Amateurs playing at politics will get swept aside by the professionals
Politicians are not popular; not now and rarely ever. The bickering, the pettiness, the game-playing, the dirt thrown – much of which sticks to some extent, including to the hands throwing it – the actual policies proposed or implemented, the negative characteristics of those involved: none raises the esteem in which our leaders are held.
Which is why politicians frequently seek to appropriate some of the popularity of celebrities; those personalities to which the public, or parts of it, look up to as role models, whose views, opinions and behaviours are to be admired and copied: footballers, actors, comedians and the like. That there is mutual hypocrisy involved in this is beside the point. Politicians engage because it furthers the causes they believe in and celebrities do it because it allows them the chance to do ‘serious’ (and to gain free publicity).
Stuart Rose is, however, not a celebrity. Nor is he really a politician. He is a Conservative member of the House of Lords but has never stood for election nor held public office (Lords membership apart). You can see why that appeals to those looking for someone to front the Stay campaign for the EU referendum: he is not without political experience but comes with a strong track record of success in business. On the face of it, his credibility there should play favourably in winning the minds of voters who are not ideologically committed and will vote based on pound-and-pence arguments.
But that reasoning is wrong. For a start, a Conservative peer and an ex-FTSE100 Chief Executive is not a voice of the people. Although many people do have contempt for politicians, that extends readily to other readily identifiable members of the faceless establishment so it’s unlikely that he’ll get any credit as an independent voice. But there are two other reasons why his appointment is a mistake.
The first is that he’s essentially an amateur in politics. The In campaign will no doubt be advised by highly-skilled politicians such as Lord Mandelson but there’s a reason why for all the distrust of them, people still vote for politicians (and generally politicians of established parties), even when given the option. Their negative attributes are not so much a consequence of politicians as of politics, which of necessity requires dispute and argument, and where personal attacks are inevitable.
Celebrities who get involved in the political sphere soon find themselves subject to a level of scrutiny far beyond that to which they are accustomed. But it’s not just that the gloss will soon be swept off any outsider who chooses to get serious; it’s also that politicians act as they do because they know from the experience of many years what works and, more particularly, what doesn’t.
There is, after all, nothing particularly special about politicians as a breed. So either the celebrity will end up aping the tactics and behaviours of more seasoned politicians, usually badly, or they will try to do something different and often come even more of a cropper. In either case, why not just go with the professional in the first place?
And here’s the second point: those professionals are going to get involved either way. National-level politicians do not sacrifice what they do in terms of time, effort, privacy, family life and – in some cases – income and personal standing, for the fun of it. They have strong beliefs that they want to see advanced. Campaigning is what they do and, for the more successful, is what they are good at.
They will get involved in the referendum campaign not because it is a duty but because it is a passion. And as with Alistair Darling’s underwhelming leadership of No in Scotland, where the nominal leader doesn’t come up to scratch, he or she will be overtaken by more effective performers if the issue is important enough. That vote in Scotland was important enough. The AV referendum wasn’t. The EU poll will be: too many people care too much for any other outcome.
And one who will care greatly is the prime minister himself. It will be on the terms and conditions that he has negotiated that the electorate will vote. He cannot but throw himself into the fray when the future of his own policy is at stake. (This works both ways: in the unlikely event that he publicly accepts that he couldn’t get the terms he wanted then unless he resigns on that point, the dynamics of the situation will mean he can have no choice but to become the face of Out). It is simply not a matter which can be delegated.