Like all people who aren’t named Nick Robinson I am not a big fan of politicians. What I dislike more than politicians, however, is politicians who strive to be something else: “characters”. There have always been eccentrics in Parliament as there will be eccentrics in any large group of people. What there is today, however, and what yanks my chain, is people who adopt a pose of eccentricity as a means of furthering their ambitions.
Louis Theroux filmed a programme with Ann Widdecombe about ten years ago in which he explored her simultaneous desire for privacy and hunger for publicity. Ms Widdecombe was at least an interesting and intelligent person, even if her third career in reality television and game shows seems rather ignominious. The Hamiltons were another subject of Theroux’s. Their attempts to film a cookery show being, perhaps, a bleaker moment than any the bespectacled filmmaker would experience in Westboro, Miami and Lagos.
These ambitious politicos were at least oddballs – confined to the margins of the culture they inhabited. The media moll that we are forced to bear in modern times insert themselves onto the grandest stages and into the big debates. In an era of rolling news and trending topics and exhibitionistic deed or statement is, as they have grasped, a far easier route to influence than bright ideas or good professionalism, and accessible platforms in social media and on the television make such goals dismally realisable.
Take the trio of Sally Bercow, Nadine Dorries and Louise Mensch. Simon Kellner argues that they are victims of sexism but while they have faced sexist incidents the opprobrium they have received is largely the result of their being shameless attention-seekers. Bercow participated in Celebrity Big Brother, Dorries joined I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and while Mensch seems to have resisted the temptation to appear on Strictly Come Dancing she annoyed people and elevated herself with peculiar photoshoots and grandstanding proclamations. Their vacuous and self-regarding chatter occupies metres of column inches without ever adding value to our thoughts and conversations.
Such people are plain careerists but others make use of what charisma they have to advance political agendas. As a confident, articulate opponent of the Iraq War George Galloway was bound to get attention and this, in practical terms, was no bad thing. To further his obnoxious third-worldism, however, he has been reliant on all manner of embarrassing stunts: from his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother to his recent endorsement of demagogic former Ken flunkie Lee Jasper in a by-election, which took the form of an R&B soundtrack over which Galloway crooned about police corruption like a Scottish Barry White. I chuckled at him but, still, the last laugh is his as he has managed to sustain a career of crass apologetics and ethnic rabble-rousing on the basis of his populist exhibitionism.
The greatest example of this tendency is, of course, the Mayor of London. Ah, Boris. For someone who contributed to a blog devoted to criticising Johnson I’d find it hard to reallydislike him. His likeability shines from the screen and page. This facet of his charisma, though, is also one of the things that makes him a bit hazardous. The blustering wit and disregard for dignity that elevated him from panel shows to prominence might reflect his character to some extent but it is also amplified to serve his public image. What, ask yourself, makes him a plausible candidate for Prime Minister? It is not his record nor his personal integrity but his talent for making people smile and laugh. This is indeed exceptional but it might not be so welcome as we wrestle with a failing economy and a conflicted world.
One might charge me with thinking that politicians should be conformist and dull. This, however, would be wrong. There is a difference between having character and being a character, and one can be principled, courageous and astute without being an attention-seeker. Think of Dennis Skinner. One can disagree with his opinions, if one wants, but must surely admire the man. He voted against Iraq, Trident and 90 day detention while his leader while his leader was agitating for them. He is among the hardest working of our MPs and claims almost the least in expenses. He is also funny. Somehow, he has managed all of this without making an ass out of himself on social media platforms; appearing on reality shows making party political broadcasts that resemble soundtracks of old porno films.
Politicians are people and people are always going to be amusing, mischievous and self-important. Ultimately, though, if I want jokes I’ll go to a comedian; if I want eccentricity I’ll go to Yorkshire and if I want to pry into someone’s personal life I’ll go to Hell. And, besides, there are generally few more tedious things than someone who strives to promote themselves as interesting.