JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 23.5.09
IT’S A WONDERFUL PICTURE, featured in various newspapers yesterday morning; and it speaks volumes about the political times we live in. It shows a man and a woman sitting facing one another on period armchairs, in front of an elaborate marble fireplace. She, on the right, is sitting elegantly with her hands clasped over her heart, a smile of slightly incredulous gratitude on her face; he, on the left, is leaning ardently forward in his seat, gazing into her eyes with a look of besotted fascination.
They are, of course, the Prime Minister, and the lovely Miss Joanna Lumley; he has just told her of her victory in the campaign to win UK residence rights for former Gurkha soldiers, and she is miming joy and thanks. In theory, he is the man of power, and she the humble campaigner seeking his favour; in practice, she looks relaxed and in command, while he looks needy, and desperate for approval.
For as the Westminster system totters, ministers are caught with their snouts in the trough, the Tory opposition suffers collateral damage, and the Prime Minister’s chances of pulling Britain swiftly out of recession are swept away in a tide of public exasperation and contempt, figures like Ms Lumley – not professional politicians, but willing to get involved on issues they care about – have emerged as the new political darlings of both media and public. “Joanna Lumley for Prime Minister!”, they cry. And before you can say the words “expenses claim”, the delightful Esther Rantzen is stepping forward to offer herself as a prospective independent candidate for Luton South; and the media are scanning the horizon for a whole army of Jamie Olivers, Bob Geldofs, Gerri Halliwells and Jeremy Clarksons who might be persuaded to replace our discredited chamber of politicians with a rainbow parliament of feisty and glamorous individuals willing to challenge power, and stand up for the little person.
And up to a point, this response to our current political impasse is richly understandable. It is clearly true that there is something rotten in the state of our party-political culture. Short of real grassroots members, frightened of open debate, grotesquely over-centralised, terrified of the media, and notably uninspired in their development of policy, our political parties increasingly seem incapable of nurturing any individuality, creativity, personality or talent in would-be professional politicians, preferring the kind of dead-eyed clones who can be relied upon to stay “on message”. And one consequence of this attitude is the ghastly sexlessness and joylessness of the prevailing atmosphere in most of our political institutions; even our newish Scottish Parliament seems largely inhabited by humourless types in boring clothes who talk like powerpoint presentations. In this context, it would take a heart of stone not to be thrilled by the sight of a stunner like Miss Lumley taking the turgid political process by the throat, and giving it a hearty shake. As one wag put it, when Gordon Brown differed slightly with Ms Lumley over the detail of one of their meetings, “He won’t have a clue what he said, no man of his age would. He’ll just have been thinking, ‘I’m with Purdey’!”
And yet, when the chips are down, only a fool could really imagine that a shift towards celebrity politics represents a solution to our problems. For a start, the warm feelings that we entertain towards media celebrities are largely virtual emotions, dependent not on the reality of the person, but on their image as portrayed in the media – an image which, of course, can be turned on a sixpence within days.
Secondly, celebrity involvement in politics is almost invariably confined to single-issue campaigning, which can be a tough business, but does not even begin to approach the complexity of real political decision-making. The reason why we have political parties in the first place is because a strong view on a single issue is simply not enough to generate good government. We need broad political movements which are prepared to set priorities for the nation: to measure freedom against security, taxation against expenditure, the claims of the poor against those of the wealthy, or the rights of Gurkhas against the rights of all those others across the world whom Britain has used and then betrayed. The idea that these decisions are simple is a lie, the stuff of dangerous authoritarian populism; and the idea that we do not need strong and widely-based political parties, as forums in which such priorities can be debated and presented as coherent programmes to the electorate, is one that remains unproven in any serious democracy.
So what can we learn from the current surge of interest in celebrity politics? Mainly that our burned-out party system is now close to breaking-point, and needs radical renewal. Above all, we need to remind ourselves that politics is not about apologising for the powers that be, and browbeating ordinary people into accepting their unacccountable decisions, but about creatively redistributing power in an endless process of organisation, negotiation, legislation and bargaining; and that the lack of glamour and creativity in current UK politics reflects the extent to which it has abasoned that process of real dynamic power-broking, and allowed itself to become a tepid PR operation for the forces of global capitalism, without pride, poetry, or a single glint of those famous arrows of desire.
Joanna Lumley is not the answer, in other words. But the fierce impact of this gorgeous woman on Westminster, over the last few weeks, should come as a sharp reminder of the energy that formal party politics has lost, in recent decades; and of the deep radical sources of power – sometimes as unpredictable and anarchic as life itself – with which our political process will now have to reconnect, if Britain is to have a strong democratic future, to match its remarkable political past.