How British politics turned into Trivial Pursuits
What's really behind the summer headlines about David Cameron, that Italian waitress, Rupert Murdoch and Amy Winehouse?
There is nothing like returning to the UK after a holiday ‘Abroad’ to bring out the surreal side of British political debate this summer.
Those of us stepping off the plane this week were met with headlines about prime minister David Cameron being ‘under pressure’ and ‘damaged goods’. Yet for what was the Tory leader of the Coalition being attacked? Having nothing resembling a Plan A to get UK capitalism out of its state of permanent crisis, perhaps – beyond A for austerity, of course? Or was it for digging a deeper and deeper pointless hole in the Libyan desert, to go with the one in Afghanistan?
Nothing so minor. Cameron has apparently been ‘under pressure’ over the exact number of meals, drinks and meetings he and his ministers have enjoyed with Rupert Murdoch and his executives (though Mrs Cameron has not yet been accused of hosting a girlie sleepover for female Murdoch acolytes, as former Labour premier Gordon Brown’s spouse did). And most importantly, the millionaire prime minister has come ‘under fire’ for going on too many holidays, walking around Europe’s sunspots without socks – and for failing to leave a tip for a (non-)waitress in an Italian café.
Take a step back, with or without socks – or better yet, take several steps to another country – and the supposedly important issues that are so shrilly debated in the UK today can all seem like ephemeral fluff and nonsense. But it is revealing. It is not just that trivia about, say, Cameron and the waitress is being reported instead of ‘real’ politics. It is that this sort of ephemera has become the real stuff of political life.
Ours is an age of politics without principles, when there is nothing resembling a left-right divide or any other meaningful clash of competing visions for society. Politicians without principles cannot be judged on what they stand for, since it is hard to evaluate nothing. Instead political life becomes less about what you believe in or achieve, and more about how you appear, where you are seen and who you consort with.
Personal image and style become all-important. That is why we find ourselves in a bizarre situation where a Tory prime minister can, on a given day, get more stick in the media for refusing to tip an Italian who did not deliver cappuccino to his table than for failing to deliver anything much in the way of a government programme. Or where the opposition can put more effort into demanding the government admit the precise number of its meetings with Murdoch executives, than into demanding it account for the dire numbers being produced by the UK economy. Even when Cameron faces the apparently serious allegation of a ‘failure of judgement’ these days, it is over his dubious choice of press secretary rather than his decision to launch a dangerously pathetic war over Libya.
This focus on the personal and the petty is part of what we might call the celebritisation of politics. Celebrity culture has grown uncontrollably to fill the space where all aspects of our society’s proper public life ought to be. It does not only mean we are deluged with silly celeb gossip. Far more importantly it means that, in the absence of Politics, celebrity culture has colonised serious issues and spheres of influence. So an actress or a rock star can be treated as a UN representative and a serious spokesperson on global crises, while an alleged statesman can be judged by the same who-said-what-about-whom standards as some TV-presenting eye-candy. Either way we lose out, through the degraded state of public debate and the substitution of gossipy guff for grit.
As it happens the same process of the emptying out of politics and the creeping colonisation by celebrity culture helps to explain other aspects of our surreal public debate this summer. Why, for example, is there this sudden obsession with the power of a media mogul such as Rupert Murdoch? Powerful press barons have been a fixture of the Western world for more than a century, and have never been shy of trying to influence governments. (See Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ classic movie based on the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, widely credited as a driving force behind the 1898 war against Spain, ostensibly over Cuba, that launched US imperialism upon the world stage.) If anything, the shaky response of the Murdoch ‘empire’ to the phone-hacking scandal might suggest that such barons are rather less omnipotent today.
What is new is not the power of the press, but the spineless weakness of the political class in places such as the UK and USA. Lacking any solid ideological foundations or base of support, they have become obsessed as never before with their media image. As a result of this aimless thrashing about for a story, even the supposed ‘spinmeisters’ of Tony Blair’s New Labour government were often more spun against than spinning. It is the reduction of political leaders to little more than lightweight PR-dependent celebrities that explains both their preoccupation with and fear of media bosses in recent years. It also helps to explain why they have seized the chance of late to posture and look tough against Murdoch and Co, like puffed-up celebrity judges in some grim television talent show. The reality TV/pantomime aspect of this excuse for politics has been added to by the antics of ‘activists’ who think it is radical to throw a foam pie at Murdoch – about as grown-up as the Phantom Flan Flinger on the legendary Seventies kids’ TV show Tiswas, except with none of his wit.
And just to explain the slightly stretched headline above – the celebritisation of public life that has been evident in political discussion of late also helps to make sense of something like the response to the death of Amy Winehouse. The sudden demise of a 27-year-old star would always be reported as a tragedy, with a lot of talk about the sad waste of talent and useless warnings to young people about the dangers of drink and drugs. But if memory serves me well, the sudden deaths in Britain of past 27-year-old rock stars with drug problems such as Brian Jones (of The Rolling Stones) or Jimi Hendrix did not lead to a discussion involving government ministers about a crisis in the National Health Service and how one death should change a country’s attitude. Yet Winehouse’s death has sparked a debate about a lack of NHS rehab facilities and a supposed priority given to smokers and the obese over alcohol and drug addicts, with the government scrambling to meet the singer’s family and discuss their concerns. Thus does our celebrity statesmen’s hunger for some second-hand stardust risk turning an individual tragedy into a political farce.
Cameron’s dwindling fan club might feel that he has lately been subjected to something of the media treatment Winehouse experienced in life, with the focus being more on his personal problems and foibles than his public talents and achievement. To which others might respond that if the Tory leader had ever had the imagination to produce the political equivalent of her final album, then his critics might have something more substantial to talk about than who he has dinner with and who he does not tip.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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