Life on Mars: celebrity love-bombing from a distance
It’s not often you heard Alan Titchmarsh, Ben Fogle and Ziggy Stardust in the same breath. But Denis Donoghue explains all.
Hardly a week goes by now without the emergence of another big name to inform, urge or cajole us into voting yes or no in the referendum. In the last month we’ve had David Bowie, Alan Titchmarsh, Ben Fogle and Eddie Izzard popping up to champion the status quo. While for the Yes camp we’ve seen Will Self, Mairi Hedderwick, Billy Bragg and Ricky Ross joining the likes of Irvine Welsh, Pat Kane, Brian Cox and Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite. Who cares about what celebrities think? You do obviously. And so do the campaigns. But why? Well, in my opinion, there are several, sometimes overlapping reasons why we take more notice of what ‘celebrities’ think.
Oh! You pretty things: We admire celebrities, we like what they do and respect them for their work. They have achieved something and this gives them a platform from which to be noticed.
We could be heroes: Celebrities are not a new invention. Heroes, both mythical and real, have existed since the dawn of civilization. We want to be like them and view them as role models of sorts. Psychologists tell us that in our long-standing hierarchical society we always look to copy the behaviours of ‘higher status’ figures.
Ch-ch-ch-changes: They tend to be different. They are more varied, colourful and multi-dimensional than politicians. They might also offer a different perspective or communicate a message in a way that we can understand better.
If you say run, I’ll run with you: We can relate to celebrities more readily and perhaps share their background or journey towards forming a standpoint.
So how is this playing out in the independence debate? What, if any, difference is celebrity involvement making? Well, that depends. It all comes down to the level of ‘penetration’ that their message gets and on how much weight voters attach to it. The coverage they get is often down to the vagaries of the mainstream media. But the level of weight, I would suggest, comes down to a combination of factors: status, coverage, message, connection and engagement.
For coverage there is little doubt that David Bowie’s intervention has been the highest profile one. He’s arguably one of only a couple of dozen genuine ‘Legends’ in the music industry and his intervention (albeit second-hand) came live on TV during a high profile Awards ceremony. Because of this it was picked up by the media and made the news bulletins and front pages the next day. The other No side interventions have also received a reasonable level of mainstream coverage; particularly in the UK printed press. Being generous, this may be because celebrity endorsements of the No campaign are much less frequent, and perhaps, of themselves more newsworthy than those on the pro-independence side. Perhaps.
Let’s look at the content of these messages and the mode of delivery:
Bowie: Stay with us (Live on TV)
Fogle: Please don’t leave us (twitter and the Telegraph)
Titchmarsh: Please don’t go (Sunday Post)
Izzard: Scotland, Please Don’t Go (twitter and the Sun)
Aside from the fact that only Bowie failed to use the P word; they all have a startlingly similar tenor. And, on the face of it, there appears to be little substance to these interventions, or pleas as they might more accurately be described. Scratching a little further (where possible) Titchmarsh asserts that a Yes vote would be a mistake and bases his plea around pride and not wanting to see barriers being put up in the UK. Fogle also highlights pride and adds that: “both England and Scotland will suffer from a break-up of the union. There will be increased costs, as well as social and political pressures on both sides at a time when we are trying to get out of deficit.” There is little recognition, however, that these barriers and costs are within the power of the UK Government to address and that it is their lack of willingness to pre-negotiate that creates them.
Izzard set out his stall in The Sun, identifying pro-Union arguments around greater strength on issues like pensions and getting young people into jobs. Given how well Westminster is doing on these I would be quite happy if the debate were to focus on these. But he also makes two other points. Firstly: “Britain would be diminished geographically without Scotland”; and secondly, the UK’s ethnic diversity would be under threat from what he describes as: “Alex Salmond’s separatist nationalism”. Ultimately like the others, he summarises his core argument around pride: “I’m proud to be British but I am also proud of Britain.”
On the first point, as the playwright and Yes campaigner David Greig has pointed out, “Scotland isn’t ‘going’ anywhere. Independence is a change to governance not topography.”
Britain (the island) will still be Britain after independence, and it will still take me about 8 hours to visit my relatives in Devon. For those who have a British identity there is no reason why this should change if Scotland opts to govern itself. Multiple identities are commonplace among those born elsewhere or brought up within a minority culture in Scotland.
On his second point there is clearly a serious lack of understanding about Scotland and about the independence debate. Presumably he has not seen the rictus smile of Nigel Farage on his television screen or looked at UKIP’s current poll ratings. Perhaps the Home Office’s Go Home vans did not visit his part of the “vibrant, tolerant, diverse, confident, country” of Britain. If he had bothered to do even a modest amount of research into the Yes campaign he would acknowledge there has been no ethnic angle to it. “Alex Salmond’s separatist nationalism” is avowedly pro-immigration, while the Westminster parties are falling over themselves to out-Farage each other.
Bowie has not elaborated upon his intervention with any substantiated argument.
So, on the face of it, a lack of understanding about Scotland and the nature of the debate seriously undermines the value of these interventions. None of them touches upon issues of governance, democracy or equality which are the core pillars of the Yes campaign for the most part. The level of understanding of the issues is perhaps a result of the nature of connection and engagement that these individuals have with Scotland and the Scots. But these are things that should not be confused with ethnicity or residency.
