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Party politics: it’s only rock’n’roll

Expect the British general election to be more like a readers' poll for the New Musical Express than a political contest.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Politics

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Imagine that a fairy godmother turned New Labour ministers into pop stars. Who would they be?

Tony Blair already looks like Blur’s Damon Albarn; the disgraced former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson would make a good Morrissey. Mo Mowlam might morph into Sinead O’Connor (both growing their hair). John Prescott becomes Noel Gallagher, Stephen Twigg as ‘electric elf’ Marc Bolan. Robin Cook could only be Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull….

But today’s politicians do not need a magic wand to turn them into creatures of the pop world. They are already living in it. Politics imitates pop; or, as the late John F Kennedy Jr observed in the debut issue of Washington’s George magazine, ‘politics has migrated into the realm of popular culture’ (1). It’s not just that Bill Clinton honked a saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show, while in 1997 Blair issued pictures of himself fondling a Fender Stratocaster and declared that ‘I am from the rock’n’roll generation’. These episodes indicate an affinity between pop and politicians. But the popification of politics has gone much further than that. Today, the stuff of politics has been superseded by pop style.

For two centuries politics was associated with rational-purposive action. Politicians sought to develop coherent programmes derived from a more-or-less consistent body of ideas. They were judged to be effective or ineffective according to their record of delivering, or failing to deliver, what they promised. Politics was a public affair, and the public paid relatively little attention to the personal lives and private feelings of politicians.

Nowadays the private lives of politicians are central to their public persona (Blair’s baby, Al Gore’s kiss, William Hague’s stomach for beer). We are invited to empathise with Blair because he displayed his feelings after the death of Princess Diana (2). As emotionalism is in the ascendant, so rational-purposive action is looked down upon. Deriving policy from a consistent outlook is derided as ‘ideological’. New Labour veers from managerialism to the missionary position and congratulates itself on avoiding ‘doctrine’. Lacking any worked-out set of political beliefs which might spontaneously hold their machine together, its upper echelons are, of course, more doctrinaire than any of their predecessors.

But today’s politicians are not in the same line of business as their predecessors. The trade they ply today is showbusiness. Whereas yesterday’s politicians were primarily concerned with being effective (getting things done), today’s troupe are preoccupied with affect. Seeking to involve their audience in an inclusive experience (like a rock gig), politicians are now performers to be judged by the extent to which the electorate identifies with them personally (as record buyers do with the artists whose work they choose to purchase).

Look at how Blair stands in relation to traditional definitions of political rhetoric. Since the days of Aristotle nearly 2500 years ago, rhetoric has been divided into ethos (personal credibility of the speaker), pathos (mood music), and logos (the speaker’s argument). Yet who can remember an argument made by Blair or a proof furnished by him? While the element of logos in his utterances is forgettable, his most memorable statements have depended on a combination of ethos and pathos – to the exclusion of logos. Thus, in his televised comments shortly after the death of Princess Diana, Blair set the ‘mood music’ for public mourning (pathos) and promoted himself as the appropriate person to lead it (ethos), thereby taking presidential-style precedence over the Queen. It is arguable that this was the point where he ceased to be a politician in the traditional sense. In the defining moment of his first term of office, Blair substituted a diptych (ethos and pathos) in place of the customary triptych (ethos, pathos and logos) and placed himself in the cultural sphere alongside others whose function is traditionally logos-lite: for example, priests, film stars and, latterly, pop performers.

In the 1970s, film critic Richard Dyer distinguished between the power elite and ‘the powerless elite’ of Hollywood stars. Drawing on the work of other commentators, he promulgated a division of labour between instrumental/effective agents and expressive/non-effective performers, concluding that ‘only minor stars have become politicians’ and that ‘a star cannot become a crucial decision-maker (and remain a star)’. He may have been right, back then: Ronald Reagan only became a politician after he stopped being a film actor. But Blair is simultaneously prime minister and a performer – a celebrity (primary) who happens to be a politician (secondary).

To say that this is a novel state of affairs is not to overlook the element of theatricality that has always been a part of politics, nor to ignore the musicality in the speeches of some older politicians. That would be to deny the existence of ethos and pathos in political rhetoric. What is new is the change in the weighting between the three elements, with logos losing out heavily to the other two. As a consequence, affect and musicality are almost the only results of Blair’s speeches, rather than being, as previously, accessories to a line of argument.

In this context, is it right to complain, as Jonathan Meades has done, that Blair is ‘serially oxymoronic’? (3) Consistency can no more be expected of today’s politicians than of pop stars. Do we expect their lyrics to be coherent? No, because pop is concerned with expression and affirmation rather than explanation and purposive action. It is mythic and ritualistic rather than rational and instrumental. So, too, is today’s politics.

If politics really belongs on the pop pages, why does anybody carry on with the charade of a separate political sphere? The difficulty is that while the popification of politics began because the political sphere was turning into a ghost town, admitting that politics is now primarily performance would undermine it even more. After all, who needs a Blair speech or a Hague party political broadcast when the work of much better performers is on sale at your local music store?

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA); and White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also coauthor of Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Prion Books, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) See George magazine, October/November 1995

(2) See Televictims: Emotional Correctness in the Media AD (After Diana) by Mick Hume, and Beat: The Iconography of Victimhood from the Beat Generation to Princess Diana by Andrew Calcutt (Sheffield Hallam University Press, 1998)

(3) Jonathan Meades in the Observer, 5 October 1997

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Topics Politics

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