The MP's stint in the jungle was his most successful embarrassment yet
With Matt Hancock’s departure from the Australian jungle in third place, his reputation (we are informed by YouGov) has been enhanced among British voters. He’s not suddenly a popular figure, but 14% of the population have a more favourable view of him now than they did before, which when you’re Matt Hancock is a welcome move in the right direction. The ritual humiliation of his stint on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here seems to have done the trick.
Six nights a week we were treated to a carnival of social and corporeal mortification. The other contestants gleefully participated in the flogging. They hated Hancock and they didn’t hide it. Even Boy George, a man jailed for chaining an escort to a radiator, didn’t accept him: “I find him slimy, I find him slippery.” He had to shower next to a Hollyoaks hunk and wear spandex shorts beside Mike Tindall. When he wasn’t being bitten by snakes in the challenges, Hancock was being stung by a wild scorpion that had wandered into the camp. The producers hardly had to try. Every flora and fauna in that jungle was out to get him. Evidently the British public would, even in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, spend their wages on votes to torture him. Some trials were biblical (swarms of flies and plagues of rats), some visceral (vats of rotting meat and a camel’s anus) and some downright cruel (chatting to Chris Moyles).
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Not very long ago, public humiliation was used as an alternative to prison, and was considered an equally appropriate way of expiating guilt. For petty infractions like adultery or drunkenness, a spell in the stocks was deemed about right. And Hancock’s final trial was pillory, pure and simple. He was locked in wooden shackles and submerged in water. Eels wrapped around his neck. After being released he embraced Gina on the bridge. The final image recalled the original humiliation, this time caught not on CCTV but the ITV cameras. The circle was complete and the ritual was over.
It turns out we needn’t have sent Hancock all the way to Australia. A local councillor in Thame called David Bretherton looked into the records and has determined that the stocks are actually still legal — in fact every town is still required to have one. A Thame Town Council announcement from 2016 states that the “Statute of Labours [sic]” of 1405 requires “every town and village to maintain a set of stocks in which to punish vagabonds, layabouts and drunkards.” Towns found in violation of the statute would “be downgraded to a hamlet and would lose its right to hold a market or fair.”
In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault pointed out that ‘we are now far away from the country of tortures, dotted with wheels, gibbets, gallows, pillories.’ But the French philosopher, regrettably, never lived to see I’m A Celebrity. If he’d survived another 17 years and caught the inaugural 2002 season, he would have surely noted the resurgence of what he called the ‘country of tortures’. We have simply exported it to Australia, our old penal colony. Perhaps there is an argument for bringing it home.
Upon entering the jungle, Hancock said all he wanted was forgiveness. But you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes you get what you need.