Politician or celebrity? Who knows any more?

Stay informed with free updates

It’s a jungle out there in British politics. You never know when someone you have just sacked is going to turn around and tell you that, while she regrets to say it, you’re actually a coward and a failure who has betrayed the nation and who suffers from “magical thinking”.

But not everyone seems to mind the jungle: some politicians even willingly and knowingly enter it. Yes, I am indeed talking about Brexit-party-leader-turned-TV-news-host Nigel Farage, who on Sunday joined the likes of Britney Spears’ sister Jamie Lynn in Australia for the start of the 23rd series of I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here! 

Farage — who is rumoured to be earning a record-smashing, nausea-inducing £1.5mn fee — confirmed his appearance via a video posted on social media, in which he acts out getting a call from the show’s producers, telling them it’s bad timing before saying: “‘Ow much? Good lord! Well, I’ll see you in the jungle!”

At least he’s honest. When Tory MP and former health secretary Matt Hancock appeared on the show last year — and was paid less than a quarter of Farage’s fee to do so, poor lad — he claimed he was doing it to “raise the ­profile of my dyslexia campaign to help every dyslexic child unleash their potential” and that he would be making various donations to charity. Hancock ended up donating about 3 per cent of his earnings and later said, when quizzed about it: “I didn’t primarily do it for the money. I primarily did it to show who I really am.”

Farage is in fact the eighth politician to enter the jungle for the show. We are living, after all, in a time when public life is drenched in celebrity culture, in which the lines between entertainment and politics have become increasingly blurry. It’s not just I’m A Celeb that can offer you the chance to make some big bucks while reinventing yourself as an everyday man or woman of the people, either. If you don’t fancy chewing a kangaroo’s testicles live on telly, you can always dress up as a Spice Girl on Strictly, land a spot presenting on GB News or, if all else fails, start your own podcast

But while the politician-to-Z-list-celeb path is becoming well-trodden in Britain, in America, it tends to work in the opposite direction. There, it’s not the politicians who are desperate to be celebrities, it’s the celebrities who are desperate to be politicians. Donald Trump went from The Apprentice to the White House; Arnold Schwarzenegger went from Terminator to the California State Capitol. Rapper Kanye West, Olympian-turned-reality star Caitlyn Jenner, and actor Cynthia Nixon have all made failed attempts at entering into politics in recent years. Our performative, media-obsessed culture must be partly to blame for both phenomena.

The A-lister-to-officeholder pathway is one that has been established in America for some decades — Ronald Reagan was an actor before he was governor of California and finally US president; five-time Oscar-winner Clint Eastwood served as mayor of a town in California for a couple of years — but it has become much more popular in recent years.

So why does it work differently on either side of the Atlantic? One reason is that presidential systems lend themselves more easily to the cult of personality — one can see this not just in the US but in places like Ukraine, where a former comedian is now president, and Guatemala, where another was president until 2020.

As University of East Anglia politics professor John Street tells me, we have a stronger party system in the UK. “Representatives of that party have to be selected, they have to show loyalty to a party and are disciplined by a party,” Street says. “In the States, the Democrat and Republican parties are relatively weak, and so politicians are more able to speak for themselves and to adopt strategies that are only vaguely related to any party ideology.”

One only has to look at the way leaders and politicians are portrayed culturally to find another obvious reason: while Brits laugh at the clumsy and bumbling politicians on TV comedies including The Thick of It and Yes Minister, depictions of American politics ooze glitz and glamour — think of the presidential heroes in The West Wing or Air Force One. 

Here’s a test: do you know the name of the plane the British prime minister flies in? I bet you don’t. (It’s usually an RAF Voyager, which is shared with the royal family.) Air Force One, on the other hand, must surely be one of the best brand names on the planet, inspiring Nike’s most popular ever sneaker and conjuring up images of a powerful and prestigious POTUS (another great brand name).

In 2006, a Gallup poll found that Britain and America had the highest levels of confidence in their respective governments among G7 countries; by 2022, they had the lowest. I’m not sure which type of “celebrification” is worse. But I am sure that both demonstrate the extent to which politics has become debased, and utterly unserious.


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.