Political capital out of culture spats?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
24 Nov 2008

The compasses of parliamentarians, especially those closely involved with the mechanism of governance, always end up pointing in two directions. On the one hand, they navigate towards agendas reflecting Westminster’s supervening legislative role. On the other, they orient their bearers to react (along with the rest of us) to unexpected events transmitted in the blinking eye of a 24/7 media.

Often what demands attention is downright sobering, like the credit crunch – which we are now officially allowed to call a recession. Bad news is the basic material of current affairs, while good news looks suspiciously like PR fluff. Unless that good news is the global optimism unleashed by Barack Obama’s dramatic advent, which had politicians of all shades scurrying around seeking bits of reflected glory.

Gordon Brown attempted to take pre-emptive credit by predicting, along with Ladbrokes, “a historic moment” as the US polls opened. David Cameron got his defining sound bite in seconds after the result was declared, telling us that the president-elect was “the first of a fresh, pioneering generation of world leaders.” No prizes for guessing who hopes to join that club soon. The Liberal Democrats sagely noted that Mr Obama is, well, a liberal and a democrat. The Scottish Nationalists even suggested that independence for Scotland was high up his policy agenda.

Okay, I made that one up. But it is true that a Dublin folk singer appeared on YouTube – which MPs plan to colonise like a new planet over the coming months – to announce that “Barack’s as Irish as old JFK.” One can only imagine what will happen if a real Second Advent occurs. Absolutely everyone will claim that their policy stance has been vindicated. Even the National Secular Society, who will tell us that Richard Dawkins doesn’t exist.

All of which should be a reminder that in politics, as in life, the line between the sublime and the ridiculous is very thin, though most of us are nowhere near it most of the time. Except, perhaps, surreal comedian Russell Brand and guerrilla chat-show host Jonathan Ross, who caused public apoplexy with a phone-prank-gone-wrong on BBC Radio 2 – where nice broadcasters used to retire, and where aspirants now leave obscene messages on other people’s answering machines.

Politicians couldn’t wait to join the furore. Jack Straw sanctimoniously told us how much he disliked Mr Ross and his inflated salary. MP’s found any passing journalist to vent their outrage at poor Russell, once researchers had explained to them who he was.

For an awful moment it seemed as if everyone would be signing an Early Day Motion calling for a public execution of the two miscreants outside Parliament. Except this might have highlighted the severe restrictions on the right to assemble within a mile of Westminster that MPs voted through under sections 132-138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005.

Parliamentarians trying to capitalise on strong public emotion may seem like a good idea at the time, but sticking to the boring day job probably pays off in the end.

Meanwhile, life goes on as madly as ever, and the spotlight turns to ex-ITV chief political reporter John Sargeant, whose honourable resignation from the Strictly Come Dancing show - because he wasn't very good and was obstructing the progress of far better dancers - is being interpreted as either an act of betrayal or a tragedy. In reality it's neither. But it makes great copy.

This kind of thing shows how Britain's 'culture wars' can be charmingly domestic, compared to the US ones... though we shouldn't forget the censors and 'ban it' merchants (many of them misguidedly religious) who are also very much on the march. They will fail, I like to think, because they have no real sense of humour and even less of a clue about what's really going on.

Russell Brand, on the other hand, will flourish. Well, I hope so. His is a redemption story - from addiction to rudely human and self-deprecating humour, riotous word play, and the general comedic probing of our fallibility and pomposity from way outside the box. Even a psychedelic box decorated with genitalia.

Oh, how much we need the lightening and levelling perspective brought by the ability to laugh dangerously, and to celebrate the ephemeral rather than always trying to capitalise on it.

Rowan Williams makes the same kind of point in rather more theological tones: “To arrive at the point where the world can be truthfully named in its relation to God involves some grasp of the world as pointless, futureless love”, he says in Grace and Necessity. Though not, last time I checked, on my answerphone.

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This article is adapted and expanded from one appearing in the November 2008 edition of the Christian magazine on society and culture, Third Way. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.com/

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard.

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