The politics of personality

26 Oct 2012

‘The personal is the political’ may have been a feminist cry for women’s equality, but it neatly reflects a message politicians dismiss at their peril, as recent events have proved.  By ‘personal’, I don’t just mean whether a politician has a forceful nature and a strong stomach to see through unpopular policies, but whether the politician has that increasingly all-important ‘X Factor’. Perhaps there is no rhyme or reason to who has ‘it’ and who hasn’t.  But what is ‘it’? They could be in the right place at the right time, someone who stands out from the political crowd, who is seen as a ‘do-er’ and has the power of conviction. Often they are people who greatly divide opinion  - Churchill, Thatcher, Blair. And today, more than ever, those who seek the top job must have the ‘likeability’ factor. 

 

The media have crafted the ‘toffs’ label to perfection, the public soaking up this sweeping stereotype, an inverted snobbery which the British do so well.  Certain newspapers (remaining nameless here) which have previously supported such ‘toffs’, even been run by them in the past, have suddenly turned their noses up at a class which has dominated British politics for centuries.  Although it is hard to believe they would survive if transported directly into today’s visceral media age, Lord Tebbit points out in the Observer:“Past governments have had far more real Tory toffs...Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Macmillan...Whitelaw, Soames, Hailsham, Carrington, Gowrie, Joseph, Avon, Trenchard and plenty more, without incurring similar abuse”. Unlike Lord Tebbit, however, I do not believe previous governments were any more or less competent than the Coalition, but the difference today is that policy is now intrinsically tied to personal distrust and a level of personal misunderstanding. 

The politicians don’t help themselves, of course, the Mitchell affair playing neatly into the hands of those who have needed any excuse to point the finger and shriek hysterically that he embodies everything the Government stands for. George Osborne declaring that ‘we’re all in this together’ simply highlights that we’re not, inadvertently encouraging the focus on politicians’ backgrounds rather than the policies designed to get the economy back on track.  It is theperception which matters, which lingers in the public consciousness. The truth is often irrelevant.

But not all politicians are unable to carry off the ‘toff’ image without it becoming a peculiar sort of advantage. Boris Johnson is a case in point. Whether it would be a different matter if he were to become Tory Leader, or even Prime Minister, it is difficult to know, although I suspect people could quickly become jaded with ‘Boris will be Boris’ both at home and abroad.  But what is interesting is his ability to craft a personality – whether you believe it to be his true character or not – which has become an integral part of what his politics is all about. ‘Boris Bikes’ bear his personality as much as the politics which created them, while more often than not policy clashes with David Cameron are talked about in the personal rather than political context.

Tony Blair was, of course, as equally ‘toff-like’ as members of the current government, but that was hardly to his disadvantage in the Labour Party.  The ‘old guard’ was swept aside to make way for like-minded individuals more interested in branding than class war. Hypocritical maybe, but, like Boris, Blair was the embodiment of his politics (although, of course, Boris has yet to create a whole new ideological outlook for the Conservative Party). Blair was the New Labour brand, the New Labour brand was Blair. While Cameron is becoming the quintessence of his own policies but without the benefits, the ‘Boris Brand’ is seemingly a vote winner based on the personality he has carved out for himself, although whether it would work in practice on a national level, or indeed be as popular in the North, remains to be seen. 

If we widen the scope to countries such as America and Australia, the personal nature of British politics actually looks pretty tame. The US election is, as always, just as much about personality as policy, if not more so. Australian politics can be a nasty business, as recent political battles have proved. Kevin Rudd’s removal as Prime Minister, and his subsequent challenge to Julia Gillard in February, was by far some of the most vicious personal politics I can recall and made for fascinating viewing. Why was he removed as Prime Minister? Political motivations over the contentious mining tax were obvious, but the root of it was personal. Despite Rudd’s popularity in the country and within Labor’s party membership, plenty of his colleagues disliked, even loathed him. That, his critics argue, is Rudd’s biggest weakness: Rudd himself. His supporters (and they are a determined bunch) vehemently argue the reverse, and he is now a martyr-like cult figure in Australian politics. His colleagues may well live to regret Gillard’s coup - one party’s ‘personality clash’ can mean another’s win, as Tony Abbott and the Coalition head towards a probable general election victory next year.


Personal image is scrutinised more than ever in an age where 24 hour media dominates. Gordon Brown’s personality flaws were as much a casualty of the 2010 general election as the battered, debt-ridden government he represented.  It didn’t matter what he promised; he was seen as unlikable and unable to market himself successfully, making him unelectable. Equally, Ed Miliband’s poor personal ratings should be rammed home by the Conservatives from now until 2015.

A lethal mix of greater exposure of politicians, more focus on personality and lazy journalism mean that discussion of policy fails to reach even the more thinking voter and a general malaise sets in. A politician swearing at police officers at the gates of Downing Street and the way the story developed casts a longer shadow over not just the Coalition, but politics, and journalism, as a whole.  Whether politicians like it or not, ‘the personal is the political’ resonates more strongly today than ever before.

By Emma Gray

 

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