How we’ve failed to heed Nikita Khrushchev’s warning about personality cults – Alastair Stewart

Alan Cumming and Nicola Sturgeon at a flash mob meeting in Glasgow in September 2014 (Picture: Robert Perry)Alan Cumming and Nicola Sturgeon at a flash mob meeting in Glasgow in September 2014 (Picture: Robert Perry)
Alan Cumming and Nicola Sturgeon at a flash mob meeting in Glasgow in September 2014 (Picture: Robert Perry)
THe modern obsession with celebrity helped boost the careers of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, but the use of famous people to bolster support for political parties and movements distracts from important debates about policies, writes Alastair Stewart.

Celebrities serve a raft of useful purposes when they endorse causes and campaigns. In some places it’s shameless, but in others, a famous face is critical in making commercial and charitable gains. Amal Clooney encouraging the Duchess of Sussex to take up a Vogue column to promote her philanthropy is a case in point.

Where they’re not so useful is referendums. As the prospect of a second vote on Scottish independence looms and as everyone endures Brexit, it’s worth reflecting on how the involvement of prominent faces diluted the independence debate ahead of 2014 vote.

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When the Yes Campaign launched in 2012, actors Alan Cumming and Brian Cox attended the event alongside a series of high-profile stars. One of the central issues with that was how many endorsing actors lived abroad and or held dual citizenship but were taking such a public stance. Sir Sean Connery lives in the Bahamas, Cumming is based out of Manhatten, and Cox lives in New York.

It is a curious Achilles heel, notably when then First Minister Alex Salmond declared that, “We unite behind a declaration of self-evident truth. The people who live in Scotland are best placed to make the decisions that affect Scotland.”

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Better Together suffered the same issue as a series of prolific celebrity endorsements followed the launch of the campaign. Writers, sportspersons, TV presenters and musicians all stepped up. Campaigns cannot control who supports it, but there’s a thin line between the need to declare support, the appreciation for their declaration and the blatant publicity this will bring to say nothing of accepting high stakes donations.

The question ultimately is why is there a need for it? It nearly always seems geared to grab headlines. Is there an implied level of authority that these figures bring that others lack? Why is it reported on at all? Is the split among actors indicative of their professionalism and reflective of personal life? What use does it have?

Fast forward five years, and the question is unresolved. Everyone has an opinion on Brexit, and the headlines are regularly filled with some star making their verdict known. The only undeclared voice in the land would seem to be the Queen. This is not to deny or diminish the valid views of citizens, whatever their profession, but to ask why there is an obsession with what famous ones think. If nothing else it’s an unhealthy deferment, distracting from the difficult policy choices and boiling it down to ‘what they think’.

The political age we live in accords more rewards to personality than to dry details. Even Nikita Khrushchev warned of the dangers of cults of personality. The consequences of the pseudo-political celebrity have already more than caught up with the country after nearly 20 years of entertaining Boris Johnson as a trifling showman or Donald Trump as property mogul-turned-reality-TV-star.

During the Scottish independence vote, the arguments centred on what Scotland could be, reinforced – by both sides – by who said what. The celebrity obsession, the neverending headline-chasing splashes were a desperate scramble to serve as a public soothsayer. Even the Cassandras get their 15 minutes now.

The curse of referendums is they’re a scramble for fame; to get the job done with little chance to explore the issues in-depth. Ahead of 2014, there was a gaping hole where an appreciation of Scottish history should have been; a chance to educate that was never realised and a missed opportunity to inform on current political hierarchies.

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Instead of deploying expat stars, why did no one illustrate the power of Scottish internationalism with the story of the two million-plus Scots who left behind their native land between the 1820s and the 1930s to make seismic cultural and economic contributions to nations like Australia, the USA, New Zealand and Canada?

The danger, the real threat, with Scottish identity is it must be rooted in the past to understand it. It’s a cliche, but one especially apt for our peculiar cultural amnesia over what we’ve been doing as a country between Acts of Union in 1707 and 1999 and the reopening of the Scottish Parliament.

The British Empire and the cultural association it created, spearheaded by Scottish emigration that reinforced the Union of Scotland and England, was a political co-venture that made a mark on the world. There is no bias in admitting that two unique nations did more together than might have been accomplished separately.

Yet impersonal facts and figures about a Scottish and English empire-building project do not cut the same value as a smiling, famous face telling them the opposite.

In retrospect, it’s clear the celeberity starting gun was fired by New Labour in the 1990s. The culmination of a series of false starts and dress rehearsals, the Labour Party became one of the most formidable PR-machines in recent memory. Designed to win by showcasing support from big names to dazzle the electorate and inspire confidence, it was endorsed by the celebrities of the day – including the younger Brian Cox – with details and policy, by the admission of Tony Blair, given secondary priority to the importance of razzmatazz.

For all the public relations triumphs of the New Labour machine, those years of government produced a legacy of empty promises, unfilled ambitions and a notorious sofa government concentrated on short-term media mitigation over long-term strategy. Despite the masterly spin on the notion of ‘change’, the famous faces hid a disproportionately small policy agenda that promised much but produced little.

Celebrity endorsements are a distraction, and one to be distrusted – like public television debates between leadership candidates; a new fad in the political landscape since the run-up to the 2010 election.

The cult of personality is a cancerous addiction at the heart of British politics that kicks hard policy choices into the long grass. Whether you like someone seems to be the tipping point and is perhaps a central factor behind why the Brexit vote went the way that it did.

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Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige has a three-stage magic trick. The setting of the stage, the performance of the actors, and, in success or failure, the revealing of the truth, ‘the prestige’. Until we see past the performance, we’re doomed to be mesmerised while learning nothing.