King's Evangelical Divinity School

19 April 2010

Another Princess Diana Moment?

Following Princess Diana's violent death this country underwent a curious metamorphosis, from stoicism, understatedness and that famous British stiff-upper-lip to a mood of mass hysteria and cult worship the likes of which we hadn't seen before. It swept the nation like a tidal wave, growing in intensity, every day witnessing an ever greater outpouring of grief and simultaneous loathing for the rest of the Royal Family. Strikingly, in life the public was far from enthusiastic in its love for Diana, tut-tutting at her odd behavious and a string of extra-marital affairs. But all that changed with her death and elevation to cult status, encapsulated in the new PM Tony Blair's famous epithet "The People's Princess". The people lapped it up, and the rest is history.

What caused this swing in the nation's mindset leading to such a public display of emotion, traditionally anathema to the British? I think Blair's epithet, and indeed his premiership, was symptomatic or causative (you decide) of a sea change in the British mindset, marking the ditching of years of tradition and history at a breathtaking rate, together with the end of deferential attitudes for ever. Whatever your views on whether this was a good or bad thing, into the vacuum swept spin, image, the cult of celebrity, style, Cool Britannia, and all that. Over the years, the result has been the X-Factorisation of Britain, where politics is filtered through a reality-TV mindset and obsession with celebrity. Meanwhile, the British media has adapted to take into account this focus of image over substance and must take responsibility for its own contribution to the Diana hysteria phenomenon and ensuing cult of celebrity and image.

Let's move the clock forward to another example of hysteria sweeping the nation, albeit not as widespread or comparable in terms of human tragedy, but in its unlikelihood no less significant. I'm referring, of course, to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's quite remarkable catapulting into poll opinion orbit, from a distant, insignificant third place just last week, to overall leader in one of today's opinion polls. Not since the Liberal Party (the antecedent of today's Lib Dems) represented one half of the two-party system nearly a century ago has this been the case. So what happened over just a few days to cause this remarkable turnaround, to reverse a century of election results overnight? In short, ninety minutes of televised debate. In the first such debate of political leaders going into a general election, early polling immediately following the debate suggested Nick Clegg came second, then a few minutes later one of the newspapers declared he had just won the debate, and then the media - seeking to spice up a rather dull election (and no doubt sell more papers in the process) - did the rest. Cleggmania was born and opinion polls taken over the weeked have seen the Lib Dems reach dizzying heights.

All this is surely another Diana moment, mass hysteria leading to an opinion reached on the basis of image and sentiment over substance, the adoration of celebrity and a focus on style. I watched the debate and to be brutally honest all three candidates were quite hopeless, driven by projecting an image over substance. Indeed, Clegg was quite vacuous at times, yet his success reflects how the two main parties have totally failed to set out their political stalls successfully to a volatile audience which has decided it likes Mr Clegg on the basis of a nice haircut, suit, well-modulated voice and generally sharper, more youthful image than his two opponents (and no doubt also being ded-up with the other two). Some (mainly Lib Dems, one suspects) will no doubt suggest I'm being a trite condescending towards the great British public. Indeed I am (and far from trite), I believe the British public has fallen hook, line and sinker for image over substance, while hysteria has fed on itself. How else does one explain these levels of support for a party which, for example, is the most Europhile and wants to take us into the Euro (even old Tony at the height of his popularity didn't dare try this one on) from a public which is traditionally Europhobic and strongly against the Euro? We could list various other Lib Dem policies which the British just don't want, explaining why they've been in the third party wilderness for almost a century. We are left, then, with the obvious conclusion that today's opinion polls reflect more a knee-jerk reaction to a brief debate, together with media-induced hysteria which has fed on itself and grown beyond all proportion. If heightened scrutiny of Lib Dem policies over the next couple of weeks leads to a decline in Lib Dem fortunes, we'll know for sure this is the case.

This said - and getting back to where I began - Britain has changed. The public can be whipped up into a hysterical frenzy. Meanwhile, style does take precedence over substance, celebrity over issues, appeal over policy, which is precisely why David Cameron, a former spin doctor, has arguably based much of his election strategy upon himself. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown, who promised to ditch spin when he came to power, went back to it with a vengeance shortly after. In short, this election is a bit like the X-Factor, and all of us have some responsibility for that, whether the main parties for not standing by and setting out honestly their ideological principles, the media for seeking to whip up a frenzy, or the British public for its obsession with celebrity, as expressed in interviews by the media with politically-illiterate members of the public observing how "that Mr Clegg certainly looked the part, though" or some female voters opining how dishy that young Mr Clegg looks. What a way to decide which political masters we are enslaved to for the next five years.

So this focus of style over substance is why I've found this the most boring election ever. But of course, the results of the election will be very real, creating a unique and quite authentic dynamic at Westminster in the days and weeks following May 6 which could change the country for ever, and not necessarily for the better. A pity, then, to vote on the basis of celebrity or because of mass hysteria. Problem is, the politicians haven't given us much choice. Meanwhile, it's a pity the other parties weren't also allowed their moment of fame at the recent televised debate to lay out their stalls. I think, like that nice Mr Clegg, they too would have seized their moment and it would have worried the two main parties. What an election this would then be.


This morning I came across an Archbishop Cranmer post also comparing politics to the X-Factor, though his focus is somewhat different. It can be found here. He also has the knives out for Nick Clegg, comparing Cleggmania to bird flu (remember that?), and more seriously, highlighting the strongly secular nature of Lib Dem education policy which will be of interest to Christian voters.


Stephen Kneale said...

Do you not think there is a case for arguing that, given dismal voter turnout over the last decade, that most people are politically disaffected and/or not politically educated? As such, most people are not inclined to read through manifestos and compare indepth policy documents.

The Lib Dem bounce is best attributed to a sudden awareness of the third party that most had no significant prior knowledge of. Even those inclined to read the politics pages of daily broadsheets (which is certainly not the majority) would find the Lib Dems rarely covered in any detail as our system was clearly purported reported as 2, and not 3, party.

For most, the debates represent new exposure to the Lib Dems for and would account for the sudden surge. Clegg did play the 'I'm a political outsider' card regularly enough for people to think that he represents something new and different despite having been at the heart of politics for years.

Calvin L. Smith said...

I think after this third debate he's overplayed the outsider bit. Rather stale now.