Representative democracy turns politicians into celebrities, which results in us asking all the wrong questions both of and about them. Switching to sortition would break the link between decision-making and 'showbiz' culture, argues Daz Pearce.
This coming Friday's episode of Have I Got News for You is somewhat conspicuous in being the first of the current series not to feature an active politician either as host or on the panel. So far Series 52 has seen Ruth Davidson, Tim Farron, Chris Bryant and Tim Loughton making an appearance as panelists after Nick Clegg bravely (or perhaps simply knowing he's leaving parliament) dared to take the host's seat in its first episode. Previous inhabitants of that chair have included Boris Johnson and William Hague, both of whom went on to subsequently become Foreign Secretary. Farron (who has now been on HIGNFY twice) merely followed the late Charles Kennedy and Nigel Farage in being the latest 'current' party leader to put his head on the block.
Far from being solely a bit of fun for a household name no longer in the front line, it's become a way in which politicians of all persuasions and colours have been able to either cultivate, or at least maintain, a public image for the purposes of career advancement – sure, their own performances (the quite brilliant Kennedy excepted) tend to be about as funny as a tropical disease, just as a Select Committee comprising wholly of comedians would not inspire you with total confidence. The 'role' of the active politician on the show seems to have been refined to answering (or refusing to answer) difficult or compromising questions about crises or clashes within their own party, watching potentially 'regrettable' footage of themselves, and letting Merton, Hislop and another mercilessly rip the piss out of them with good humour.
Of course Have I Got News for You is just the most obvious example of a vehicle through which politicians are invited or choose to invade popular culture. Top Gear, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and even This Morning are other high-profile shows on which active parliamentarians have appeared in order to raise their profile, usually with the understanding that a few cheap laughs will be derived by the studio and viewing audience at their expense (less so with This Morning than the other two, at least in the case of intended laughter). It's worth asking how this became possible and why somebody doing what's supposed to be quite a serious job would subject themselves to anything like the embarrassing cross-examination that David Cameron got from Ross a decade ago.
Part of the answer lies in the central theme of my last piece here. As participants in a team sport that is packaged at least partially for viewer consumption, elected politicians are, by definition, both products of and participants in the entertainment industry. If you watch or listen to an election programme through the night (as I'm sure many of you have) it's quite apparent that television and radio broadcasters alike sell any potential uncertainty about the result early in the evening as a reason to stay tuned, à la the 'previously on' scene you see at the start of many drama shows and soap operas. The results of individual seats take on the roll of mini-Oscar awards, with particularly close contests and the removal of high-profile MPs becoming “I was there” moments (by there, I mean lying on the couch at 3am with your eyes half-open).
This is exactly as media outlets would want it and certainly no accident – and one of its many consequences is the conferring of celebrity status upon elected politicians. While it is of course true that some revel in and court such notoriety far more than others, that a significant profile is available to pretty much any MP or MEP who pursues it is beyond dispute.
Jay Leno's observation that “politics is just showbiz for ugly people” has more than a ring of truth to it.
This fusion of elective politics with the world of trash-rags and glossy magazines goes a long way towards explaining the obsession of many with wanting 'characters' in public life. This follows logically if you're viewing the political process essentially as entertainment, but also leads to these 'characters' being venerated and even promoted despite overwhelming evidence of significant (and, logically, career-ending) failings. On the tribal right, Boris has risen to the status of 'national treasure' and, quite incredibly, Foreign Secretary, while maintaining the attention span of a gnat, a sluggish work ethic and the unshakeable penchant Boris has always held for causing upset and offence to people who have done precisely nothing wrong. Calling Liverpool 'the international capital of self-pity' in the week they mourned the death of Ken Bigley was cruel beyond words.
Despite spending most of the last two decades 'living it large' on the 'EU gravy train' he claims to despise so much and despite being a privately educated former stockbroker, Nigel Farage's 'man of the people' image remains as strong and intact as ever, particularly as conventional wisdom appears to have (quite wrongly) credited him with a hefty slice of the kudos for the Brexit, er, victory..? The same cleverly crafted persona has also enabled the multitude of UKIP civil wars that have unfolded over the years to go largely unnoticed, along with the repeated cries of 'egomaniac', 'bully' and 'control freak' emanating from the phone book of former colleagues whose relationship with 'our Nige' became untenable one way or another. Quite incredibly, it even obscures the small matter of two UKIP MEPs being jailed on his watch for crimes of theft or dishonesty.
The shortage of 'characters' within the tribal left in recent times owes much to its sanitisation during the New Labour years. Perhaps the closest they had was John Prescott. 'Prezza', as he was affectionately known, was famous for his incoherent and confusing performances filling in for Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Questions - oh, and punching someone during an election campaign. Blair's reaction...”John is John”. His reputation was actually enhanced by this rather sad incident that would get most of us sacked from our jobs, and Prescott later appeared on Top Gear. Then there are those in the 'RIP Tony Benn' mould (think George Galloway or Dennis Skinner) who are admired by many for 'speaking their mind' and 'saying what they think', regardless of the content of those thoughts. When this is the nicest thing you can say about someone, it's invariably a sign that their ideas, repeatedly shown around the world not to work, are basically insane.
