In this weeks post, Matt Flinders, Director of the Crick Centre, takes a look at the Parliamentary prospects of Jeremy Clarkson. How can a society that is experiencing the ‘death of democracy’ with falling levels of political engagement, show so much regard for the disgraced former Top Gear presenter? Moreover, what are the wider implications stemming from the increasing links between celebrity, politics and cynicism?
The news this week that Jeremy Clarkson’s contract with the BBC will not be renewed might be bad news for Top Gear fans but could it be good news for politics? Probably not…
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I wonder what Jeremy Clarkson is up to as you read this blog. Could he be casting his eye over the jobs pages in the newspapers, possibly signing-up to some on-line employment agencies, or simply staring at his mobile phone in the hope that it will ring with the message that says ‘The BBC has changed its mind! All is forgiven’? The answer is ‘probably not’ but lets run with the idea for a moment and think of what a slightly grumpy Jeremy with time on his hands might do for his next big project.
I must at this point admit that the testosterone soaked, ‘man-fun’ focus of Top Gear has never quite rung my bell, but as a political scientist (yawn, yawn, yawn) I can’t help but think that there is something going on. Top Gear seems to be spreading as some form of international cultural craze. Indeed, its global reach appears unstoppable and so far includes over sixty countries from Argentina to Australia and Israel to Ireland. At the same time a quite different cultural craze that was popular in recent decades (i.e. democracy) appears to be in something of a retreat. This is reflected in a massive body of evidence and data that reveals increasing levels of public disenchantment with traditional politics.
Take the United Kingdom as an example. With just weeks before the 2015 General Election the latest ‘Audit of Political Engagement’ from the Hansard Society suggests that just 49% of the public says they are certain to vote. In relation to 18-24-year-olds the picture of democratic desire is more bleak with just 16% saying they are certain to vote, but nearly twice as many saying that they definitely will not be voting. Those who claim to be a strong supporter of a political party is down to just 30% and the general picture is one of decline.
The number who believe themselves to be registered to vote? Decline. Those that feel they have some influence over local issues? Decline. Satisfaction with the overall system? Decline. Petition to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson? Surpasses one million voters.
Hold on a minute! Have I spotted something? Politics and politicians appear to be in big trouble; Clarkson appears to be surfing a wave of popular support that most politicians could never dream of. Add the fact that Jezza has a bit of unexpected free time on his hands and ‘hey presto’ — Jeremy Clarkson MP.
Such simple and outlandish (or should that be ‘out-laddish?) calculations would be funny if it were not for the fact that Jeremy Clarkson has already threatened to stand for election to Parliament. In September 2013 he used the Internet to tell his followers ‘I’m thinking I might stand in the next election as an independent for Doncaster North, which is where I’m from. Thoughts?’ he wrote.
A cruel twist of fate and a lack of hot food in a Northern hotel now makes this question all the more interesting.
What are my thoughts?
This is, of course, all hypothetical but there is a devil in me that would quite like to see Clarkson stand and there is little doubt that he could give Ed Miliband a run for his money in a town where my family is also from. But would this really be good for democracy? Would it make Jeremy or break Jeremy? The answer is that we will never know but there is a broader question about celebrity politics and the power of populism.
With comedians like Al Murray, Russell Brand, and others increasingly entering the political arena and posing as joke candidates, making ‘mockumentaries’, or attempting to make some sort of political intervention our political reality seems to be becoming somewhat warped or distorted: politics as a farcical parody of itself. Let’s remember that the celebrities are themselves, whether they admit it or not, a form of social elite. Swapping one elite for another does not sound like a way to cure the political disengagement that appears so pronounced. So Jeremy, just jump in your car and keep on driving…
Matthew Flinders is Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and is Visiting Distinguished Professor of Governance and Public Policy at Murdoch University in Western Australia.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog, email our editor Nicholas Try at firstname.lastname@example.org