In the wake of all the expenses' scandal that's been consuming British life, British politicians and the British media for the past few weeks, there seems to be another phenomenon appearing on the political horizon here in the unusually sunny UK: that of the celebrity politician.
Now, the celebrity politician is something with which we, in the United States, are cosily familiar. After all, we've had an actor in the White House; but the Brits are having fits and falling in them about the possibility that people in the show business world might just have more than a passing or fashionable interest in their country's politics.
The Great British Public and its press are reacting to two specific incidences, both of which are pretty trivial in the general scheme of things. The first has been bubbling quietly in the background for a couple of months, and would have normally gone unnoticed, except that daily harbinger of right-wing jingoistic hate, The Daily Mail, picked up on the situation and the characters involved and started a self-appointed campaign.
The Gurkhas are Nepalese soldiers attached to the British Army. (You know them, the Redcoats). Apart from being a crack fighting unit, they represent the last vestige of the British Raj, and for some years, they've actually been based in the garrison town near where I live. The Gurkhas, once they are retired from the Army, are expected to return to their native country and live out their retirement in Nepal; but recently, several have expressed a desire to remain in the UK in retirement, as you do. At the moment, immigration is a bit of a sticky wicket here. Basically, everybody and his brother, along with the wife, the kids and their pet dog, want to come to the UK. Moreso, all of the above have an innate desire to settle in the Southeast, within spitting distance of London, a situation that's fast becoming untenable. The place is teeming.
In this instance, the Government said, 'No.' The Gurkhas simply had to do what they'd always done after retirement: Go home.
Aside from their fighting prowess, these Nepalese soldiers are the most unassuming of souls, and like the good little rajputs the British hoped to train and enlighten, they're normally wont to do as they're told without complaint. But this injustice was brought to the attention of a 'famous British actress', a woman of a certain age and a daughter of the Raj, named Joanna Lumley.
Lumley is a plummy-voiced sexagenarian, famous for being one of the leather-clad ladies bouncing about with Patrick Macnee in one of the later incarnations of The Avengers in the Seventies, who later reincarnated a spoof version of herself as the drunken and slutty Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. Her fabled beauty is of the aristocratic equine type, complete with a wide mouth, sporting an orthodontically-enhanced version of British teeth. She is the sort of woman, who, in another life, one could imagine lording it over the village fete as the Lady of the Manor. One suspects that her politics are of the conservative hue.
Out of memory of her father, who commanded a unit of Gurkhas in the distant days of the Raj, Lumley took their cause for staying in the UK to heart. A seasoned actress, she knew precisely how to play the media, and she gave a virtuoso performance - probably the best of her career. She lobbied, she pleaded, she harangued, she nagged. The Daily Mail, that bastion of Little England who will stop at nothing to decry a Labour government, waved her flag proudly. Even the Fascist BNP, besotted with Lumley, took up her cause and proclaimed, 'The Gurkhas can stay, wogs out!'
In the end, she won. The Government u-turned and now any retired Gurkha who so wants can stay and retire to the UK.
Coming as this did in the midst of the expenses' crisis, various pseudo-pundits and not a few people, started wondering if maybe they might not be better off with someone as empathetic as Lumley representing their own interests as constituents. To paraphrase Michael Caine, not many people commented on that.
But then, another British personality reared her head. When it was revealed that one of the Labour MPs for Luton, Margaret Moran, had siphoned more than GBP 20,000 off the public purse to treat wet rot in a home in Southampton which she maintained with her partner, no less than Esther Rantzen, doyenne of British female television personalities, seriously announced that she was thinking of standing against Moran in the next General Election in Moran's Luton constituency.
Rantzen is roughly (and I mean literally) the British equivalent of Barbara Walters; but where Walters achieved her esteemed position in the American media through her own abilities, Rantzen married into it. She started as a gopher girl forty-odd years ago with the BBC; but she happened to catch the eye of Desmond Carrington, an established, esteemed and considerably older BBC news and current affairs pundit. They married and she never looked back. Rantzen's forte was usually the quirky pastiche show, until a few years back, she established the charity Childline, which targets child abuse and offers children a confidential help line in order to deal with the problems.
