l'm an MP, get me into the red-tops

August 11, 2006

From entertainer-with-a-cause to politician-turned-media star, the worlds of politics and celebrity are merging, writes Ellis Cashmore.

So you want to be a politician, eh? Let's see: what qualifications do you have? Six global sell-out tours, 25 million CD sales and an appearance at Live8. Sounds terrific, but I'm not sure it counts for much politically. Yes, I know you've met the Prime Minister and the US President. Oh, you've met her too. I didn't know that. What do you mean, you're more popular than all of them? Politics isn't a popularity show, you know. There's much more to politics: you have to have commitment, idealism and integrity; then you need energy, drive and the motivation to put your ideas into practice. What? I don't care what Michael Moore says. Yes, yes, yes: I know you need to get onto TV too, but I doubt if that bedroom scene video you uploaded onto the internet did your credibility much good, even if you did include a postcoital appeal to erase Third World debt. Ugh? No, I don't believe there is a vacancy at the World Bank. Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to spend your free time on PlayStation2, or writing a fourth autobiography? No? OK, let me make a few calls and I'll see what I can do about finding you a party. Ever heard of Veritas?

Celebrities are prone to epiphanies. One minute they're singing and dancing, the next they're pledging to save the planet. We've become accustomed to the occasional agit-rocker who proudly drives a Prius to offset the 80 tons of CO2 emitted by his private jet during a 32,000km world tour. Or movie stars who morph into advocates of just causes - usually around Oscar time. But nowadays it seems every celeb must have a slogan or two at the ready.

What complicates matters is the number of politicians who seem to be borne into public life on the cachet that comes of appearing in quiz, chat or reality television shows. What they lack in principles, depth or originality of thought seems painlessly compensated for by a superabundance of bromides and a passable impersonation of Dale Winton minus the attitude.

It seems, actually it was, only a few years ago when politicians had no idea how to turn their records into rhetoric or impose their narrative on events: they had to use what now sounds like a wheeze - moral authority.

Public disillusionment that would once have been dangerous is now placated with funny lines, convincing performances and conscience-soothing buzzwords that atomise like those sprays with which cosmetics sales assistants assault you (remember "respect"?).

In a properly run world, celebrities would entertain us and politicians would govern us. In today's world there's a different protocol, one that has melted such divisions of labour. It didn't seem to matter much back in 1992 when Glenda Jackson gave up her glittering day job as an actor to become humdrum Labour MP for Hampstead and Sebastian Coe made a less mercurial Tory politician for Falmouth and Camborne than he did an athlete.

In neither case did their dullness in politics disappoint: we sort of accept that they'll never excite as much as they did in their former lives.

Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger can do that, although he does have a happy knack of making stubbornly compound issues seem simple.

Politicians have sensed the benefits of celebrity culture. Witness the cantankerous Respect MP George Galloway's foray into Celebrity Big Brother .

Or Boris Johnson, the Tory member for Henley-on-Thames, who capitalised on the likeable buffoon image he cultivated on Have I Got News for You . Prior to their TV ventures, both were nondescript; they are now luminaries. The elliptical path is more troublesome, though, as one-time politician Robert Kilroy-Silk discovered when his attempted re-entry went off course.

Perhaps he needs to get involved in a sex scandal. Every year our red-tops expose the cocaine-fuelled three-in-a-bed sex romps of yet another politician, attracting huge amounts of press attention, giving them the sort of high public profile that most celebs crave.

One wonders how John Major's status might have been affected if revelations about his liaison with Edwina Currie - herself a politician-turned-celebrity - had broken during his tenure as Prime Minister rather than some time after. A scandalous celeb-style affaire de coeur might have been just the thing to add zest to his drab public image.

Should it matter if politicians either attract or seek attention from the media? After all, we commission the type of empowerment offered by the media just by being fascinated.

The answer depends on whether you think too much attention-seeking is fraudulent. If, like me, you think politics is a decaying theatre with leaky ceilings and rotting floorboards, then more spotlights might illuminate the corruption and dishonesty that have for a long time been concealed or occluded. Celebrity culture, at least, brings such features into our scope.

Ellis Cashmore is professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University. His book Celebrity/Culture is published this week by Routledge, £19.99.

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