Ashes to Ashes and the Theatre of Democracy

We can no longer know who or what we're voting for. Politics and media conspire to deliver fictional candidates. How will the fiction turn out will be revealed ... next parliament
Keith Sutherland
5 April 2010

"I’m not particularly attracted by [televised] confrontations of personality. If you aren’t careful, you know, we’ll have a, what’s it called, Top of the Pops contest. Even though I dare say I would win it, I’m not very attracted by this as you then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a script writer. I’d rather have our old ways and put our policies firmly in front of the people."

Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, October 1963


In the light of the forthcoming television debate between the [presidential] hopefuls, Douglas-Home’s remarks to Robin Day on Panorama now seem truly prophetic. Indeed the role of television in the transformation of our style of representative government has arguably been greater than the combined effects of the two great nineteenth-century parliamentary reform acts.  Needless to say the 14th. Earl of Home lost to his opponent Harold Wilson, who had carefully honed his image to appeal to a television audience.

Labour are equally hopeful that casting David Cameron in the role of a 1980s detective from the TV series Ashes to Ashes will consign him to an early political grave, although their confidence that electors are familiar with the language of the prayerbook funeral service may well be misfounded (Cameron said he was flattered by his new macho image).

According to Bernard Manin’s Principles of Representative Government (1997), there are three forms of representative democracy – parliamentary democracy, party democracy and ‘audience’ democracy. (In fact Manin argues that none of these are, strictly speaking, democratic, but that’s a subject for another day.) Although the era of representative government is normally dated from the Glorious Revolution, it took the modest expansion of the franchise in 1832 before the adjective ‘democratic’ began to be associated with our parliamentary institutions. This development was prefigured in America some thirty years earlier by Thomas Jefferson’s transformation of the Republican party into the Democratic Republican party. From that time on elective representation came to be viewed as democratic, even though this would have been anathema to the American founders and other advocates of republican government.

The period between the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the era of mass democracy initiated by Disraeli’s reform act of 1867 is viewed by Manin as the highpoint of parliamentary democracy. The emphasis needs to be placed on the first element of this oxymoron as, with time, it became increasingly clear that parliament and democracy are not in fact compatible. During this brief hiatus, before the Commons traded in the shackles binding them to landed interests for the iron rule of party oligarchs, we have the best approximation of Burke’s notion of ‘trustee’ representation:

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole.

Manin describes parliamentary government as a ‘democratic aristocracy’ –democratic as electors have equal power to elect who they chose (and to stand for public office themselves); aristocratic as electors will always privilege those they judge to be the best (aristoi), even though their criteria for ‘the best’ may vary from the possession of statesmanlike qualities to the most fetching performance on Pop Idol. The limited franchise during the nineteenth century led primarily to the election of ‘notables’ with the necessary independence of means that is normally associated with independence of mind. Party affiliation was loose and MPs frequently crossed the floor.

The era of parliamentary democracy came to an end with the expansion of the franchise in 1867, at which point, Manin argues, Britain became a ‘party democracy’. This was characterized by everything that Burke viewed as inimical to parliamentary representation:

Authoritative instructions, mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote and to argue for . . . these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

However Manin describes this as just another variation on the theme of representative democracy: voters have simply transferred their trust in individual ‘notables’ to trust in the party. Parties were explicitly organized to represent the interests of different socio-economic classes and/or political philosophies and voters simply chose the one that offered the aggregation that best suited their interests and beliefs. Parliament at this point ceased to be a deliberative assembly in anything other than a residual formal sense, as decisions were taken by party caucus. Electors were also free to join whichever party they chose and to participate thereby in the formation of manifesto commitments. The high point of party democracy was the election of 1945, when the Labour landslide was entirely due to the party’s manifesto commitments. MPs were frequently reminded that they owed their seats not to their own qualities or abilities but to the colour of the rosette on their lapel.

