Is celebrity trumping gravitas?
The upcoming referendum is novel because it is the first occasion when the people are actually being consulted about that most important of issues: how we elect those who govern us. True, previous referendums have sought popular approval for various (and important) constitutional reforms (devolution in the territorial polities), or on the UK’s continued membership of the then EEC; but not, thus far, on the all-important ‘rules of the game’.
It is interesting – and perhaps depressing too – to look at how the competing campaigns are actually being conducted. The national conversation that we are entitled to expect as citizens of a mature democracy prior to making such a momentous choice is rather more one-sided, altogether more trivialised and top-down than it ought to be, given what is at stake. It is more than a little irritating to political purists to see how far this momentous choice is being dumbed down, at least in the prime-time media.
Perhaps this is inevitable, a sign of the times, celebrity trumping gravitas, with what the supposedly ‘great and the good’ says carrying greater weight than informed debate or sound and reasoned argument. The best that can be said for it is that at least showbiz is getting its own back on those tedious politicos, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to pay Westminster back in familiar currency for allowing Anne Widdecombe and other tiresome patricians for invading their prime-time turf. There is, after all, little to choose between a jejune tango and a vapid George VIth look-a-like stumbling (though admittedly not on this occasion stammering) his way through a not particularly convincing case for electoral reform!
So, the usual array of celebs is being rolled out by both sides. And underlying all of this is the depressing assumption that equates glitzy hype with informed comment. As if celebrity per se counts for something, is a substitute for proper discussion and reliable information.
This is a questionable assumption to say the least. What someone’s ability as an Olympic gold-medallist, an Oscar-winning thespian, or a slick stand-up comic has to do with making a good case for or against FPTP / AV is anyone’s guess. But it seems this is precisely what our political masters do think, or at least those of them running the referendum campaigns; that somehow the cult of celebrity counts for more than reasoned debate. Maybe the next stage in this dumbing down of politics is to recruit Bruce Forsyth to deliver the next budget…..now come to think of it…!
There is of course nothing new in this. The ancient forerunners of today’s ‘princes’ used to anaesthetise the masses with a mix of bread and circuses. The Romans honed the art of politics as bribery and deception the princes of Christendom went in for showy coronations, and latterly spurious claims to divinity. Even the ‘democratic age’ has indulged in occasional wars or opulent spectaculars (Royal weddings for instance) to distract, or otherwise deflect the attention of ‘the masses’ from actually thinking about ‘issues’.
But surely citizens of a mature democracy deserve something rather better than the present glib referendum circus? Of course, you can find more serious discussion if you actively seek it, from the frenetic blogosphere to late night spots on the less frequented channels. But this is not mainstream coverage.
Those for whom politics is just about one of the most serious human endeavours might have hoped for rather better from our politicians (and from the court jesters of the media who act as their chiders and cheerleaders) than this trivialised celebrity-fest. Is it too much to expect by now that they would exhibit just a tad more respect for, rather less contempt for the general intelligence? Apparently not!
So we can expect more of the same between now and referendum day. And this perhaps tells us as much about the state of our democratic culture as any learned treatise on ‘deliberative democracy’ or the socio-psychological dynamics of political motivation. If anything in this tiresome display makes the case for doing all we can to facilitate greater political engagement in our society, to widen what should by now be a meaningful ongoing national conversation about how we are governed, then all is not lost. This rather patronising and top-down referendum campaign might at least spur us on to better things in future. But, dear reader, don’t hold your breath!
Dr Michael O’Neill
Nottingham Trent University
To contact Dr O’Neill please call 0115 848 8785 or email firstname.lastname@example.org