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Vive la Slebolution: Can Fame Save the UK from Infamy?

With politicians moving into TV talk shows and entertainment, can celebrities, sports stars and social media influencers move the other way, and make a difference in politics?

People place messages of support on the defaced mural of England’s Marcus Rashford in Withington on 12 July 2021. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Images

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In November 2020, footballer Marcus Rashford forced Boris Johnson into a second u-turn on child food poverty. The then-PM was shamed into giving free school meals during English school holidays to children from low-income families after weeks of refusal, even calling the Manchester United player to let him know.

Johnson had been criticised in the press, by charities, and even by some of his own MPs. But Rashford’s public pressure put the policy reversal into the back of the net.

There was social media posturing about how sporting stars should stay in their lanes. Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith opined that we need “less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty”. His party had by then been holding the reins for over a decade.


Contemporary Currency

There have been other public brushes between those with political power and those with power of another kind. Former England footballer Gary Lineker was briefly removed from his role presenting Match of the Day after he commented critically on Twitter about immigration policy and rhetoric. Huge support for his remarks made the BBC do a Cruyff Turn on punitive measures.

The Twitter account of the band Simply Red is consistently critical of the government. Elton John speaks out against Brexit. Myriam Margolyes made deliciously rude videos about Boris Johnson. Physicist Brian Cox and actor Michael Sheen are vocal about many political and cultural matters.

Broadcaster, author, and ‘media personality’ Carol Vorderman has become better known for outspoken campaigning against government corruption and inhumanity. Musician Feargal Sharkey wages a full-time battle against the beshittening of British waters by profit-hoarding water companies and the government and regulators that allow it. Presenter Sandi Toksvig campaigns against religious representation in the House of Lords. Hugh Grant founded the excellent Hacked Off campaign group.

Actor and director Reece Dinsdale. Former footballer Gary Neville. Musician Nitin Sawhney. Former rugby union footballer and now-presenter Brian Moore. Actor Robert Lindsay. Musician Tanita Tikaram. Presenter Terry Christian. Musician Stormzy. Academic and presenter Alice Roberts.

11 Players Who Have Made a Difference Off the Football Field

As Marcus Rashford is honoured with an MBE for his work campaigning to end food poverty for children, Nathan O’Hagan selects his team of football heroes, past and present, who have influenced the world of politics

Even US ‘slebs’ are speaking up over here. Last year Sylvester Stallone and Meryl Streep joined Luke Evans, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Thompson, Benjamin Zephaniah, and others in a video opposing the Nationality and Borders Bill.

Celebrity voices aren’t only from “the left”. Right Said Fred, Laurence Fox, Piers Corbyn, Denise Welch, Beverley Turner, Kirstie Allsopp, and others have spread Covid disinformation and other controversial views.

What they all have in common is not simply some measure of fame, and sometimes also fortune, but mounds of the actually-most valuable currency now: attention.


Influence and Influencers

Our constitutional system is such that citizens have little sway. We can vote periodically, though our first past the post system, shared only with Belarus, means not all votes carry equal weight. And elections come years apart.

The most important election, that of the prime minister, is a private political party matter. The most powerful role of all is filled by a tiny percentage of the population and – recently, and only within the Conservative Party – unknown foreign elements.

Nadine Dorries, who said she’d resign as MP for Mid Bedfordshire but didn’t, hasn’t spoken in Parliament since July 2022 or voted since April. She’s MIA, unless you watch her on Talk TV. However, the Recall of MPs Act 2015 doesn’t allow a petition to force a by-election to be triggered by her constituents.

We’re powerless to remove a corrupt, lawless, racist, and authoritarian government by forcing a general election. There’s no formal mechanism for doing so, and we aren’t like the French: most will watch Bake Off and walk their dogs until smoke is visible from the doorstep they used to clap healthcare workers on.

We can contact MPs, or harangue them on Twitter (still calling it that, forever). Yet, while they shouldn’t block us and our concerns, some do. We can join campaigning groups to create collective voices to counter those of lobbyists and cronies, but it’s slow work.

The Dangers of Politainment: The Laurence Fox Affair

Otto English delves into the privileged actor’s descent into normalising hate and considers what purpose it may serve.

We can create or sign petitions calling for changes to policies or laws. Official petitions get a government response at 10,000 signatures and are considered for parliamentary debate at 100,000. This sometimes but rarely results in meaningful change. A petition asking for the revocation of Article 50 and Brexit with over six million signatures was effectively ignored.

We can complain to regulators, but my own experience suggests this to be useless. Some regulators, such as Ofcom and the Bar Standards Board, are themselves under the microscope for poor performance. Or, as with the Charity Commission, are headed by government cronies.


Enjoy the Silence

Last month Tory MP Johnny Mercer appeared on BBC Question Time, behaving in a belligerent and melodramatic manner. He said, “People on social media try to outdo each other on how outraged they are about something that never happened. That is collective bedwetting.”

A woman in the audience responded, “Given that members of the Conservatives and the Conservative party have shut down any form of meaningful protest, and he’s shouted across every member of this panel tonight, how else are we meant to get our point across … ?” Mercer’s party had just passed the Public Order Bill, restricting people’s right to protest.

Mercer’s wife Felicity Cornelius-Mercer, who works for him in a publicly-funded support role, recently attacked Carol Vorderman on Twitter. She told Rachel Johnson on the Difficult Women podcast, “ … it’s this idea of celebrity attack dogs that know nothing about politics. I understand everyone has an opinion … [but] it’s like inciting people to hate all Tories.”

The row spilled over into the House of Commons, where Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie said Vorderman eats “political hate for breakfast to get social media hits”. Vorderman told LBC host James O’Brien that Cornelius-Mercer had harassed her for months. “One day, she sent over 60 tweets in my direction.”

Vorderman, like other celebrities, is regularly told to shut up and present things, to “stick to her day job”. But everyone, regardless of their profession, has the right to object if they don’t approve of what the Government they pay does in their name to affect their world.

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Politics is really about values. Regardless of what party you support, if any, it boils down to whether you care about people, truth, and the planet, or self-interest, lies, and destructive profiteering.

The Government would likely argue that profits benefit people, so it cares about people. But every action it takes seems harmful or even corrupt. It doesn’t even try to hide it anymore. It’s like that scene in The Big Short: “They’re not confessing. They’re bragging.” Ills are blamed on anyone else: immigrants, immigration lawyers, even firefighters.

Those with few means of getting attention can do little about it; less now as their rights are curtailed. Those with huge followings have a currency they can spend on awareness-raising, truth-telling, and sometimes even change-making. Though it can come at a cost to them.

If we want to effect change, perhaps what we need is not for celebrities to be quieter, but to be louder. We need more like them, not fewer. People feel too powerless to mount a revolution. Perhaps what this country desperately needs is a slebolution.


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