Monday, January 22, 2007


Hegemony of the Image

Roy Hattersley makes a good point about our current politics when he says we've had enough 'personality politics' in the form of Blair and need some austere 'son of the Manse' treatment from the more substantial Gordon. He illustrates by invoking another pairing, that of the charming Clinton and the boring but thoughtful Gore. Roy is quite right, of course, we need people to rule us who are not playing to the grandstand all the time or telling us what we want to hear in order to get elected. It would be nice to have wise, selfless public men who only want to serve.

The more romantic version of Conservatism used to suggest that this was possible, via the cohorts of the aristocracy. I recall that amusing old Tory, Peregrine Worsthorne, arguing that the Duke of Devonshire(related by marriage to the then prime minister) was preferable as a minister to any alternatives because he had no axe to grind, no constituency to nurse and nothing but undiluted duty as his motivation. Such a view was going out of date before the 19th century had closed though one still occasionally encounters it. Roy's view, however, from one point of view is equally out of date by reason of how the media works in our modern society.

As Hattersley himself observes: It is perception rather than reality that matters when votes are cast. And this brings us up sharply with the nature of our society. The bottom line is that most people are unable to understand politics and consequently wholly uninterested in their fine detail. Brown's relentless incantation of economic facts has passed over the heads of most of the people he aspires to rule. While he may well be 'at least as relaxed and approachable as Tony Blair', he doesn't appear to be, or not yet anyway. The fact is that, while they probably shouldn't, voters respond more positively to someone who engages easily with them and seems to be more like them. Reducing complex matters to down-home simplicities has been the politicians stock in trade ever since democracy was invented. This helps to explain, perhaps, why the clearly less able Bush was able to beat first Gore and then Kerry because voters felt charmed by his folksy style and intimidated by his opponents' command of the issues.

Roy suggests the 'second rate Tony Blair' offered by Cameron will be rejected in favour of a 'first rate- that is to say unvarnished- Gordon Brown'. Of course I hope he's right but something tells me that conned voters are not always immune to the same three card trick and remain vulnerable to the traditional tricks of the politician, amplified and strengthened as they have been by the modern media. At least this time, Gordon will face such a challenge from across the political divide as, to date, there seem no Blair-alikes on the rise within his own party.

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