Have you ever played the game where you postulate a hypothetical fight between two famous figures, and then try to work out who wins? You know this sort of thing: what would result if Batman fought Superman, or if a genetically-enhanced grizzly bear piloting an Apache gunship and wielding Excalibur stood between Louise Richardson and a quick buck? (After road testing this one at great length over a tipple in the Whey Pat, there was a general agreement that you should bet on the bear. It’s unlikely to triumph, but if it does, at least it won’t appropriate £50 of your winnings on a flimsy pretext and then send you a grouchy email.)
Following Eddie Izzard’s announcement that he intends to run for MP, MEP or Mayor in 2020, one of these farcical hypotheticals may have a slim chance of becoming reality – one day in the future, we may be treated to the simply sublime spectacle of a mayoral hustings between Eddie Izzard and Boris Johnson. Action transvestite against active twit, the comedian clashing with the comical – such a masterly show of blustering would surely be our generation’s defining political moment.
If you want to abandon reading here and use the time instead to simply let the warm and happy feeling that image invokes tingle you to the tips of your ten tiny toes, then I certainly shan’t blame you. However, as happy-making as such a meeting would be, it does raise some serious questions, as Izzard and Johnson represent the two ways that politics and celebrity can meet: the former is a political celebrity, the latter something of a celebrity politician.
The political celebrity has been around as long as the cult of celebrity itself, probably since the late 18th century when the invention of the steam press allowed newspapers to be printed in unprecedented number. Gossip, scandal and intrigue could be shared, and George Byron became the first modern celeb: he wore curlers at night, suffered from bulimia and conducted secret homosexual affairs. But he was also a political radical, sat in the Lords and campaigned actively.
Since then, the spectacle of celebrities lining up behind candidates at elections or wielding a megaphone at a rally has become common. Last election Labour had J.K Rowling, Bill Bailey, Tony Robinson, Ross Kemp, Patrick Stewart and David Tennant, who appeared in the party political broadcast as Fry and Laurie did in 1993. They also once suggested Margaret Thatcher should be replaced by a coathanger. Jo Brand ran a supporting beer-mat campaign that read “why is David Cameron like my husband after a night on the beer? ‘Cause he ain’ getting in either.”
He did of course, helped by Michael Caine, Simon Cowell, Carol Vordeman and Phil Collins. They might have got a majority if we counted the tween vote, at least if Geri Halliwell was correct when she said, “We Spice-girls are true Thatcherites.” In the yellow corner were Daniel Radcliffe, Colin Firth and Richard Dawkins (Clegg has a history with the New Atheists, before becoming a politician he was Christopher Hitchen’s intern at The Nation). He misses out on Pullman though, who voted Green along with Mark Thomas and Colin Firth.
This can occasionally get undignified, such as the BNP’s sordid attempts to kidnap Churchill, or the article on LabourList entitled, “ten reasons Jesus would vote Labour,” but generally, I don’t think there’s anything particularly damaging about celebrities who express their interest in politics, at least in moderate doses.
Of course, simply voting the way one’s favourite singer votes is not helpful, but by and large the celebrities who are willing to be associated with a cause or party tend to be serious and intelligent people, who may indeed have a role in provoking debate on the issue and getting people to engage with politics for the first time. Voting is also habit-forming, once you’ve done it once you tend to do it again.
The situation changes slightly when the celebrity stops commentating and instead attempts to get themselves elected. There are concerns that public recognition, abundant funding and natural ability to project a public image will triumph over worthier candidates more in touch with the needs of their constituency. However, if one looks at the examples where this has happened, Clement Freud or Louise Mensch, they appear to make politicians of an above average calibre. To abandon profitable careers for politics suggests an honourable motivation, and they are often resilient enough to make principled decisions that professional politicians cannot afford to. And at a local level at least the feedback on performance is tangible, and even the most famous face won’t smile off a poor performance when it comes back to haunt them at the next election.
Whilst relatively palatable here, our American cousins are serving up plenty of the unappetising meals that result when celebrity moves off the political side-plate and becomes the main course. A study was recently done into Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama in the Democratic primaries. Don’t underestimate this woman’s influence- when her book club recommended Anna Karenina, the sales multiplied by a hundred. In political terms, her endorsement translated to an estimated (with 95% confidence after an excruciating process of variable correction) 1,673,183 to 2,719,460 extra Obama votes. This is more than sickeningly sycophantic, it is ultimately undemocratic, but in the UK I believe celebrity influence has remained broadly reasonable.
I don’t think the same can be said for politicians who try to sparkle with the glitter of showbiz. Even at its best this is inevitably cringing: think of Widdecombe on Strictly, Galloway or Bercow on Big Brother, Putin’s naked chest and Blair’s unnecessary revelation to the Mirror that he wears Calvin Klein underpants. (Blair must have had plenty of opportunities to sample pants though – he’d have had to constantly buy them to replace all the ones that caught fire.) At its worst it is a dangerous distraction, the serious business of politics being reported like a soap-opera with squabbles, rumours and personality taking preference to policy. In 2002 in Argentina, they launched a show similar to Pop Idol, where contestants were voted off week by week by an audience vote. There prize was not cash however – it was a nomination to run for their Congress. This is all part of the process of actively trivialising politics, a process that has led to us not only being spoken to like children, but being spoken to by children – Labour lassoing some prepubescent runt to nasally whine his way through a nothing speech at their party conference.
Whilst celebrities can legitimately play on their popularity to point people to politics, this must be combined with a recognition that, Izzard versus Johnson aside, entertaining should end where the governing begins.