On Thinking Allowed this week, Laurie Taylor’s guest was Sanna Inthorn from the University of East Anglia. She was talking about her research into how young people think about politicians. She found that the young people she spoke to (aged between 16 and 17) said that they trusted celebrities like Eminem because they felt they knew about him and his life; they felt that they knew where he was coming from and that gave meaning and context to the things he had to say. Politicians, however, were seen as patronising and distant – just “rich, shouty men”.
Modern politicians (especially since Blair) have been at pains to seem normal, to carefully manage a touchy-feely image of themselves as – in Blair’s phrase – “a pretty straight sort of guy”. What most of them haven’t been able to do is become celebrities. As Inthorn said on the programme, politicians aren’t on Big Brother. (George Galloway serves as a warning to politicians who try to court just this sort of reality tv celebrity)
When politicians become powerful they have a kind of drab, default celebrity: they are newsworthy. But the celebrity that Inthorn is referring to – the celebrity of pop stars and reality tv detritus – alludes them. But imagine what a politician could get away with if he/she had that kind of celebrity, a more personal relationship with the public. We’ve seen a rehearsal of this in Britain with the popularity of Boris Johnson, but the real model for this type of celebrity politician is Silvio Berlusconi.
There is just as much a danger of some form of Berlusconism being the next phase in British politics as there is a chance for a left resurgence. And it would be worth reminding ourselves the repeated missed opportunities that the left-of-centre in Italy had to do away with Berlusconi, only to see their complacency blow up in their faces when Berlusconi bounced back. A celebrity anti-politics could easily catch the imagination of many disenchanted with politics, including the young. If that happened, any outrage over corruption would easily be absorbed by the illusion of familiarity people feel towards celebrities – a perfect libidinal position from which to complete the disembowelling of the social democratic state.