It’s tempting for a Brit to look over the Atlantic and smugly conclude that, after 240 years, the American experiment of self government has failed — that this ingenious country could not even find two decent people to run for the White House, and has instead laid on a political freak show that’s best watched from behind the sofa. British politics has its faults, we say, but we’re nowhere near as bad as that.
But who would be bold enough to say that had Andrea Leadsom not dropped out of the race, Tory members would not have voted her in? And looking at the House of Commons, can we really say that it’s functional? We have no opposition to speak of, thanks to the crisis in the Labour party. The main difference between Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders is that Corbyn actually won; both are old school socialists who found new energy (and supporters) through social media and the new era of digital clicktivism. In the US, the Democrats managed to stop this prevailing; the Labour party did not.
And what of Britain’s third most popular political party? Steven Woolfe was last seen running his Ukip leadership bid from a hospital bed after a brawl with an MEP colleague last week. As Nigel Farage said, this is the sort of behaviour you’d expect in a third world country. Even he looked taken aback by how quickly things were unravelling in his party: Farage’s shtick was the pint glass, the cigarette, and the rude joke. Now, on parliamentary premises his would be successors are behaving like louts. Once, such conduct would have ended any serious political career. Today, Woolfe is still favourite to win.
The forces we like to blame for corrupting the race for the White House have long been pervading our politics — and placing an ever greater premium on showbiz. Consider the leaders’ debates: an American import that doesn’t even fit our parliamentary system. Seven leaders took to the podium on television last year — though none of them was the woman now in power. But it’s good entertainment: national debate as performance art. David Cameron revelled in it. One of his favourite stories was about a man in New York who said to him: ‘Are you Cameron? The guy from Prime Minister’s Questions? I love your show!’
There have always been political showmen with their props. Boris Johnson, with his carefully disorganised hair, stands in a proud tradition of politicians who lodge themselves in the public imagination thanks to their image. Anthony Eden had his Homburg hat, Harold Wilson his pipe, Margaret Thatcher her handbag and Kenneth Clarke his Hush Puppies. Theresa May still gives the media a field day with her choice of leopard print, kitten heeled shoes. The dependence on props hasn’t changed, but the nature of the show has. New technology brings new demands; the definition of what’s acceptable is lowered and the pantomime factor intensifies.
The EU referendum campaign, too, was defined by television debates in which politicians competed to deliver the most memorable slapdown. Step forward Amber Rudd, who said Boris Johnson was not the type of man you would feel safe with in a car. An extraordinary accusation, the sort that would fit right into an American slanging match — but this is the trajectory we’re on. If the debate is a race to find a 20 second soundbite to be played on mobile phones, then it’s a race to the bottom, so to speak.
At times, the whole Brexit debate seemed like an attempt to supplant argument with entertainment — via celebrity endorsement. The Queen was appalled to find herself cast as the ultimate celebrity, enlisted by the Brexiteers. The Remain side, meanwhile, seemed so confident of its all star cast that it didn’t worry too much about making a positive case for staying in the EU. Instead, it released its cast list: academics like Stephen Hawking, former spymasters like Sir John Scarlett, and divinities like Keira Knightley. Look, they seemed to say, at the show we have for you!
The financial crash and the migration crisis are two seismic events which created aftershocks that are still shaking western politics. The old order has lost its authority; a new one has not yet emerged. Into this vacuum step freaks and fist shakers, parading before cameras that promise to turn them into stars. Anyone who recalls the political chaos in the days following the Brexit vote will remember how narrowly we escaped. We can still just about afford to laugh and shiver at the spectacle in the US. But there’s plenty to shiver about back at home, too.