Where once we had politics, reality TV now rules, and one of the architects of Labour’s implosion has chosen to waltz off into the sunset, writes Joyce McMillan
The first week of autumn; and my Twitter feed is full of people talking about GBBO. GBBO is, of course, the Great British Bake-Off, only the latest in the mighty wave of reality television shows that have lately come to dominate what’s left of Britain’s collective national life; and arguably the greatest of them all is Strictly Come Dancing, which involves a genuinely fascinating attempt, by a brilliant team of professional partners, to introduce a range of non-dancer celebrities to the sheer joy and exhilaration of dance.
This week, the full line-up of celebrity competitors was announced for Strictly Come Dancing 2016, which beginstomorrow; and it is a striking list, if only for the sheer obscurity of many of the “celebrities” on it. Of the 15 names, I recognised three and a half; the former shadow chancellor Ed Balls, the veteran actress Lesley Joseph, the singer Will Young – himself a product of television talent show Pop Idol – and the singer and television presenter Louise Redknapp, wife of the more famous former footballer Jamie Redknapp. The rest include two Olympic athletes, one successful model, and one American singer; and the other half are performers or presenters on other UK television shows.
It’s a list, in other words, that tends to confirm what some observers have been saying for years; that the whole idea of celebrity is beginning to devour itself, that entertainment choices are now so varied that people who are huge celebrities to some are completely unknown to others, and that many of those we call celebrities are famous only for being famous. This week, a group of ten UK Olympic cycling medallists, led by the great Chris Boardman, wrote to the Prime Minister with the sensible suggestion that instead of talking vaguely about the inspirational legacy of Britain’s Olympic success, the UK government should actually commit itself to spending 5 per cent of its transport budget on cycling. Yet in a way, this seemed almost like a phenomenon from an earlier age – people actually achieving something, and then using their well-earned fame to campaign for a good cause; while most of our celebrities achieve very little in the first place, and then use their empty glitter-ball of fame only as a self-perpetuating source of income.
And what is doubly worrying about this kind of celebrity culture is the impact it has begun to have on our politics. Exactly why Ed Balls has chosen to take part in Strictly must remain a family secret; perhaps he needs the money, or is – as he suggests – happily embracing his mid-life crisis.
It’s also possible, though, that he has observed that voters in their millions now seem to have taken to voting for politicians not because they agree with them on the issues of the day, but because they are television celebrities, and therefore – in some way – more human, or more likeable, than politicians who actually get on with politics.
The two main leaders of Britain’s victorious Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, have become media celebrities, and hugely influential figures for millions of voters, largely because of their willingness to make fools of themselves in front of watching cameras. And then there is the shocking case of Donald Trump, a hate-mongering blowhard who prides himself on his ignorance of policy, but is nonetheless apparently loved and trusted by millions of Americans, partly because they “know” him as chairman of the US version of the television show The Apprentice.
It’s possible, of course, to overstate the extent to which this blurring of the line between politics and celebrity is new. Ronald Reagan was an actor-president; and Ed Balls isn’t even the first politician to go on Strictly Come Dancing. Now, though, instead of acting as an additional asset to a politician with a clear policy position, it seems that vacuous celebrity of the 21st century kind is fast becoming a substitute for any credible politics at all; a way for politicians to succeed while talking self-contradictory nonsense, or – in Boris Johnson’s case – campaigning for a British exit from the EU that he clearly neither wanted nor expected.
And let’s be clear; even if it were not for the fact that many celebrity politicians express extreme right-wing views that are absolutely inimical to the rights and prospects of ordinary working people, the whole style of celebrity politics is profoundly reactionary in its impact. It depends on the idea of an almost entirely passive and fragmented voting public, slouched on the sofa, rousing itself only to press the odd “like” button, and never engaging for long with the substance of any political debate.
The results, now clearly seen on both sides of the Atlantic, can be disastrous, as people vote for policies which damage their own interests, and which have more to do with the death of real politicsthan with the kind of rebellious impulse these demagogues often claim for themselves.
And the remedy is obvious; voters need to turn off the telly, get out of the house, engage with their own communities, start addressing real problems rather than mythical ones, and consign these reactionary media-made monsters to the obscurity they so richly deserve. Will they do it, though? Not likely, in an age of long hours, flat-lining incomes and chronic exhaustion, when a few hours of well-made reality telly, of an evening, has become the heart of a heartless world.
While we’re watching, though, we should try not to switch off our critical intelligence completely. For all his doubtless touching efforts to get to grips with the foxtrot or the bossa nova, Ed Balls is still, after all, the man who helped wreck the Labour Party by failing to oppose a cruel programme of austerity that even the Tories have now abandoned as pointless and counter-productive; and if we forget truths like these, we’re no longer functioning as citizens, but only as uncritical consumers of whatever pap the powers that be want to feed us, from one evening on the sofa, to the next.