So Matt Hancock is doing the rounds of the sundays, dropping hints that will be briefed out in more detail without attribution later. Perhaps this time’s the charm and the virus will be defeated by the sheer might of talking points distribution. Hell, it worked on us to the extent of getting this shower elected so you can see why they might have a high opinion of the method.
Chris Brooke mentioned this story from 2015 earlier on, in which the then prime minister called for a big conversation on the menace of seagull attacks in St Ives. Yes, I thought, it’s hardly new that they think any problem can be solved by public relations. But then I read the story. Here’s the Cameron quote:
“It is a dangerous one for the prime minister to dive in and come up with an instant answer with the issues of the protection of seagulls, whether there is a need for a cull, what should be done about eggs and nests.
“I think a big conversation needs to happen about this and frankly the people we need to listen to are people who really understand this issue in Cornwall, and the potential effects it is having. Reading the papers this morning about how aggressive the seagulls are now in St Ives, for instance, we do have a problem.”
Indeed; it’s ridiculous to expect an instant and authoritative answer about something this recondite, it’s even more ridiculous to escalate something this trivial and deeply local all the way to No.10 Downing Street. Cameron was clearly aware of this and started off by trying to express that, before giving way to the imperious necessity of getting to the end of the sentence and saying something meaningless because the theatrical conventions of the format demanded something had to be said.
This speaks, however, of a couple of deeper and wider issues. For a start, the conventions of the media-political system require that any problem once recognized as being one gets escalated directly to the prime minister, who has to pretend to have an answer. This enforces the extreme centralization of the polity and the disempowerment of local government and the civil service. The national-level media has arrogated to itself the role of an intermediary institution, like a local council or a trade union or a membership organization, deciding what real or supposed public concerns get raised through its privileged access to the pseudo-president.
Further, the condition of success in these interactions is that their formal conventions are fulfilled. It’s extremely unlikely anything got done about those seagulls as a result of Cameron’s TV interview, and if it did, it would likely be halfbaked and ill-thought-out, like that time Cameron set an entirely arbitrary numerical target for net migration halfway through a sentence in a TV interview. But that wasn’t remotely the point. The prime minister performed concern for what the press presented as being the concerns of the public, and unlike the migration target, he succeeded in not saying anything that might result in any action.
Importantly, none of the actors in this play expected anything else, especially not the on-stage critics who interpreted it to the audience, an audience excluded from the theatre itself in this curious dramatic form. They are all well aware that the prime minister doesn’t care about seagulls, and indeed that the prime minister really ought to have more important things to care about than parish council business and they really ought to ask him about them. The fact that the whole thing was ridiculous was accepted, but paradoxically, its fatuity, and Cameron’s successful exercise in vacuousness, was itself held to be newsworthy. From a genuinely cynical perspective, these were markers of its success.
And in a sense it was newsworthy; I’m blogging about it five years later. We live in the consequences of this form of political practice.