|Duncan C CC BY-NC-ND|
Since Big Brother UK launched in 2000, British media has been increasingly characterized by reality television and celebrity culture. The expansion of the internet, the impact of Twitter on civic engagement and political debate, and the convergence of mass communication technologies have all contributed to new interactive environments in which relatively unknown individuals can, and do, compete with established public elites for airtime, headlines and digital followers. This trend has been symbolic of wider social, cultural and technological change in the new millennium. Notably, political actors and the cultures in which they operate have responded to these wider changes.
As a number of high profile cases have demonstrated, parliamentarians in the 2000s have gambled with their political reputations and careers by taking to the dance floor on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (including former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe); braving the jungle on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! (as Conservative MP Nadine Dorries did) and spilling all in the diary room on Celebrity Big Brother (remember former Labour and, later, Respect Party MP George Galloway?).
Such cases have attracted scholarly interest in an area of study that has become known as ‘celebrity politics’. Mark Wheeler has brought together many of the diverse strands relating to the phenomenon of celebrity politics in a holistic framework that also places developments in British political culture within wider historic and global contexts. The US has well-established traditions of integrating its political and media cultures. Hollywood has long been a place in which US political debate has been challenged and generated. It has also trained a number of its prominent stars in the art of stagecraft, which, subsequently, unwittingly prepared them to take a turn on the political stage - notably the former Republican Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Republican US President Ronald Reagan. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, it would appear that on both sides of the Atlantic the relationship between celebrity and political progression, and vice versa, is quite significant within the sphere of Anglo-American conservatism. Indeed, this raises the question of why? Especially when the arts and media world is often thought to be, perhaps incorrectly, as the comfortably fitting domain of the left.
It seems there are two key differences between the UK and US cases. Firstly, the phenomenon of celebrity politics in Britain seems to be a much more recent trend. It is almost unthinkable that the relative Tory-stuffiness, which was characteristic of 1980s British politics, could have allowed for a Reagan-like figure, with a background in theatre and/or film, to rise to the leadership of the Conservative Party. That said, Thatcher did herself possess an undeniable star quality and arguably became a global celebrity in her own right. Few British prime ministers have been the focus of Oscar winning cinema.
Secondly, and most significantly, is the directional flow in the relationship between politics and celebrity (or celebrity and politics). In the above cases, the American individuals went from media personalities to prominent politicians. The British cases are inverted in comparison, because their transition was the opposite way around. Glenda Jackson went from being a fairly well known serious-actress to becoming a Labour MP. But, arguably, her national profile gradually dropped while in Parliament. TV actor Adam Ricketts and TV presenter Dr David Bull are both examples of celebrity Tory candidates who never made it to Parliament. Therefore, is politician-to-celebrity a fixed directional trend in British politics? Or, in this age of an increasingly dynamic culture of celebrity politics, will the future hold some surprises? Councillor Williams of Big Brother 2015 certainly hopes so.
While in the Big Brother House, the second-place contestant, who has also worked as a secretary for Craig Williams, the Conservative MP for Cardiff North, became known for his dance moves, namely the ‘slut drop’. Could there be a future-Britain that is so free from snobbish judgement and tabloid meddling that a black-tie wearing and slut-dropping Big Brother contestant might rise to lead the country as a Conservative PM? Rylan Clark, Channel 5’s presenter of Big Brother’s Bit on the Side (BBBOTS), believes so saying that he ‘genuinely’ thinks Councillor Williams will one day hold the keys to Number 10.
Former Big Brother winner Brian Belo described his cameo return to the house this year as being ‘…like living with a prepubescent David Cameron on the warpath.’ In contrast, the British public were quite taken with Councillor Williams, voting him into second place ahead of many other highly charismatic and popular housemates. It could be a while before we witness a Big Brother contestant leading the Conservative Party, because Williams intends to hold a career in law before attempting to enter Parliament. But, for now, it seems interesting to point out that a milestone has been reached in Britain’s cultural development - one in which a 19 year old man from South Wales, with genuine aspirations to hold the highest office of state, feels free enough to openly display his life (and dance moves) to the world through the medium of reality television.
Anthony Ridge-Newman lecturers in Politics, Communication and Democracy in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. He tweets @RidgeNewman.