It’s now been one year since world leaders descended on Glasgow for what was, undoubtedly, a crucial opportunity for the global community to agree on meaningful action to address climate change. This week, at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, ‘climate compensation’ will be on the agenda for the first time.
Domestically, prime minister Rishi Sunak is facing fresh criticism of his government appointments, this time in relation to Gavin Williamson and the text messages he sent to then chief whip, Wendy Morton.
In the US, President Biden is facing his first electoral test, with election day for the midterms taking place on Tuesday. These elections are notoriously difficult for incumbent presidents. Current predictions suggest that the Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives but the outcome of the election to the Senate is less clear.
And the state of the economy remains ever present, especially after the Bank of England’s stark projections last week. The first estimate of third-quarter GDP is due on Friday and is expected to show a 0.2% contraction quarter on quarter.
Amongst the serious business of the economy and the climate crisis, this morning’s View from the Street reflects on how the modern media environment can allow politicians to go from dealing with big issues like covid to eating a kangaroo’s anatomy in just over a year.
You would have been forgiven for thinking (if he was still on anyone’s mind?) that Matt Hancock lived in quiet relief that his lust-induced downfall, caught on camera in a retro tabloid “gotcha!” trap, was very much today’s chip paper. That was until one decision to join the popular ITV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!” instantly revived a public memory which, whilst not forgotten, had faded into yesteryear. Whatever Mr Hancock’s motivation, his hide is certainly thick enough for politics.
That Hancock presumably considers himself a “celebrity” is intriguing. Politicians are inherently made famous by the public nature of their work, especially if they climb the ministerial ranks. But “celebrity” evokes a particular kind of renown – a glamour, an adoration, a gawdy excess. Whilst those in public life doubtless have their moments in flashing lights, it is in awkward contrast with the more mellow realities of office – the casework, the meetings, the decisions, the general policy management.
The line between governmental and cultural fame has always been blurry (as a former ancient history student, I instinctively think of the acting-obsessed tyrant, Emperor Nero). Political and theatrical actors alike need vision, drive and charisma. Both can have challenging backstories peppered with moments of breakthrough. They are necessarily attentive to appearance, voice and emotional connection. It is essential for success and, in the right doses, makes an actor loved and a leader great.
In the last century, however, the advent of broadcast media has made politicians more recognisable than ever before. And in today’s digital world, social media has embedded the possibility of minor stardom into nearly everybody’s hands. Having a public “profile” and an entourage of followers is only a Twitter account away.
We naturally experience life as the protagonist of our own story but, when the watchful media’s eyes are constantly upon someone, this tendency can lead to a loss of perspective. Couple this with social media’s addictive validation, and political leaders can imbibe the seductive illusion that they are the main character in a sensational plot.
This might make politics exciting, but it dilutes an essential ingredient for party political success: camaraderie. Looking at the intensity of the Conservative Party’s recent chaos, it is difficult to dismiss a sense of fragmentation and the suspicion that power and fame might have gone to some heads. Stability and a willingness to play the long game cannot be restored if too many see themselves as conductor and above second fiddle.
Demonising social media for human flaws is neither valid nor a practical solution to this problem; but perhaps the secret lies in remembering that, for all their benefits, social platforms are a contrived reflection of reality. Followers can never truly “know” someone virtually, and a flurry of “thumbs ups” doesn’t prove that a message has cut through.
In this light, the pleasures of Hollywood-style fame suddenly appear transitory, and the simple but enduring rewards of public service do not seem so antiquated.