Now, in her mid-Sixties and having been widowed a few years back, she's thinking about another career as an MP. I might add as well that Rantzen appears to be on the other side of the fence from Labour as well.
This set alarm bells ringing bigtime amongst the Big Daddies of politics, in particular the older generation of the Labour Party.
It's not as if the Brits are unfamiliar with their own celebrities entering the political world and being successful in that realm. After all, they can boast of a real Oscar-winning actress, the fabled Glenda Jackson, as a standing Member of Parliament and a pretty good one at that. In comparison, we can boast the late George Murphy (whose claim to fame was that he danced with Shirley Temple) in the Senate and Gopher from The Love Boat in Congress.
The British electorate chose Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe as a Member of Parliament. He now sits in the House of Lords. Coe, like our own Jack Kemp or Bill Bradley, was intelligent, articulate and a hard worker, although my Civil Servant husband, who worked with him in the Sports' ministry, identified him as more than a bit of a first-class dick.
And in the mid-Eighties, at the height of Thatcherism, it's rumoured that Pink Floyd's Roger Waters was actually thinking of standing as an MP from one of the posher Home Counties (Pink Floyd is pretty posh, themselves) for the dreaded Conservative Party. I recall the Tories getting pretty orgasmic at the streetsuss kudos Waters may have added to their slimey cause, but in the end, all came to nowt. (On our side of the Pond, we could boast the late Sonny Bono, who tragically died and left his ineffectual Valley Girl widow to carry on his legacy). No comparison, really. In those two instances, the Brits left us standing.
But, funny enough, I can see the established politicos' discomfort at this current turn of events. And whilst some of the lesser media is enthusing over the prospect of reality television really becoming a reality, I can understand other pundits' dismay.
I've nothing against anyone from the world of sports or entertainment seriously entering politics. There's no one on nothing who says it cannot be done. Professional athletes and actors are, themselves, citizens of a country and in a democracy, they should have a voice and the opportunity - if they desire - to serve the electorate. But the operative word here is 'serious'. They have to have more than their established name, which is only the initial attraction. Not only do they have to have a body to fill the suit, they have to have a mind to fill the head. In short, they have to know and understand the people they serve and they have to identify, understand and offer viable suggestions to major problems affecting both their constituents and the country as a whole. They can't be just a pretty face or a famous name. In short, they have to have substance. They have to be believeable. They have to do more than just look the part, they have to be the REAL DEAL.
At the moment, we in the US are waiting impatiently for Senator Al Franken to be allowed to take his rightfully-won seat in the US Senate. Several people had and still have a problem with Franken because he was a comedian. Most of these people having trouble dealing with this happen to be Republican - funny, they had no problem with Fred 'Gopher' Gandy. Franken, to me, is an intelligent man with a wealth of political savvy and a desire to serve his state. He's educated and articulate. He'll be a fine Senator.
Several years ago in my native state of Virginia, when George 'Macaca' Allen was proving to be a shoe-in for the Senate, Virginia dems actually approached native son Warren Beatty with the possibility of opposing Allen. Beatty, allegedly, considered this; but this wasn't some knee-jerk act by Virginia Democrats, looking for someone who could trounce George Allen - well, yes, it was up to a point. I mean, what woman couldn't, wouldn't vote for Warren Beatty? But Beatty had nous. He'd long been an active Democrat and he knew his stuff. Besides, he was a real Virginian, but it all came to nowt. In more recent times, there have been rumours of Ben Affleck considering an eventual political career; Val Kilmer's reportedly thinking about running for the Senate from Arizona, and people have enthused about the possibility of George Clooney contesting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
You know, I'd have absolutely no problem with any of the above. I welcome Al Franken as a part of the democratic process. I can envisage a Senator Affleck of Massachusetts, a Senator Kilmer of Arizona, a Senator Clooney of Kentucky (besides, they'd all add to the Democratic majority in the Senate). I'd even welcome Senator Bill Maher from California, even if it meant foregoing Real Time. All of these men have the knowledge, the talent and the wisdom and empathy to serve the public in the political forum.
