Telling it like it is

Has public life become less respectful? Or are "straight-talking" politicians simply a manifestation

David Cameron has been widely reported as calling Gordon Brown a liar and Nick Clegg a joke. What do such personal remarks tell us about politics today?

It is generally assumed that we are much less respectful of politicians than we used to be; and that they too are becoming less respectful of each other. Neither of these assumptions is true. If we look at how political discourse has shifted, we can see how. A great deal has changed over the last ten years, but it isn’t really that we are dissing each other more. In fact, the general level of consideration and mutual respect even between politicians is good. Rather, it is about changes in our attitudes, changes in social mores, changes in language and tone, and above all changes in how we communicate and how our social and political reality are mediated.

The way we speak to and of one another, both publicly and privately, has become both more straightforward and more personalised. One problem is how can politicians attract our attention these days; we don’t watch party political broadcasts or leaders’ conference speeches anymore. In fact, in all the media today, David and Gordon are competing with Angelina and Brad for our attention. And one aspect of their competing is to try to be more attractive, persuasive, more personal, and more straightforward.

Ironically enough, it was Margaret Thatcher with, among other things, Radio 2’s Jimmy Young broadcasts that began all this humanising of our politicians (we might add she needed some humanising at times). Tony Blair, ‘a regular guy’, and the man who touched the nation when he spoke just after Diana’s death, continued the trend – until Iraq knocked him off the scales.

The need to project a naturalness of character has become a political imperative. Interestingly, in these less stuffy times we are a more indulgent public – being gay, committing a sexual indiscretion, inhaling, etc., used to mean, when the media got hold of it, exile to Siberia. What we now require of our political leaders is a character that is relatively in sync with the actual character of the politician themselves. Cameron tells it like he sees it when he is saying it – irrespective of whether he is right – because we insist that he does so.

We should remember that, all said and done, Cameron became our potential prime minister because in the competition for the Tory leadership he spoke without a script, as if naturally, as if spontaneously himself. This question of the character of our political leaders, however, is linked to a major sea-change in the mediation of our lives, and that of our politicians. Over the last ten years the crucial relationship between ‘on’ and ‘off’, between public and private, has undergone a revolution.

In an era of celebrity culture and reality TV (and phone cameras, YouTube, and some very sensitive microphones), the threshold between our public and private selves is disappearing. At the political level, Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni lead the field in blending the two, but for most politicians, these new frames of reference, paradoxically, make naturalness and straight-talking the only currency. If the private comments upon opponents by de Gaulle, Churchill, or Kennedy had been given simultaneous prominence alongside their towering public oratory, they would not have made it past the selection process.

When Cameron calls Brown a liar or Clegg a joke, he is using the everyday language we all use; and Brown and Clegg don’t mind; they can always answer back. And there are worse things than being talked about.

John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University, Birmingham