Many of you reading this will no doubt have seen the photograph of David Cameron cheering, arms flailing wildly in the air, as he watched the Champions League final at the G8 meeting last week. This picture arrived in the wake of the PM’s recent announcement on Facebook that his favourite album is ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ by Pink Floyd. Along with his professed love of the Smiths and real ale we can only conclude one thing: that David Cameron has succumbed to a disease that has plagued too many recent politicians, the desire to try and be ‘cool’.
Not content with the position of cheerless bureaucrat/hate figure that has come to characterise our perception of most Prime Ministers, he has desperately chased the notion of appearing like a genuine human being. Blair, in the early years at least, was marginally successful, making guest appearances on Football Focus and greeting crowds auditioning for the X Factor. Brown by contrast, appeared about as cool or normal as an overweight sheep dressed in an ill-fitting green Christmas jumper and knee-high socks with ‘Cliff Richard’ written on them: a problem that his infamous claim of Arctic Monkeys fandom and subsequent failure to name any of their songs, did little to abate.
Apart from being both utterly cringe-worthy and embarrassing for all involved, these vain attempts at coming across like a ‘normal bloke’ bely a deeper problem with modern British politics. The persistence of the clumsy attempts by these PMs to cultivate an attractive personality is a natural consequence of the increasing Americanisation of the ‘top job’.
A focus on the Prime Minister as a figurehead, as an individual leader, has facilitated a watering down of our cabinet system that has acted to undermine our democracy. Thatcher’s bilateral meetings and then Blair’s infamous ‘sofa cabinet’ style, were both a clear rejection of collective cabinet decision making. In both cases the dictatorial control over the executive that each leader possessed was sufficiently abrasive to fuel wide rebellion from within their own party and in the case of Thatcher, it provided to be her downfall.
The cult of personality that a leader can attract, is a necessary condition of their tight control of their cabinet. It is the perception that the leader of a party has a status or mandate from the public, separate from that of the government as a whole, that creates a feeling amongst the party that their leader’s whim is to be respected. It was Blair’s popularity with the public that allowed him to so easily control the far left of his party in the early parts of his leadership, it was Thatcher’s that allowed her to stave off almost constant dissatisfaction within the higher echelons of her party for so long. It is unsurprising then that Cameron’s recent coolness drive has come at a time when the Conservatives are having to delay their policy plans to appease their backbenchers.
But power in Britain is remarkably centralised as tough whipping systems make parliament putty in the hands of the government. A greater centralisation within the executive itself is clearly something best avoided if we do not want to undermine our already precarious democracy. Part of this is avoiding the focus on PM personality that has become so commonplace. A day when the Prime Minister sits at the G8, thoughtfully contemplating the issues, feeling no need to let us all know what bands he’s into or what hip, obscure beer he likes: that will be a good day for British democracy.