Fogle has stated somewhat apologetically that: “as an Englishman, I don’t get a vote, but with a proud Scottish grandfather and relatives in Scotland, I can’t help but have an opinion.” Of course, you can have an opinion, Ben. And Englishmen (and women) do get a vote if they live in Scotland. The referendum will affect the whole of the UK and we need more English people engaging with it and thinking through the implications for England and the rest of the UK. Indeed there have been notable and thoughtful contributions from Billy Bragg and Will Self on the implications of Scottish independence on governance and democracy south of the border.
I tire of those (from both camps) who seek to silence people on the basis of residency or ethnicity. I don’t see Scots being told they can’t have opinions about Ukraine or Syria because they weren’t born there or don’t live there. It’s true that Sean Connery’s influence is undoubtedly weakened by the fact that he lives in the Bahamas, but few would argue that Florida resident Irvine Welsh does not have a strong voice in the independence debate. Welsh is still a frequent visitor to Scotland and is rooted in the working class cultures of football and boxing. He has a long-standing involvement in the debate and has written and talked widely on his views and how they were shaped by his own experiences. So while place of residence, in itself, does not matter; the level of connection and engagement with Scotland does influence the weight people will give to an opinion.
So, like Ben Fogle, most non-Scots dipping their toes into the water feel obliged to offer their credentials before opining on independence. Independence-leaning celebrities Bill Baillie, Simon Pegg and Noel Gallagher, for example, have all identified connections through their wives or partners.
Fogle also states that: “I spent much of my childhood in Scotland, and got my career break there after spending time on an island in the Outer Hebrides. I tried to buy the same island along with the Harris Community to protect its future for the Scottish people.”
He adds that: “I had spent an enjoyable week with a crew of Scots trawler men, during which we debated openly about the subject of independence versus union.” Titchmarsh states that: “I’ve a great love for Scotland and have spent lots of time there since going on regular holidays as a youngster.” Titchmarsh’s latest novel (I confess to having missed the others) Bring Me Home, is set in Scotland. It “tells of landowner Charlie Stuart’s battle to keep his castle and estate going”. Bowie’s intervention also scores poorly on the connection front. He was reportedly ‘too cool’ to come to the UK to make his statement in person and has no documented affinity with Scotland. Izzard (born in Yemen) has lived in practically every part of the UK, including Northern Ireland and Wales; but not in Scotland. He did, however, run from Edinburgh to the Border carrying a Saltire as part of his epic charity run.
It might be reasonable to conclude that these viewpoints are rooted more in nostalgia and romanticism than the everyday lives of the contemporary Scottish voter. This perhaps explains the quasi-colonial message of loss and abandonment that they all deploy.
The level of (past and future) engagement is also a factor in the level of weight these interventions might receive. To what extent are these individuals going to involve themselves in the ongoing debate? And what is their track record of political involvement? I don’t think I’ll hold my breath for Bowie’s long-term involvement. The Herald described his intervention as a “throwaway remark” which may give an indication as to how much traction it will have come September 18th. He might have learned his lesson after previous political statements in the early 70’s. According to the Independent’s Top Ten Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Career Moves, Bowie suggested: “Britain could benefit from a fascist government and that, in his opinion, Adolf Hitler was ‘the first superstar’.”
Ben Fogle has made no secret of his (Tory) political ambitions, telling the Telegraph that: “Obviously, running London would be an amazing thing. I’m a Londoner, so who knows? I think Boris Johnson will probably be prime minister one day and when he steps aside, maybe I’ll nip in there.” So perhaps he has offered himself up as love-bombing cannon fodder with longer-term political ambitions in mind.
Titchmarsh has less of a political pedigree, however, his only previous dabble was stating in the Daily Mail that: “Gardening is more important than politics. It has a consistent point of view. And that is: that a piece of ground should be cherished.” So it doesn’t sound like his intervention is going to take roots.
Eddie Izzard, in contrast, is something of a veteran when it comes to political campaigns. He is a well-known Labour supporter and funder, and was also a prominent backer of the doomed Alternative Vote referendum in 2011. In 2005 he campaigned for Britain to adopt the Euro and has traditionally adopted a pro-European and more progressive stance on many issues than the mainstream of his party. In 2011 he stated his ambition was to become an MP or MEP by 2020. While Izzard may also be keeping an eye on the longer-term political career, I find it less likely that he is a puppet of the Labour Party in this enterprise. And unlike the other three, Izzard appears to be prepared to take an ongoing role in the debate.
So three of the four come from what appears to be a right-wing perspective, while two have recently-stated ambitions to become elected political representatives for the two major UK parties.
So what are we to conclude from these interventions?
They show little understanding of the referendum issues.
They come from individuals with romantic and nostalgic views of Scotland.
They come from people, mainly on the right, with little connection to Scotland.
Two of them have recently-stated ambitions to become elected political representatives for the two major UK parties.
I don’t think these interventions will have any major bearing on people’s voting intentions come September 18th. It remains to be seen what Eddie Izzard might add during his 4th April show. But based on his statements to date, he will need to do a lot of catching up if his intervention is going to seriously trouble those in the Yes camp. That’s not to say that celebrities can’t have an impact. But they need to demonstrate an understanding based on some meaningful connection to the debate, and they need to focus on the key issues rather than abstract romantic or emotional themes.