The only person to have responded in a remotely sane way to being a contestant on The Apprentice was Rupert Everett. Bullied into taking part in a Comic Relief spin-off of the show, and then faced with the prospect of spending hours, maybe days, with celebrity teammates Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell, he excused himself to go to the loo, found a fire escape, and, taking the stairs three at a time, fled the building.
It is perhaps an anecdotal measure of cultural decline that Alastair Campbell, along with fellow “political heavyweight” Baroness Warsi, is now playing the role of scowling mentor in Channel 4’s new reality show, Make Me Prime Minister. Twelve “ordinary yet opinionated Brits” compete to see if any of them “has what it takes” to “do the top job better”. They are faced with wildly under-specified tasks — week one: “totally reform primary school education”; week two: solve “the obesity epidemic” — with rather uncertain standards as to what might count as success. Presumably, next week it will be “broker a multi-lateral peace treaty in the Middle East”, or “restructure the UK’s long-term government debt”. If that kind of geopolitical cosplay doesn’t send them hurtling for the fire escape, the candidates should perhaps ask themselves if anything would.
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The candidates grandstand, argue, blame and bullshit one another — ungrammatically and at length — in a tour de force of charmless self-assertion. They stumble around boardrooms in a fake Downing Street, draw randomly on whiteboards, and loosely translate the vapid, self-affirming dialect of reality-TV cliché into the terms of the mad fantasy the show insists on: “As Prime Minister, I have to stay true to myself”; “I don’t want to be like the Prime Ministers that we’ve had previously”. Warsi and Campbell — one can only hope in return for a large fee — are made to debase themselves by pretending the exercise has some halfway credible purpose. “I hope what this competition will do is find a new generation of political leaders,” says Warsi flatly, like a hostage to camera. “It would be quite extraordinary”, Campbell agrees, “if one or more of the people who go through this process actually do end up as elected politicians.” True enough.
Why insist on this deranged understanding of the show’s purpose? There is, I take it, something more to it than the usual time-filling promotional bluster.
At the heart of the show is an oddly exceptionalist view of politics as a locus of human thought and action. It is the view that politics, unlike any other intellectually-demanding discipline you care to name, admits no refinement of judgement: that there is no such thing as political wisdom or expertise. This bedrock conviction provides a firm basis for various kinds of populist sentiment. If there are no standards of political judgement, any “ordinary Brit” with enough of a can-do attitude should be able to do it. The apparent existence of subtle, structural or technically-demanding political problems turns out to be an illusion, one no doubt sustained by a political class who gain by it. Actually, the view says, there are no persistent or recalcitrant political problems, no perennial challenges of conflict or co-ordination: politics is nothing but a realm of pseudo-problems. What is needed, as one of the contestants puts it, is to “just apply some common sense to what we were told was a very complex situation”.
The show ministers to a strand of common-sense supremacism that plays a recognisable role in more and less sophisticated styles of political cynicism. Make Me Prime Minister is the kind of show you can imagine appealing to someone who reckons Hugh Grant should definitely be made Prime Minister on the basis of the terribly amusing dance he does in Love Actually, or who tweets terrifying lists of the various celebrities who would appear in their “fantasy cabinets”. It is a position that operates in a purposefully unstable rhetorical ground — at once reflexively sanctimonious and deeply unserious. The show’s embrace of this kind of thought makes for a haywire tone. One moment Campbell and Warsi talk disapprovingly about politics “being in a mess” and the urgent search for “new talent and energy”; the next, parish-council tactical-Zoom-defenestrator Jackie Weaver is introduced as one of the contestants. One minute, we’re told “parliament ought to sit up and take notice” of the fine example the contestants are setting; the next, we have to watch as they stumble around, asserting themselves mindlessly like a round-the-clock tribute act to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Of course, to the owners of the reductive theory that politics consists in the straightforward application of common sense, the solutions to all our problems can look frustratingly close to hand. All we have to do, as various candidates suggest in their turn, is to put “any differences aside”, agree to “take a more progressive approach”, and try to be “a lot more forgiving and a lot more open”. “I believe in doing the right thing,” insists one candidate, contentiously; another informs us that in politics all “you need [is] integrity and principles”. “I try not to take an argumentative stance when I debate” reveals one, apparently without irony. “I don’t like to be confrontational”, insists another at a decisive moment of conflict. “It’s one of the things I dislike about politics.” (What exactly there is left of politics, let alone left to like about it, once conflict has been disposed of, is not explained.)
You might think it would be quite tricky for someone who believes that all political disagreement dissolves in the universal acid of common sense to explain the manifest character of the world around them. Cynicism about the political process can be a helpful crutch here, though it can easily modulate into something with a more wide-eyed, conspiracist aspect to it. Because there cannot be any real political problems, the theory might go, anyone — in particular, any politician — pretending that there are must be somehow compromised: a liar, ill-intentioned or in someone else’s pocket.
For common-sense supremacists, being alienated from a sclerotic and corrupted political process can therefore only bolster one’s credentials. The “ordinary Brit”, with her brutal logic of common sense, wouldn’t do the “top job” just as well as the career politician; she would do it a damn sight better! She is, after all, free from all that unhelpful political baggage — you know, all that dreadful cumbersome stuff like understanding, loyalty, experience or commitment.
All the contestants on Make Me Prime Minister seem to credit some version of this account of the pure and indefeasible claim of free-floating common sense. In fact, it is perhaps this that accounts for the strangely unstable set of attitudes they seem to hold with regard to extant political life: a mixture of global contempt, wild self-belief, and shameless ignorance. At the limit — as the show’s candidates express with an unguarded clarity — even a standing interest in politics might be a possession of doubtful value. “I don’t know that I am interested in politics,” Jackie Weaver boasts; a second contestant suggests his “greatest attribute” is his lack of party-political solidarity (“I would just weigh up the policies as I see them”); another boasts of his “outsider status”; “what you need to do is think: I’m sick of these politicians, I can do this better”.
The anti-democratic argument that rule-by-experts would be best for society and the soul is, of course, as old as political philosophy itself. At first sight, the implied political vision of Make Me Prime Minister is a terrifying inversion of its Platonic relation — it shows us a vision of society ruled, not by philosopher kings, but by an untrained council of reality TV contestants who also happen to be apolitical imbeciles. But in a way, the opposed visions have more in common than is first apparent. Both are ways not so much of advancing political life, but of disposing of it altogether. They are both expressions of the belief, or perhaps the consoling aspiration, that politics, with all its constitutive disharmony and antagonism, should cease to exist. Of course, as a solution to the perennial problem of reaching political decisions, the resolution comes, inevitably, one decision too late. And it is one of the fleeting pleasures of watching Make Me Prime Minister to see its contestants’ belief in the obliterating power of common sense and worthy intentions disintegrate as they struggle, argue and disagree in the course of making even the most elementary decisions.
Surely this show has backfired on its creators? If I didn’t know better, I would say the whole thing was the result of a hasty backroom deal between television executives and the government designed to make members of the current administration look sane, witty, intelligent, urbane, self-effacing and capable by comparison. It is no small irony that the show falls flat in this way, much like the contestants’ attempts to “prove themselves” do: collapsing without generating intelligent reflection or insight, the hollowness of their shared and complacent vision of politics exposed. There are, needless to say, insightful and unsettling criticisms to be made of the political institutions in this country; but the claim that we would all be better off if very simple-minded people were running them is not one of them.