The failure of the on-stage critic

If politics is theatre, one of the defining features of the form is the presence of the on-stage critics – the media, or more specifically, the big name opinion leaders. They would like to imagine themselves as a Greek chorus commenting on the drama, but if they are, they’re a Greek chorus composed of unreliable narrators, actors as much as they are an audience.

For decades, a frequent comment from the on-stage critics has been that the show lacks spontaneity – too much of the drama is happening elsewhere, the players seem over-rehearsed and wooden. Instead there was a need for people to “speak human”, to have a “story”, to bring more “authenticity” to their roles.

This was a little self-contradictory – nobody was more conscious of the performative and theatrical nature of what was going on than the on-stage critics, almost by definition. Also, the very idea of an on-stage critic requires that a lot of the drama has to happen off-stage, or at least have a hidden, exoteric second-order reading. If it were immediately scrutable to the audience there would be nothing for the critic to interpret and no point in the cult of savvy.

Really, what the critics were complaining about when they complained about “spin” was that not enough of the drama was happening while they were on stage. They wanted politicians to do dramatic stuff in interviews, on talk-show platforms, and in the Westminster corridors. Their real objection was the quintessentially and stereotypically stagey one that they wanted more of the limelight, and would throw a hissy fit if they didn’t get it. The structural conditions of the 2000s were part of the problem; a government with a large and relatively compact majority doesn’t generate a lot of day-to-day political crises.

And then they got what they wanted. The transition from the decisive majorities prevailing from 1979 to 2010 to elections that resolve nothing provided plenty of crises, and the Cameron government’s change of style helped even more. The game was now to perform politicianing almost in the abstract, stripped back to the essentials, and the players started to make a habit of taking important decisions in the moment.

The Tories, for example, committed the full faith and credit of the state to the 100,000 net migration target, a number which was literally selected in mid-interview and then became unassailable dogma. This would have serious consequences ranging from bulk deportations of people who had every right to live here and nearly bankrupting a university on the basis of snake-oil voice analysis apps, to the Brexit referendum itself.

A related, if more subtle effect was that the demands of the format tended to get baked into the content of policy – after the Somerset floods of 2014, it was suddenly discovered that there was a specifically Tory way to manage these things, which was “dredging”. Nobody involved had given this the remotest thought – the disaster itself was ample evidence this was the case – but it was necessary to say something, rather than either admit error or leave dead air, and something was therefore said. Once said, it had to be defended. Similarly, people have begun to pretend that they care about phytosanitary regulations to a profound extent when they couldn’t have defined the word as recently as 2017.

Surprisingly, the on-stage critics do not seem completely happy with this turn of events. In the run-in to the vote on whether or not to call a general election, the Labour party had defined a policy in early September. There was no objection to an election, so long as an extension to the Brexit deadline had been secured. This is not particularly complicated, but it seemed to drive them wild. We were told that there would be front-bench resignations and that the result hinged on how many rebels would break the whip to vote for elections. On the night, though, it was so controversial that the bill for elections passed its second reading without even needing to take a vote.

What had happened was that the prime minister had on that day written to the European Council accepting the extension. It’s worth remembering, although I can’t think of anyone who bothered to say this in as many words, that extending required three things to happen: Johnson had to ask for the extension, the EU27 had to grant it, and Johnson then had to accept it. Although the Benn Act was drafted to force him to apply and to accept, anyone who followed the news through the autumn (to say nothing of Johnson’s career) should surely understand why you might want to wait until all three items were ticked off before committing to anything. The policy declared in early September (and briefed out to, God help us, Tom Newton-Dunn of the Sun!) had been pursued to the letter. If you had switched off at that point, you were equally informed as someone who followed every tweet. So why did we get all this…drama?

I think the answer is that the on-stage critics, much as they enjoy the sound and fury and bask in the attention, are rather unsettled by getting what they asked for: actual decisive politics happening in front of them, in Parliament, at the party conferences, and on the doorsteps. They often don’t seem to bother with things like whip counts, party conference rules, or legalities. The cult of savvy, in Jay Rosen’s words, requires that somehow, somewhere, the fix is in.

This distinction shows up in odd ways. Andrew Bridgen MP tried to defend his colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg by calling him an “authority figure”. Bridgen is of course right – Rees-Mogg is a cabinet minister, authority has been conferred on him by the institutions that create it in our society, whether we like it or not. But this is precisely why it’s necessary to avoid shooting your mouth off, to prepare, and why politics got like that in the first place. As his colleague Matt Hancock memorably said: objective reality exists. As a result, the words of authority figures can get people killed.

4 Comments on "The failure of the on-stage critic"

  1. It’s worth considering that much of the “Greek chorus” have a similar defective background of “essay crisis and bluffer’s uni” as the current crop of government politicians. Rather than “the fix being in” they can’t actually comprehend that it matters *what they do and how they do it* – i.e. they have a proper job now and there are consequences (at least for others) in how they do it…


  2. They often don’t seem to bother with things like whip counts, party conference rules, or legalities. The cult of savvy, in Jay Rosen’s words, requires that somehow, somewhere, the fix is in.

    Which might also explain their total – and, I think, mostly genuine – inability to understand how the Labour Party could win power in an election, after which the new government would negotiate a new Brexit deal, after which the Labour Party would decide whether to support or oppose the new deal. Under Blair the party mostly didn’t have the option of thinking and acting differently from the government, and if it did it didn’t matter; people, particularly on the centre-left, have got out of the habit of thinking of political parties as things that exist in their own right.


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