When the phrase ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ was conjured up by the Sun at the height of the Winter of Discontent in 1979, splashed across the front page and capturing the mood of the moment with characteristic simplicity, the headline was deemed so effective that it was revived for a Conservative Party campaign broadcast during the General Election that May – just in case spring memories of January proved to be short. The initial use of the phrase was in response to what was perceived as Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s cavalier dismissal of the chaos enveloping the country as every public service going appeared to be on strike; it felt to everyone but him as though militant agitators bedded deep within the trade unions were holding the country to ransom, thinking less of their members and fellow working man and more of their own egos and subversive political agenda. The weather was rotten, the people were down and dejected, and the PM was in the Caribbean Paradise of Guadeloupe; he may have been attending a pre-arranged economic summit with other world leaders, but images of Sunny Jim splashing about with bikini-clad photo-bombers whilst the nation shivered in the dark played their part in condemning Labour to 18 years in a less picturesque wilderness.
If the country and its people are going through tough economic times – not to mention experiencing severe privations normally associated with wartime measures – there are always some who imagine they are exempt from restrictions imposed upon the proles. In the case of the luckless Jim Callaghan, he had a legitimate reason for being away and didn’t fly to Guadeloupe to escape the crisis because he thought himself above it; the summit was merely ill-timed from both his and Britain’s point of view. Even the current occupant of Jim’s old abode, for all the justifiable criticism aimed at him, hasn’t broken the ‘we’re all in this together’ mantra in quite the same way; indeed, the fact he himself was struck down by the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic seemed to emphasise the scale of the contemporary crisis and underlined that power, position and social status were no guarantee of immunisation from infection.
Lockdown Britain bears some of the hallmarks of the Winter of Discontent. There’s the same financial struggle for those at the bottom of the pile, the same sense of a country falling apart at the seams, the same crippling burden carried by those not responsible for its making, and the same dismal feeling of no end in sight – even if where we are now often makes the Winter of Discontent feel like a storm in a chipped 70s teacup. However, it’s not so much leading politicians being regarded as parading their exemption from the worst of the restrictions this time round; after all, if the unions were the authors of 1979, the political class have scripted today’s melodrama and are keen to be seen as practitioners of all they preach. Equally, forget the small minority of rule-breaking ‘Covidiots’ who have become the designated Enemies of the State and convenient scapegoats – they’re no better or worse than wartime spivs; the real Covidiots are those whose inflated sense of entitlement gives them carte-blanche to bypass the restrictions the rest of us are being forced to live under – and only a tiny minority have anything to do with politics.
Over the past ten months, we’ve had several Premier League footballers, the odd pop star, numerous nondescript MPs, Dominic Cummings, Kay Burley, Piers Morgan and – a man who is still mystifyingly being wheeled out by the BBC as an ‘expert’ – Neil ‘massage the Staats’ Ferguson all being exposed as abusers of a soul-destroying system we’ve been subjected to for almost a year. Yes, this is an age when the insufferably sanctimonious and chronically patronising Duke and Duchess of Sussex can issue lectures on privilege from multi-bedroom mansions and private jets; but even they have not so catastrophically misjudged the public mood on this one topic as the so-called social media ‘influencers’, that group of bafflingly famous narcissists and ‘bikini bloggers’ whose mind-boggling online following vastly outweighs their contribution to cultural civilisation. Just as I have never personally found anything remotely interesting about the vacuous trailblazers in this inexplicably popular fad, i.e. Kim Kardashian and her Addams Family clan of Warhol rejects, the appeal of bimbos and himbos posing by pools in ghastly Dubai hotels utterly escapes me. And I don’t believe it’s an age thing either; I’d be just as despairing that people boasting such a frightening absence of talent, creativity and something to say had amassed billions of global disciples if I was seventeen.
Okay, so it’s not uncommon that glamorous escapism is the one industry that flourishes when the world takes a turn for the worst. Hollywood practically invented the trend in the Depression-plagued 30s, and think of the gloomy early 80s, when pop music dressed-up and embraced decadent hedonism as everybody was counting down the days till the Bomb dropped. With the apocalypse narrative now rebranded as Climate Change rather than Cold War, perhaps the emergence of the influencers advertising their frivolous fantasy lifestyles was inevitable when the rest of the internet was hardly brimming over with reasons to be cheerful. The new medium of social media was merely reviving what vintage mediums such as the movies and pop had done when they themselves were young, free and single. As with the Hollywood starlets and exotic pop stars of the past, most of the influencers had come from fairly humble backgrounds and had managed to carve careers despite (in their case) having very little to work with. Although some had their big break on what remains of the reality TV circuit, others were bedroom Bardots, pouting their way to stardom and eventually able to charge between £400 and £20,000 to endorse brands, depending on the size of their following. If their school-leaving alternative was a call centre, who can blame them?
Something has changed now, though. The coronavirus and the lockdowns have impacted on the lives of influencer followers in a way that Global Warming never has; and being bombarded with silly selfies of their restriction-breaking idols still prancing about faraway pools and beaches when the average disciple can’t go to school or university or see friends or family or basically do anything that will make their lives worth living appears to have sparked an influencer backlash. Some of the most prominent have lost thousands of followers – which, to them, is like a company or corporation watching their shares tumble; and even the Government has temporarily stopped blaming its inability to bring down Covid fatalities on the general public and is now pointing an accusatory finger at influencers whose latest jaunt to the sun was falsely claimed to be ‘essential work travel’. The Home Secretary this week attacked influencers for ‘showing off in sunny parts of the world’, and it seems the elevation of footballer Marcus Rashford to a socially-responsible celebrity using his fame to promote something other than conspicuous consumption is in danger of rendering the old-school influencer an irrelevance.
Continuous exposure to doom ‘n’ gloom will naturally spark the yearning for escapism again, but perhaps this decade’s unique strain of doom ‘n’ gloom has served to call time on those who have pedalled their own superficial brand of escapism during Instagram’s brief existence. The next generation of social media-users will maybe find new heroes and heroines, for this is such a young medium in the mass-communication game that trends may well echo what pop music used to do when it was still fresh enough to reinvent itself every four or five years. Jim Callaghan eventually came to recognise he had indeed stepped into a crisis when he flew back from Guadeloupe, but only when it was too late to save his premiership. And it may well be too late for the original influencers as well. How will we manage without them?
© The Editor