Jon Lawrence is a Senior Lecturer in Modern British Political History at Cambridge University, and is particularly interested in politics as a site of interaction between politicians and the public. This forms the basis for his latest book, Electing Our Masters: the Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair. In the post below, Dr Lawrence reflects on the scandal over British MPs’ expenses, and the resultant grilling that two prominent MPs got from members of the public on the long-running and esteemed BBC political programme Question Time last week.
I defy anyone not to have felt a little schadenfreude watching the public grilling of Margaret Beckett and Menzies Campbell on BBC’s Question Time at the height of the scandal over MPs’ expenses. They are not the first British politicians to be angrily heckled by a live studio audience, and nor will they be the last. Britain boasts a long and proud history of public irreverence towards its politicians. As Hogarth’s prints remind us, eighteenth-century elections were vulgar, chaotic events, with drunken crowds, brawling in the streets, and widespread corruption. But they were also moments when the vote-less masses could ‘have their say’, notably at the public nomination hustings, when cat calls and missiles both regularly assailed the hapless candidates. Even in the early twentieth-century disorder was commonplace, heckling was considered an art form, and face-to-face encounters between politicians and public remained at the heart of electioneering. By contrast today’s elections are tame affairs conducted almost entirely at arms’ length through television and mass marketing techniques. Politicians and voters barely meet each other in the flesh, and almost half of us don’t even bother to vote.
But as Beckett and Campbell’s ordeal on last Thursday’s Question Time reminds us, this does not mean that the public has forgotten how to get angry with its politicians. Nor, crucially, does it mean that there is nowhere for them to vent that anger. On the contrary, the raucous, irreverent traditions that once made the public hustings so taxing for politicians, now shape the way that radio and television cover British politics. Almost nowhere else will you see senior politicians subjected to such un-deferential and searching interrogation on prime-time television. Tough-talking journalists such as Jeremy Paxman have taken on the role once performed by the persistent heckler at open meetings. But even more unique and invaluable is the way that British broadcasters make it possible for the public, red in tooth and claw, to get stuck into their politicians. As with the merciless hounding of Beckett and Campbell on Question Time, this is brutal, if entertaining, sport. But it’s not just great television; such dramatic televised encounters now represent one of the principal bulwarks of Britain’s unwritten constitution.
The fact that politicians such as Beckett and Campbell willingly put themselves through a trial by television is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these programmes. It is, surely, a testament to the deep roots that the traditions of the old hustings put down in British political culture. According to Churchill, the hustings represented the ‘slatternly foundations’ of British politics, and no politician could rise to the top who did not know how to face its ‘disorderly gatherings, its organized oppositions, its hostile little meetings, its jeering throng, its stream of disagreeable and often silly questions’ with either ‘a shrug, a sigh or a smile’. It was no accident that when his political stock was at its lowest, in 2005, Tony Blair actively pursued bruising televised encounters with real voters in what came to be known as his ‘masochism strategy’. According to one close Blair aide these grueling, un-deferential encounters represented ‘the modern equivalent of Gladstone doing his public meetings – it’s what people are used to now.’ Like Gladstone, Blair was still trading on the symbolic power of being seen to disavow, temporarily, the gulf between the political elite and the masses. As Labour pollster Philip Gould explained, it was ‘a deliberate strategy to allow people to have their voices heard, and their frustrations vented’. Blair was to ‘reconnect’ with the voters by being seen to be ‘beaten up’ by them. It seemed to work in 2005, but it is doubtful whether it will work so well for the likes of Beckett or Campbell today. For one thing, the British public is suffering from acute apology fatigue, but more importantly, even the most bruising encounter cannot symbolically close the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when the issue at stake is politicians’ mis-use of expense allowances considerably bigger than most people’s annual salaries. When it comes to claims for moat cleaning you literally couldn’t make it up. Churchill, who knew a thing or two about moats, and even more about noblesse oblige, must be turning in his grave.
But we should not be complacent about Question Time’s triumph. Public participation has shallow roots in the culture of British broadcasting. For many years the parties maintained a complete ban on such programmes after severe heckling by a studio audience during the 1959 election. The ban was only finally lifted in 1974, and even then the strongly paternalist ethos of public service broadcasting tended to constrain the full demotic potential of the new format. And though stations such as Radio 5 Live have dethroned paternalism, recent years have witnessed the down-grading of popular participation formats in favour of more ‘vox pop’ interviews and gimmicky programmes such as Tony Blair’s 2005 encounter with ‘Little Ant and Dec’. Amusing as these can be, they are no substitute for bringing politicians face-to-face with the voting public. As Question Time underlined last Thursday, broadcasters now fulfill the vital constitutional role once performed by the nomination hustings and the open public meeting. Television is the most powerful means we have for bringing politicians and public together on something like an equal footing. At its best it allows ordinary voters, not just to ‘have their say’, but actually to hold their political masters to account. Let’s hope broadcasters continue to cherish this vibrantly democratic institution.