Galloway (who also, lest we forget, famously pretended to be a cat on Celebrity Big Brother) currently hosts a radio programme on TalkSport, or whatever it calls itself these days.
Another unpleasant consequence of 'showbiz for ugly people' is the unhealthy interest shown by tabloid rags (and indeed some who read them) in the personal and in particular the sex lives of elected officials. Over the last two decades we've been 'treated' to sordid scandals involving unlikely love-Gods such as Prescott, David Blunkett and David Mellor (look on the bright side – at least Eric Pickles and Ann Widdecombe spared us). The case of Mellor is particularly of note since: (1) it happened while Tory politicians were lecturing the rest of us about morality and 'family values' in their 'Back to Basics' campaign – which is the sort of reason often cited for press interest (see the recent Keith Vaz case), and (2) does anybody seriously think Antonia de Sancha would have given Mellor a second glance had he not been a cabinet minister?
Talk about power as an aphrodisiac...
It's a very strange contradiction that while the 'characters' amongst elected politicians could probably be forgiven anything up to and including attempted murder, those who are considered 'dull' and 'boring' find themselves under a subtle but very real pressure to present themselves as 'normal' people interested in 'normal' things. I have no idea whether or not David Cameron actually likes the Smiths (although Johnny Marr clearly wishes he didn't) but it's crystal clear that when he said he supported Aston Villa/West Ham/Kaiserslauten/any team that play in claret and blue, he was lying through his teeth. Meanwhile Ed Miliband, his opponent in the 2015 General Election, was quite transparently making up that stuff about being a Leeds United supporter – when asked to name a single current player, just one, he couldn't.
Millions of people don't like football so... why not just tell the truth and admit you're one of them? Although you could of course substitute 'football' with 'religion' and the same question would be equally pertinent.
The other side of this coin manifests itself in episodes like the recent appearance of Lily Allen at the Jungle in Calais to 'apologise on behalf of the nation' (insert your own 'not fair' joke here). This represents something of a, “Not quite sure where to start” moment but I'll do my best. It's fascinating that Lily Allen sincerely thinks she has the right to apologise on behalf of other people without asking them first (she doesn't), or that she's in some sort of public position where that apology might have symbolic meaning to those who have suffered (it doesn't), or that as a result of that apology the life of a single person will improve in a tangible way (it won't). Only in a world where the lines between 'the famous' and serious, complicated social and political issues have become seriously blurred would this happen. It's utter madness.
In amongst all the other dross inflicted upon us during the Brexit campaign, we were frequently told of 'famous people' who had 'come out' for one side or the other, as if this would somehow help the undecided to make a final decision. As a cricket fan I respect Ian Botham's achievements (most notably in the 1981 Ashes) but when I heard the words BEEFY BACKS BREXIT on the radio a couple of weeks before the vote, despair was the only word that came remotely close. Meanwhile, David Beckham was amongst those in the other lobby, not so much batting for Remain as bending it over the wall from 25 yards and hoping the ball dipped in the nick of time. It would be interesting to find out how many out of a sample of 100 voters did so because of 'celebrity endorsements' for either side – I hope and pray the answer is none.
Just as politicians all start pretending to be football fanatics or failed rockstars who 'could have made it' in an alternate lifetime, those who first made names for themselves in the popular arts or sports suddenly have something profound to say about debt, famine, national identity or human rights. To say that every last one has nothing constructive to say and no idea what they are talking about would be wide of the mark, but for every Billy Bragg there's more than one Russell Brand offering little more than shrill, populist white noise (I happen to support some drug legalisation and would like idiots like Brand kept as far away from that argument as possible). When Joey 'the thinking man's thug' Barton is then heard setting the world to rights on Question Time, this blurring of the lines is complete.
Sortition would end the phenomenon of 'celebrity politicians' overnight. No more strange 'cults of personality' based around 'characters' of dubious ability, judgement or work ethic. No more MPs pretending to support a football team or love a trendy/fashionable band when they don't. No more sanctimonious arses sermonising or lecturing the rest of us about 'family values' or morality, offering justification to rags chasing squalid 'tittle tattle' about their and other people's personal lives. It may well be that some of those chosen under sortition take drugs, have extra-martial affairs or behave promiscuously, but grown-up, mature societies leave adults alone, tend to work on the basis of glass houses and stones (i.e., keep your nose out of my business and I'll keep mine well out of yours).
It's the blurring of the lines between 'fame' and 'the process' that clearly prevents this much-needed and overdue 'growing up' from happening.
Anyway, I'm off out to help Jedward rehearse for Question Time – take care.