But the Brits?
The current lot just don't cut it. To her credit, Lumley actually hasn't said she's even interested in a smidgen of a political career, much less standing as an MP. She reacted to an issue with which she identified on a deeply personal basis. End of. She might have some cursory sympathy for the poor or the indigent and she'll make the requisite celebrity appearance on telethons for children's charities, but that's as far as it goes with her. She has her own life, thank you very much, and politics and all it entails just isn't her cup of Earl Grey tea.
What miffed the politicos and various media pundits was the fact that a high-profile showbusiness personality turned the government on the proverbial dime here and forced them to u-turn. Never mind the fact that this particular unelected Labour government, fronted by Gordon Brown, is weak, ineffectual and fighting for its political life in the face of a revitilised, vibrant (and eternally corrupt) insurgent Tory party. Brown was seen to have wrong-footed it, yet again, and he was craven to Lumley's success. As Barbara Ellen in Sunday's Observer noted, Lumley's success made the British Lion look like a gamboling kitten.
The curmudgeonly walking spitoon of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley, is even more appalled at the prospect of a Rantzen candidacy.
'Who is this woman?' he splutters. 'What are her issues? Where is her experience? What is her platform?'
And there's the rub ... the word experience. You see, save but in a few instances, the Brits like their MPs to be professional politicians, to know precious little else other than the duckings and divings of the smoke-filled room. They like them to be bred from birth for the experience. Fair dos, a legal qualification might be in order, but only in order that the prospective candidate might know a bit about a constitution that has yet to be written. Scores of sitting MPs, yet today, have known nothing but a political career and those that haven't, honed their craft as union factota or in the virtual realm of public relations. At the moment, Labour musclemen from Central Office are trying to 'convince' party members in two constituencies that it would be in their best interests to accept the 18 year-old granddaughter of Labour grandee Tony Benn and the 22 year-old recent university graduate daughter of a major Labour contributor as viable Parliamentary candidates in the election which will be next year.
Remember the hue and cry against a possible appointment of Caroline Kennedy to the New York Senate seat?
But in this instance, Hattersley is right. Rantzen's candidacy has more than a touch of the knee-jerk to it. Apart from the Childline charity and an appearance on Britain's version of Dancing with the Stars a few years back, Rantzen's not had anything to say about anything significant about ... well, anything significant; and people voting for her won't just do so as a protest against the incumbent MP, they'll be voting for the celebrity, the angry woman celebrity who used to appear on the pastich That's Life.
It's the celebrity, stupid; and this country, more than anything I've seen in my visits home to the US, has adopted the cult of celebrity as a religion second only to professional soccer. The nation that dropped the stiff upper-lip persona to bewail the death of a princess who put it about more than just a bit and played the media to the hilt, also stopped and wept for a reality television star who embodied the wilfull ignorance and bigotry of the underclass. Amy Woodhouse's every snort of cocaine is scrutinised. The fact that Kate Moss's knees are beginning to sag is a matter of national concern. People rue the break-up of the marriage of Jordan and Peter Andre.
And politics, Labour in particular, have tapped into the celebrity resevoir in recent years. Tony Blair touted 'Cool Britannia' and opened Number 10 to receptions where the likes of the gratuitously foul-mouthed Gallagher brothers, Page 3 Tit-Queens and any wannabe Beckham rubbed shoulders with the serious movers and shakers of the world. A former leader of the Liberal Democrats revelled in appearances on game and entertainment shows. A disgraced Tory politician, caught in flagrante with his mistress, reinvents himself as a sports commentator. Most recently, no less than 'Call Me Dave' Cameron, replete in designer kitware, snuggled up to Jonathon Ross on the latter's chat show and giggled at Ross's suggestion that the adolescent Cameron masturbated over a poster of Mrs Thatcher at her height (pun intended).
All done in the quest for the ubiquitous kudos of cool.
