in the UK is the way that established political institutions, from parliament to the parties, have been reduced to empty shells with no purchase on the public imagination. It is understandable that a chancer such as Galloway should recognise that it is easier to make a noise and win some superficial public recognition on a celebrity game show than in the Commons.
Politics without meaning often appears now as another branch of showbusiness, all about image and celebrity rather than ideas and convictions. As recent revelations about the prime minister’s weekend guests have shown, even Tony Blair feels he can improve his standing by mixing with famous actors and other celebs in his country house, Chequers. By entering Celebrity Big Brother, Galloway is simply trying the same trick in their house.
It was odd to hear Galloway introduce himself to his fellow contestants as the leader of the British anti-war movement. After all, his appearance on the show only confirms that in reality there is no such movement to give him a platform, so he is going on ‘reality’ TV to advertise for one. For all his grassroots pretensions, Galloway has a good eye for today’s celebrity politics. After his starry performance before a US congressional committee last year, he was quick to fly back to the States to appear alongside the likes of Jane Fonda at an anti-war rally, rather than turn out for the little London demo staged by ‘his’ movement on the same day (in the event, Fonda didn’t turn up because she had a hip problem).
That said, many of Galloway’s critics only confirm the lack of meaningful alternatives available. They complain that the MP ought to be looking after the drains and other local problems of his east London constituents rather than gadding about on the box. It seems that the alternative to showbiz-style political posturing is now the small-scale municipal managerialism that passes for ‘real’ politics. Neither seems likely to set the nation alight.
The Kennedy and Galloway episodes are only two examples of a wider crisis of political meaning and leadership across the board. So David Cameron, the bright young thing of the Conservative Party and alleged future of British politics, is really just Charles Kennedy without the drinking problem. Like Kennedy, he has reached the leadership of his party without making a single notable mark on any political issue. For now, Cameron’s appeal for support is based on his image as a decent chap who is not really like other politicians. Sound familiar? The new Tory leader has also been quick to try to establish his celebrity credentials, signing up Saint Bob Geldof to tell him how to save the world.
In the disconnected and discredited political class today, Charles Kennedy is far from the only one who has a problem with his standing and his focus.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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