We live in a world defined by opposites. For every right there exists a wrong. For every good, an evil. For every rational argument, you can guarantee a corresponding conspiracy theory, and for every fresh OJ drinker, a maniacally inclined, ‘from-concentrate’ convert. We used to be able to add to these ranks another pairing, blatantly incompatible and seldom to be confused: that between politician — sober, erudite and principled — and the media celebrity. Yet, against all odds, these disparate categories seem to have forged a strange sort of union. Like the on-screen enigma of Ross and Rachel, politicians and celebrities seem to be all but inexplicably attracted to one another — only this time, I’m the one who needs a break.
The origins of the ‘celebrity politician’ are unclear. It’s tempting to blame social media, but anyone who has braved more than a cursory glance @elizabeth.truss.mp would surely beg to differ; unlike the Kardashians, I don’t think she’s in danger of creating any cultural shockwaves. In fact, I hate to say it, but I reckon Richard Curtis needs to shoulder at least some of the blame, here. After all, you can’t cast Hugh Grant as butt-jiggling, national-hero Mr. Prime Minister and not expect the tender egos of Downing Street to develop grand ideas. Whatever the cause, the catastrophic outcome couldn’t be clearer: between Boris Johnson’s zip-wiring farce, guest appearances in the Strictly Ed Balls — sorry, Ballroom, to Matt Hancock’s latest stint in the Jungle, politicians are increasingly fashioning themselves as modern celebrities. To be fair, they seem to be having a fair degree of success; tickets to the inaugural Lockdown Garden Party were as hotly contested as the 2022 Met Gala, or so I’ve heard.
At the same time, and with equal fervour, the good old-fashioned celebrity has undergone a bizarre transformation. Gone are the tabloid pages professing nights of drunken debauchery and drug-induced delirium. The noughties clung to the legacy of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but the celebs of 2023 are more likely to be downing detox juice or protein shakes than cocktails. It seems the images of Michael Gove ‘sending it’ in Aberdeen’s nightclubs have finally tipped them over the edge; we are entering a new age of the ‘celibate’ celebrity.
Correspondingly, and perhaps correlatively, we are holding these figures to ever-stricter standards of behaviour. The otherworldly existence of Posh and Becks was a welcome point of reverie in the nineties yet, skip to 2022, and David Beckham was brought straight back to earth by his morally questionable involvement in the Qatar World Cup. That dazzling smile might have been enough to charm a previous generation but, these days, those pearly whites are simply an unwelcome symbol of inauthenticity. More broadly speaking, it seems we expect all ‘influencers’, be they sportsmen, musicians, actors or comedians, to exert their ‘influence’ responsibly. Launching campaigns on vaccines to veganism, and widely-criticised for staying silent, celebrities, I would argue, have been politicised.
Perhaps this is no bad thing; certainly, it’s the favourable half of the equation. Celebrities seem to be remarkably adept at dipping their toes into our muddied political waters, after all. Take Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign for free school meals: his triumph, which secured £120 million of government investment, was a remarkable political feat, even if you’re judging it by ‘professional’ standards.
Nonetheless, the phenomenon points to a concerning political reality in the UK. Footballers should be looked to for entertainment and escapism — a necessary imaginative outlet for those less talented. Certainly, they shouldn’t command more respect than our political leaders.
Politicians, on the other hand, need to get serious — as do our expectations of them. Yes, we’ve all rallied around the various evils of political perjuries, scandalous affairs and notorious ‘Tory sleaze’. Yet, inexplicably, we continue to value performative, media savvy political candidates above all else. Across the ideological spectrum, the likes of Theresa May and Keir Starmer are denounced as ‘boring’, uninspiring or lacking personality — insults that prove reputationally damaging. Yet this isn’t Big Brother; first and foremost, candidates should be judged on their policies over their on-screen charisma.
So, I suppose I’m all for celebrities getting involved in politics if they want to. I’ll even concede that, while our tabloid headlines may have suffered, it’s surely a sign of progress that celebrities are upholding higher standards of morality. One thing that I cannot endorse, however, is the media dominance of the ‘political celebrity’. Our political landscape — entangled in a web of crises and plagued by boorish behaviour — is increasingly resembling a jungle. If we are to make genuine progress, politicians who foster celebrity ambitions need to get out of here.
Illustration: Otto Heffer