The veteran former MP, ex-cabinet minister and social justice campaigner, Tony Benn, was famous for his frequent appeals to the media to focus on “politics not personalities.” In truth, the two have always been intertwined in the modern era, from Lloyd George and Churchill to Guevara, Obama and beyond.
Even Benn, once a hate figure for the tabloid press, has latterly become a “national treasure”. One columnist recently dubbed him “an icon” – though what he meant by that term wasn’t a stylised depiction that leads us beyond surface appearances towards unrestricted transcendent depths, but something much more routinely emblematic and replicable within the contemporary currency of image.
Not that the newer generation of politicians seem particularly disturbed by the penchant for imitation art. David Cameron’s now famous airbrushed high-street poster seems to have superseded the initial ridicule it garnered, and has since morphed into a virally marketed ‘generate your own poster’ tool on the web. Irony trumps glossy flattery, it seems.
As portrait artist Jonathan Yeo observed, after selling a casual-but-studied picture of the opposition leader for a cool £20,000 recently, Mr Cameron’s visual strength lies in the fact that “he looks absolutely comfortable in his own skin… though I forget quite what his policies are.”
This is a problem Gordon Brown is unlikely to suffer from. Witty, personable and sometimes almost avuncular when freed from the unforgiving gaze of a press camera, the Prime Minister seems to transmogrify into an awkward and uncertain creature of habit in its presence. Then there's the stuff about his behind-the-scenes temper.
Nick Clegg comes across as earnest and preppy – the bright kid at the back of the class whose name you could never quite remember. Alex Salmond, on the other hand, exudes a kind of brutish charm. Interviewing him has been likened to doing five rounds with a stocky thesaurus.
In the old days, politicians thought they could control their images through grand portraiture, much of which still survives in Westminster. Caricaturists and cartoonists had other ideas, of course.
Thankfully none of today’s protagonists are likely to get quite the (literal) dressing down Labour leader Michael Foot endured in 1983. An orator and intellectual quite out of tune with the emerging visual and sound-bite culture, he was cruelly exposed on a Private Eye cover photo as a bedraggled figure wielding a walking stick on Hampstead Heath, while being wrenched sideways by his small scruffy terrier. The speech bubble superimposed on the dog read, “Penny for the Guy!” **
Meanwhile, the 2010 General Election will be another milestone for “image politics”, not least because it will be the first one in Britain to involve a party leaders’ debate, lawyers and injunctions notwithstanding - and they probably won’t.
For reasons as bound up just as much with style as substance, taking on “suave David” will surely be the toughest campaigning task ever faced by “lumpy Gordon”. But the voters might yet see through the spin and face paint to what is really at stake. Think of Nick Griffin with a cuddly bear. It just doesn’t work.
From a theo-political viewpoint, the face of Christ has been lost in the mists of time, but re-created in every place and generation, sometimes in good faith, sometimes out of questionable convenience. What endures most, however, is the image of the cross by which the powers-that-be sought to end his persistent threat to their (our) games.
This clash of logics produced by the ‘society of spectacle’ is well summed up in the old joke about the nightclub bouncer and his dress code. “Hitler? Nice shiny boots. Welcome. Stalin? Lovely coat and medals. Come on in. Jesus? Go away… no sandals.”
NOTE: ** This reference and anecdote was penned before the very sad news of Michael Foot's death, on 3 March 2010. Tributes here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8547195.stm
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted and expanded from his March 2010 Westminster Watch column in the Christian social and cultural comment magazine Third Way. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/