‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous.’ So wrote Lord Byron in response to the success of his sprawling narrative poem, ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’; this work, which caught the weary, post-Napoleonic Wars mood of the nation upon its publication, turned Byron into a cult hero for the Romantic generation; and though one cannot dispute his inherited title was probably a fast-track launch-pad that lower-born artists of the era were denied, he still had to deliver the goods to maintain his legend. Had he been a lousy poet, his works wouldn’t have survived his mortality in the way they have. And he lived at a time, as did all artists did up until the growth of mass communication in the 20th century, when at least a modicum of genuine talent was required in order to achieve that by-product known as fame. The concept of people ‘famous for being famous’ was limited during Byron’s lifetime to a small handful of social climbers, debauched aristocrats and their rascally hangers-on, most of whom were unknown beyond their elitist, hedonistic circles. It would take at least another hundred years before such fame (or infamy) would become an international currency.
I only really evoke the ‘famous for being famous’ line because it struck me that the viral spread of this pop cultural cancer, in which we have an abundance of celebrities whose careers seem to consist of simply appearing on TV shows with ‘celebrity’ in the title, is not a million miles away in its aims and aspirations from contemporary politics. The wannabe has an inbuilt craving for fame, whether or not they possess a unique and original talent to achieve it, and if they should become famous regardless of an absence of said talent, the instinctive desire to retain fame at all costs is their sole raison d’être thereafter. The desperate clinging-on of has-beens whose need to remain famous – even if it means being reduced to a laughing stock via whatever humiliations they’re prepared to submit to on television – is testament to how pivotal fame is to their very existence. ‘Famous for being famous’ isn’t really that dissimilar to ‘being in power to be in power’, in that we seem today to have governments whose only real reason to get elected is to recline in the trappings of office.
I suppose at one time we must have had ruling administrations peppered with people who were in politics to improve the lives of others. It just feels like such a quaint idea now that it’s hard to remember if that was ever the case. Certainly in more recent years, and especially with this current shower, we are perpetually lumbered with those whose driving force is merely getting power and then keeping it without doing anything to warrant having it. Perhaps the rise of the career politician has played its part. Travelling along a seamless trajectory that begins with a private education, onto university, into the enclosed bubble of the SPAD, and then election to Westminster, the path of the career politician is a relatively recent phenomenon that prevents its practitioners from coming into contact with ‘real people’ from childhood onwards – and even when they’re pressing the flesh on the campaign trail, it’s still an ‘Us and Them’ scenario in which anyone who isn’t a member of the candidate’s team is an ‘other’, living lives plagued with problems as alien to the politician as someone belonging to a primitive tribe along the Amazon.
This gulf between elected and electorate, the kind that simply wasn’t so vast back when the majority of MPs (on both sides of the House) often went through a series of ordinary jobs unrelated to politics before entering Parliament, inevitably leaves the life experience of yer average Parliamentarian restricted to the insular cocoon of politics, with an inability to understand anything on the outside. It’s perhaps no wonder that, when there’s nothing other than the fatuous greasy pole to relate to as a yardstick, the Holy Grail is just power itself rather than power being seen as the facilitator of the policies that can change millions of lives for the better, power as the necessary tool that is required in order to achieve admirable aims. Today, power for many in politics is the ultimate object of desire, and those that grab it have a habit of forgetting it’s only on loan like, say, the FA Cup is to each different team that wins it. The pull of modern-day political power is almost akin to what the crown represented in ye olde days of rival claimants to the throne waging wars to get their hands on it. Sure, there’s the pretence of old-fashioned altruism as laudable plans for improving the nation are trotted out – usually at party conferences or (particularly) when seeking re-election – but the prime intent appears to be staying in power regardless. The idea of a party wanting a second term in office because it still has good work left to do instead of wanting it merely because it enjoys the prestige of power has become a redundant one.
David Cameron to me never appeared to be anything other than someone who simply wanted to be Prime Minister, end-of; that was the extent of his ambition. His utter detachment from (and disregard of) anyone not like himself or those constituting his social circle was reflected in the way he ran the country, dismissing the concerns of people whose concerns he couldn’t comprehend and didn’t remotely care about; his subsequent activities since leaving office shouldn’t therefore come as much of a surprise. And in Boris Johnson we now have an ideologically, morally and spiritually bankrupt Prime Minister who doesn’t even bother to pretend he’s anything other than a vain, arrogant, avaricious liar. Power to him is a means of elevating his public profile, adding to his already-substantial fortune, and giving him the kind of facile kudos that attracts women who will satisfy the carnal cravings of any pug-ugly doughnut if it gains them a backstage pass to power. For someone like Boris, power is a trophy, and you don’t do anything with it for anybody’s benefit other than your own.
Shame is not a factor of this mindset. Maybe it’s part of the qualification for membership of the political class, though, to know no shame. Tory, Labour and Lib Dem MPs are routinely exposed as hypocrites, charlatans and crooks and hardly ever exhibit any sign of genuine regret at their actions other than the trite public apology wheeled out on the rare occasions they pay for those actions with the loss of power. And it’s possible this ‘so what?’ shrug of the shoulders is in part bound up with the sense of entitlement and special status they feel they have compared to the man in the street, factors that seem to spare them from the feelings most would be tormented by if caught out behaving badly. Besides, what is the extent of their punishment, anyway? A few months out of the public eye and then an eventual return to government as though nothing ever happened; mind you, memories are so short now that it works in their favour – even when the current method of ‘liquidation’ targets them.
It’s not so long since cricketer Ollie Robinson had the brakes placed on his international career when, just days into his first test series, he was ‘outed’ for apparently offensive tweets from his adolescence. This week, a recording emerged of an obnoxiously precocious Michael Gove as he expressed opinions not uncommon amongst Young Conservatives in the late 80s/early 90s, using several unflattering words to describe homosexuals, women and foreigners of a dark-skinned persuasion in a series of hilarious turns at the Cambridge Union. Considering the first time I became aware of the goblin was when he co-presented a short-lived satirical talk show with David Baddiel on Channel 4 not long after that, it wasn’t surprising to hear he’d been at it earlier. There have been predictable calls for his Cabinet post as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to be taken away, but as I don’t approve of cancel culture – especially for the exhumation of vintage comments from a distant youth – I personally think he should stay where he is. But he won’t be sacked, anyway; unlike everyone else who has been for those very reasons, he will be spared it because of who he is – a person with power surrounded by other people with power. And he wants to keep it for no other reason than he likes it. That’s apparently what it’s for.
© The Editor