Insights from the UK and beyond
Celebrities fill void of confidence in British politics
Begrimed by the scandal over their petty expense claims, MPs have fallen so low in the public’s esteem as to displace even bankers and journalists from their usual ranking as the dregs of society.
No wonder. The litany of petty claims revealed by a national paper ranges from the comical — charging a parliamentary expense account for viewing pornographic movies — to the frankly injurious, in the case of MPs who hoarded receipts for garden ornaments to beautify their second homes.
Now the major parties are culling their ranks. The Speaker of the House of Commons went, Labour’s Junior Justice Minister fell on his sword, and a top Tory advisor was forced to step down over his second home claims. Both parties promise more sacrifices in this vein.
So, what now? Well, celebrities are what, in a distinctly British twist.
As parliament’s chastened lawmakers have lost the right to wax ethical on any subject, celebrities of all calibre have stepped in to fill the void. Promising cleaner politics and fresh faces, they have the nation’s attention – for now.
Take Esther Rantzen, formerly the host of a popular consumer show and a recent contestant on the reality series, “I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!”
A few days ago she announced a possible run against Labour MP Margaret Moran in Luton South, north of London.
Rantzen told the BBC she was furious that Moran had billed her parliamentary account 22,500 pounds to repair dry rot at her second home in Southampton.
A neighbour of Moran’s there, Rantzen told television viewers that she too struggled with a dry rot problem, and “just couldn’t believe that an MP in her right mind would make that claim.”
Moran, now facing fresh allegations of misusing public funds, has since paid back the sum, but she will soon have to defend her career in front of the Labour party’s executive committee in a round of hearings over the expense crisis.
It’s not just Rantzen. Former BBC correspondent Martin Bell — a white-suited maverick who pulled off his entry into Parliament in 1997 in the midst of another sleaze scandal — signalled this week that he may jump back in the fray. And Lynn Faulds Wood, of consumer show Watchdog, chimed in to say that she “might go for someone who has really milked the system”.
Some analysts have hinted that these examples amount to ill-judged attempts to grab airtime. But to dismiss them as irrelevant in a country where powerful tabloids often set the news agenda would be far too cynical.
Over the past year, as both the economic crisis and the expenses scandal have damaged politicians’ credibility, celebrity voices have taken on more gravitas.
Look at Joanna Lumley and her campaign to obtain settlement rights for Nepalese Gurkhas, a mercenary brigade which has fought for the British Army in many wars.
Just a few weeks ago, the former model and Absolutely Fabulous star was outmatched in her campaign by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who opposed settlement for all Gurkhas on the grounds that it would cost too much.
Fast forward to Thursday afternoon, when we found a subdued Brown sharing tea in the garden of Downing Street with Lumley, for an illustration of a) the power of stars to move public opinion, and b) Labour’s disorientation in these troubled times.
Not only did Brown reverse himself on the Gurkhas, granting eligibility to 15,000 veterans with more than four years of service — he gave in after being defeated in parliament for the first time since he took over from Tony Blair in 2007.
With Labour’s approval rating skimming its all time low, Brown’s surrender brings to bear the party’s desperation to get on the right side of public opinion, regardless of what it would cost them in terms of credibility.
Indeed, Britain’s politicians seem to have wasted that commodity, and it will be some time before the storm has faded from the public’s memory.
Until it does, celebrities may have their way during Question Time.