Darren McGarvey: Michelle Mone just a pawn in TV poverty porn debate

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Last week I learned a humbling lesson: never describe anyone as a “pawn” unless you understand the rules of chess. I made the passing remark about a certain Michelle Mone, in light of her 19-year-old daughter Bethany’s involvement in Channel Four’s latest excursion into poverty porn, Born Famous.

The premise of the show is simple: a millionaire heiress will be parachuted into Glasgow’s East End for seven days, where she will ponder how good she’s got it, by comparing herself to the great-unwashed of Bridgeton. Many on social media were, understandably, quick to pin the blame solely on Michelle Mone, the Ultimo-underwear designing, Tory peer trailblazing UK Government business adviser and crypto-currency expert. Conversely, I viewed her as a useful side-show, regarding her role as cosmetic and quite minor in the grand scheme of things. Describing her as a “pawn” felt inappropriate for a cross-section of people who perceive her as a terribly important high-heid-yin of some sort.

Many waded in, talking up Mone’s power and influence, not only in the business world, but also in the corridors of power which she, apparently, navigates with the Machiavellian cunning of Henry Kissinger. But to me, Mone seems a rather diminished figure, quite unaware of who or what she is, beyond an immediate and pressing need to constantly recast herself as a figure of cultural relevancy. If her career exhibits an enduring theme, it’s self-promotion; Mone is a skillful manager of her own brand. Every opportunity that results from the perception that she is a player in UK life, follows on from the propagation of this central myth.

Of course, I am not arguing that her wealth – estimated at around £50m – is not considerable. Nor am I making the case that people who preside over the nation’s laws are in any way insignificant. My point is simply that Mone’s carefully cultivated image seems constructed to project the power, wealth and privilege to which she aspires – not what she really has. To call her a “pawn” is to use one of the best tools we have at our disposal when it comes to demystifying this power and privilege.

READ MORE: Michelle Mone blasts ‘SNP moron’ MP after criticism of daughter’s reality TV stunt

First, let’s look at her alleged political influence. She sits in the House of Lords, greenlighting legislation that makes life harder for people in poverty and then parades her daughter on camera in the very communities adversely affected by that legislation. She doesn’t do this out of vindictiveness, but out of sheer ineptitude. These irreconcilable positions can only cohere in the mind of someone who has become insulated from reality.

Second, what is the House of Lords? No doubt the second – often politically impotent – chamber of parliament contains some clever people who have committed their lives to specific causes. I also suspect some hereditary peers, despite their palpable poshness, know a thing or two about life and have something to offer political debate. But there’s also a cross-section in there who earned their position by being utterly servile, predictable and compliant; advancing one square at a time, to make it safe for the real power behind the curtain. Unelected politicians who enjoy the prestige, opportunity and lifestyle their official title surely provides but who spend most of their time pretending to have read stuff, before casting a vote based on an educated guess on what their pals think about it. That’s pleb-like behaviour and certainly not a mark of power or even thoughtfulness.

Then there’s Mone’s many millions and her seemingly vast business empire, which is certainly nothing to sneer at. But you must consider her wealth and achievements in the broader context of her own aspiration; Mone desires even more than she already has. You can infer this from how energetically she propels herself into the public eye, like a house-cat proudly presenting a dead bird on a pristine kitchen floor. Perhaps she privately wishes to be part of the super-wealthy billionaire class, for whom £50m represents some spare change to buy a yacht? Her total wealth is equal to the tax-bills of those she would rub noses with if she had a chance.

The super-wealthy don’t need to draw attention to themselves, they live in the shadows. Appearing on reality television is the super-wealthy equivalent of taking your kids to school in your pyjamas, or not pronouncing the ‘t’ in ‘latte’. Which is to say, it will be regarded snobbishly by many people of genuine wealth – if they even hear about it at all.

READ MORE: Michelle Mone’s former lingerie brand Ultimo to cease UK trading

Let’s consider the illusory dimension of her public image. When you are regarded by so many as wealthy, influential and powerful – like she is – great resources must be deployed to nurture and preserve the myth. Much like the ostensible demand for poverty porn from TV audiences – cited as justification for churning out such tacky, socially corrosive garbage – we too create the conditions for people like Mone to become their own justification when we get deeply invested in the fable that they are anything but replaceable. As comedian Stewart Lee once said of young comics called Russell, people of Mone’s mid-level ilk are like the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts; strike one down and another rises in its place.

I imagine that, despite her wealth and profile, she spends a great deal of time fretting that she may be amid a slow decline as far as her star-power is concerned. After all, most people can more easily identify her as a personality rather than the various brands and enterprises with which she is associated. In short, allowing your fame to be used to get your daughter inserted into an exploitative, cheap and nasty TV show, which trivialises the challenging circumstances of those that your personal politics exacerbates, is hardly a power-move. It’s more like the agonal gasp of someone who is running out of ideas as the bills begin to pile up. We’ve all been there.

Calling Mone a pawn is not about explaining away her undeniable wealth and privilege. Nor is it claiming she has no agency where the making of this programme is concerned. It’s simply saying you could take her out and stick in any number of almost-celebrities and – like Mone’s overrated political and cultural impact – it would not make a blind bit of difference in the grand scheme of things. What we ought to be asking ourselves is: what would annoy someone like Michelle Mone more – Joe Public buying into the idea she is a fully paid-up member of the illuminati, or people drawing attention to the fact she appears to be haplessly brass-necking it like the rest of us?