To be scrupulously fair, the celebrities lapped it up; but politicos have been slavering after celebrity endorsement since Saint Bob Geldof raised people's awareness of the famine in Africa in the Eighties. I've no doubt Geldof wasn't sincere in his interest in this plight. He and his fellow troubadour Midge Ure worked tirelessly in this campaign, and it secured Geldof the first of the pop knighthoods. Ure disappeared from sight after that, but Geldof reappears from time to time, when he's not making fruitless efforts at preventing his daughter from turning into an even shallower British version of Paris Hilton, to pontificate on the current state of world affairs. He's now accompanied by Saint Bono of U2, who - as a social commentator - comes across as a bigger dick than Dick Cheney. Pretentious. Pompous. Courting the occasion and the issue to pump up his fame. Sing with Pavarotti? Bono's there.
And his forte is offering unsolicited advice, if not to the leaders of the Free World, then certainly to the citizens of certain countries as a whole about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which has suddenly become a curiously Irish concept. I cringed when I saw a clip from NBC's pre-Inaugural coverage of the concert on the Mall where U2 were, for some reason, invited to play. As Chris Matthews was in the studio all over Cheryl Crowe like a bad rash, Bono thought to lecture Brian Williams in the concept of liberty and freedom. 'It's your country,' he pontificated smugly, 'but our idea.'
At that particular moment in time, I longed for the gentlemanly Williams to spontaneously combust and be replaced for an instant by a more robust Bill Maher, who could have and would have set Bono straight about Irish notions of liberty and freedom, especially in relation to the Catholic Church.
And then we have those veritable eco-warriors, Mr and Mrs Sting. Mrs Sting, especially, AKA Trudie Styler, who purports to be an actress. Styler ... Esther Rantzen ... Joanna Lumley. They all sport that quintessential elongated equine look, complete with teeth that long to be fitted with a bit ... what IS it about Englishmen and horses? Don't answer.
But I digress ... Trudie Styler.
Ms Styler proclaims to be an eco-warrior. On her husband's name and coattails, they were trying to save the rain forests at one time. She's also a sometime film producer and introduced Madonna to Guy Ritchie, for which, I would imagine, Madonna is eternally grateful. For some reason, known only to some person of power someplace known only to the gods, Sting and Trudie copped an invitation to the recent Correspondents' dinner in Washington, which the President attended as guest of honour.
Mr Sting flew to the event from one of their many homes (this one in New York) via commercial airlines - other New York-based celebrities, it seems, chose to take Amtrak, a journey of 2 hours at least, 4 at the most. Mrs Sting, however, ferried herself and an entourage of 8 other people, including her personal stylist and her life coach, to Washington by means of a private jet.
So much for the environment.
When The Guardian blogger, Marina Hyde, chastised her on this hypocrisy, Mrs Sting responded in an Op-ed, which the paper duly published, rather nastily and more than somewhat petulantly, dissing the 'little people's' opinions of her high and mighty travel arrangements. Mrs Sting, it seems, because she's Mrs Sting and an eco-warrior, is entitled to a bit of private corporate transportation as is her due for services rendered to the environment. Go ... f*cking ... figure.
This is the same woman who hired a private jet to ferry her heavily pregnant cook from her main rock and castle in Wiltshire to one of the couples' two luxury London flats ... to make Mrs Sting a bowl of soup. She later sacked the cook, who sued, and was forced to settle up out of court.
So ... Britain, it would seem, has a particular dearth of would-be celebrity politicians - or rather, those from the world of show business and entertainment, who would make estimable MPs, wouldnt' be caught dead within a fifty-mile radius of Westminster. And that's a pity. But, I suppose there might be a bright side for Britain in having a real celebrity MP - I would imagine Esther Rantzen's worth a few bob. An MP's salary of approximately $75,000 per annum would be a mere appearance fee for her worth. With an immense personal fortune, celebrities wouldn't be so free and easy about dipping their hands in the public purse in order to buy designer toilet brushes or organic horse shit to fertilize their gardens.
At the end of the day, we get the celebrities and the celebrity culture we nurture.