But this was not to last. The personalities of the party leaders had little impact on the outcome of the 1945 election (otherwise Churchill would have won easily) yet, less than twenty years later, Douglas-Home found himself losing to Wilson largely on the basis of his inability to convey the right image. By then it was inconceivable that someone like Clement Attlee – the greatest reforming Labour prime minster of all times – would ever become the leader of a significant political party. He simply didn’t look or sound right – such was the transformation of the political landscape over a single generation.

As made clear by the recent BBC documentary How to Win an Election, during the early 1950s the broadcast media were still hamstrung by the ‘14 days’ ruling -- which prohibited the broadcast media from in-depth coverage of an issue that was due for discussion in parliament -- designed to preserve the illusion that the House of Commons was still the prime deliberative assembly for the nation. This was quietly dropped in the wake of the Suez crisis, when it became clear that parliament had been kept just as much in the dark as everyone else over Anthony Eden’s machinations. But, notwithstanding the ITV coverage of the 1958 Rochdale by-election (when the ITN editor anticipated being jailed for contravening the Representation of the People’s Act), the BBC largely ignored the 1959 general election, although they would have reported it on the News the following day. The live coverage of the count didn't start until 1963, and the delay wasn't on account of technical issues. (See this remarkable programme.)

However the spread of television ownership to working-class families (combined with Jack Kennedy’s use of TV to project his image) changed all that. Harold Wilson learned quickly and attempted to use the new broadcast media to his advantage. (He also helped ensure his victory in 1964 by persuading the BBC to postpone the broadcast of Steptoe and Son that was scheduled for polling day, as he calculated that many of his supporters would watch it rather than turning out to vote.) Edward Heath belatedly learned to play the same game – his unexpected 1970 election victory was partly on account of his reinvention as a successful yachtsman after appearing on Sportsnight with Coleman (much to the fury of Wilson).

Margaret Thatcher upped the performance ante considerably during the 1979 and 1983 elections, successfully presenting herself on television as a cross between a prudent housewife and Queen Boadecia. With Michael Foot as an opponent, the image problem of the Douglas-Home era had been transferred to the Labour party. Neal Kinnock unsuccessfully attempted to reverse this image problem, but it took Tony Blair’s New Labour, the apotheosis of image management, to recapture Harold Wilson’s lead.

Just as Wilson learned from JFK, it was to America that Blair looked for tips and found them in the person of Bill Clinton, the most successful TV politician of all times. In How to Win an Election, Michael Cockerell opined that “Once you can do sincerity, you’ve got it licked and Tony Blair can do sincerity”; in this respect he outshone his mentor. Blair acted at school, at one time considered a stage career but decided instead to hone his acting skills on the political stage.

Manin argues that thespian-based ‘audience democracy’ is just another permutation in the hardy perennial that constitutes representative government.  This is because audience democracy fulfils the same analytic requirements as parliamentary and party democracy, namely election, partial autonomy of representatives, freedom of public opinion and trial by discussion.

But is this really true? Is the relegation of the citizen to the role of passive consumer, voting for the actor with the best performance, really on a par with Burke’s ideal of parliamentary democracy as a ‘deliberative assembly of one nation’? Manin argues that the election of party leaders on the basis of personality marks a return to the parliamentary era, when ‘notables’ were elected largely on the strength of trust in their reputation. But when both image and policy are manufactured by media consultants for public consumption, one needs to be a little wary. In this respect the depiction of David Cameron as D.I. Gene Hunt from Ashes to Ashes is apposite as it is unclear whether ‘Gene Hunt’ actually exists or is just an illusion created by the comatose brain of the Keeley Hawes character.

In the age of parliamentary democracy you knew who you were voting for; in the age of party democracy you knew what you were voting for; but in the age of postmodern ‘audience’ democracy you only find out after the final curtain has fallen. The blurb for Ashes to Ashes assures us that we will learn the truth about ‘Gene Hunt’ by the end of the current series, but will we be any wiser about that equally fictional character ‘David Cameron’? Such are the perils of the age of audience democracy.

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