Is Cowell the new Orwell?
It was delightful to hear that David and Samantha Cameron are expecting another baby in September, and doubtless they have been inundated with warm congratulations from across most of the divides. The bringing of a new life into the world is perhaps the most selfless response to their recent tragedy, and it will be a profound joy to see another little one born in Number 10 (if…).
But His Grace was struck by an article in yesterday’s Daily Mail in which Bel Mooney said:
Like everybody else I send congratulations and wish the couple joy. But I tell you this - the subliminal message couldn't be better if they'd hired Simon Cowell to produce this event. It says: What could possibly cheer up this country more than a new start – and a new life?
It is undeniable that politicos tend to conceive of everything in terms of votes, and in this media-obsessed, emoting era a bereavement or a baby can affect public perception and voting intention just as much as a scandal or a strike: electoral volatility is no longer an aberration; it is the norm. Every opportunity is to be milked for everything it’s worth, especially if that milk is breast.
Yet it is Simon Cowell who is now credited with ‘producing’ public opinion. It used to be the press barons, then editors, the BBC perhaps, or Max Clifford, and (of course) Alastair Campbell. There were times during the New Labour era (for it is surely past) when one wondered if politics could ever recover from its addiction to ‘spin’: would people ever again be able to distinguish between reality and the Westminster Matrix?
But then the political system itself imploded, and people no longer give a damn. If they do not wish a plague on all their houses, they no longer feel particularly disposed to any party, and so a hung parliament is in the offing.
Perhaps David Cameron needs an injection of Simon Cowell, for now all politicians are deemed to be liars, and no-one tells it like it is better than Simon Cowell. Parliament has become a palace of deceit; a privileged priesthood of self-believers who pass their days raping the taxpayer and selling indulgences. The X-Factor offers reformation: it provides an uncomfortable truth, but it is a truth which liberates and which the public already know, and actually yearn in the depths of their souls to hear.
According to Total Politics magazine, Simon Cowell is the 26th most influential non-politician in politics: that is to say, the 26th most influential unelected person responsible for ‘shaping the political ideas that dominate the election and in the unknown entity beyond’.
He is described as a ‘music supremo’:
Perhaps a surprise inclusion, Cowell is someone who can guarantee the attention of political leaders if he wants it. Last year the X-Factor mastermind announced that he was considering bringing the populism of the show to politics, with politicians suggesting policies to be voted on by the public. Such is his influence that David Cameron admitted recently that "politics can learn from Simon Cowell".
Indeed it can.
X-Factor mania has swept the western world: it is the 1984 of the new interactive media age. It is defining and creating reality, permitting the masses to live vicariously the ecstasy of others; to fulfil their fantasies and to dream big dreams.
And David Cameron has been studying the strategy carefully – very carefully indeed.
He has grasped the public mood of impotence: a pervasive lack of faith in politicians, universal exasperation with bureaucracy and ubiquitous frustration with the great institutions of state. He knows there is a gulf between the political class and the public: party memberships are in terminal decline, and activists are aging. There is an epistemic distance between those who wield power and those upon whom that power is wielded. The fragile social contract is in danger of being torn up, not simply because the good times are gone, but because there is a feeling that, whatever the parties choose as their theme music for the imminent General Election, things will never get better.
Reconnecting with the marginalised; engaging the dispossessed; reversing the indifference; enthusing the cynical, jaded and despairing: these are the principal tasks which must occupy David Cameron, for without this urgent priority our democratic institutions and system of representation are in danger of collapse.
And what is X-Factor but a revamped 'Opportunity Knocks'? It is a postmodern 'New Faces'; a reconstituted 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium' with an unknown surprise guest perpetually topping the bill.
This is the sort of invigoration with which politics could be infused. And the remedy must produce happiness and peace. Not ephemeral jollity or ignorant dormancy, but enduring happiness and the peace which passes understanding. Until politics begins to touch people deeply, its perceived usefulness will be increasingly eroded by its own systematic failures.
Unless political discourse is to be reduced to the mono-dimension of single-cause issues, there is a need for the entire political class to coalesce around the higher needs of democracy. Independent views must be encouraged, and proper debate restored to political conferences. The public can tell the difference between real Cole-Cowell contention and staged angst, and their engagement is heightened when the stresses, intolerance and conflict are authentic.
And Simon Cowell knows this.
Which is why he is a paragon of authenticity.
He does not whip the other judges (or the voting public) into line in order to achieve victory.
He arrives at a winner by wading through a sludge of mediocre candidates, enduring his colleague’s policy convulsions, and then giving birth in all its glorious messiness in full public view.
That is true democracy.
Yet Parliament’s new candidates are shiny, happy people, airbrushed to perfection: there is no debate about policy even within parties, for fear of them being portrayed as ‘divided’; and victory, when it comes, is a staged affair, with just the right cast of black, Asian, gay and disabled characters.
Simon Cowell couldn’t give a damn about whether or not X-Factor finalists are ‘representative’ of the nation as a whole: he simply wants the best.
It is impossible to conceive of a life without music: it is not only the food of love; it is the breath of life to the soul. As the Bard observed:
"The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils."
And the nation which does not treasure its democracy is destined for disunity, betrayal, treachery and corruption. Politics abhors a vacuum as much as nature. If a way is not found to fill the void, if the collective wisdom of the British people is not enthused to engage, we will be left with nothing but a hollow shell of political so-called ‘experts’. The crowd may be maddening, but it knows: and its instinct is for the common good. It is innately conservative, and is tired of being patronisingly ‘consulted’ only to be forever completely ignored.
Unless there is reformation of the mechanisms of democracy, there will be revolution within the demos.
You can’t buck the people.
It is not likely that the Cameron’s Christmas conception was planned to coincide with the coming months of crowd-sourcing. But it will constitute a people-pleasing side-show to the tedious consultations and interminable pretence at ‘listening’ in order to arrive at ‘the people’s policies’, which the unseen bureaucrats will ensure coincide with everything the Government wanted to do anyway.
The art of Simon Cowell is not an illusion: or, at least, not one as depressing and discredited as the art of policis. There is something of a façade in deferral to the crowd, and yet that crowd can rebel. It had chosen Jodie Prenger to be its Nancy while the divine right of experts was determined to reserve the crown for their own anointed. And they chose Leona Lewis (black) and Alexandra Burke (black) on merit. And doubtless there were a few gays there as well, who all progressed on merit.
The big ‘reality’ idea in television could be the next big idea in government. Certainly, it is a risk. But so is democracy – true democracy. If the people are not permitted the possibility of voting for the wrong person, they will give up altogether on voting for the right one. If you let them participate in writing the script and casting the show, they will feel they own the outcome and share in the awards.
The 20th century bequeathed the Orwellian narrative of Newspeak.
But that prophecy is now fulfilled.
The new era is producing the Cowellian paradigm of Politricks.
And politicians would be foolish not to grasp this shift in the medium, because it is the message.
It is axiomatic that he who controls the nation’s currency owns the country.
But he who controls the nation’s music has bought the country’s soul.