"This ignorance was, it turns out, Clegg’s greatest weapon..."When most people turned on their televisions to watch the first leaders’ debate they probably knew – or thought they knew - all they wanted to know about Gordon Brown and David Cameron. For good or bad their images had already been firmly fixed in their minds.
Of Nick Clegg however many were blissfully ignorant. This ignorance was, it turns out, Clegg’s greatest weapon. For when the viewers saw this seemingly nice young man with the striking yellow tie talk direct to camera and distance himself from the two ‘old parties’ and offer them a ‘new politics’ they had no reason to disbelieve him.
If only because they had had not been paying much attention to politics, so far as many voters were concerned, Clegg had no past, he was new: if not The Man With No Name, he was The Man With No Image.
Pity, if you will, the other two. For to be leader of either the Labour or Conservative parties is to be – no matter how hard your spin doctors work – a man mistrusted. One index of quite how bad are their images is their representation in fiction.
As I argued in the Guardian recently Tony Blair has an awful set of fictional representations. You might think that he deserved them. But these do not all originate from reactions to the invasion of Iraq. In fact, soon as ‘Tony Blair’ set foot on the stage, page or screen – even before 1997 - he was cast as media-obsessed, spin-centric and disingenuous. This might have said something about the real Blair – but it also said something about how writers represent those who seek and hold political power.
The Deal, Peter Morgan’s 2002 play for Channel Four, imagined the Brown-Blair relationship and speculated about how it was that the latter lost out to the former in 1994. In 2002 Gordon Brown was the hero – if Blair was superficial, Brown was substantial; if Blair was the blow-in to Labour, Brown was rooted, soaked in the party’s ethos; if Blair was disloyal it was Brown’s loyalty to John Smith that cost him the leadership. But look at Brown as depicted in The Trial of Tony Blair and Confessions of a Diary Secretary both of which were broadcast in 2007: childish, petty and sulky.
Right from the start Cameron too has got the sharp end of the stick. In Confessions of a Diary Secretary he is presented as a silly ass suffering some severe problems with his cycling shorts. In the 2009 documentary-with-made-up-bits When Boris Met Dave things are even worse: as a student he shown liking Sade.
Where is Nick Clegg? Nowhere to be seen. When politics is screened the LibDems as a whole hardly get a look-in.
The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, broadcast on BBC1 in 2006, reduced the 2005 election campaign to two middle aged Labour and Conservative candidates fighting in a supermarket car park. The LibDem turns up just as the police arrive.
As it happens he is also given a flea in his ear by our heroine but then this series was about Pritchard, who wins the election after creating a party of similarly politically disenchanted women. In 2010, Nick Clegg is our Mrs Pritchard – or more likely our Mr Smith Goes to Washington.
Frank Capra’s film might have been released in 1939 but it reverberates through not just US but also UK politics. Showing how an idealistic young man untouched by politics (for which read corruption and selfish ambition) cuts through the party games to actually stand up for the interests of the people, it is the model for any number of later screen fictions about politics.
Mr Smith has also been consciously or unconsciously evoked by plenty of politicians – both Obama and McCain did it in 2008 - keen to present themselves as the ‘outsider’ candidate. It is an image which in these disenchanted times can be pretty potent.
For Clegg the danger is that this is a one-off – how can you preserve your image as the outsider when the whole purpose of your being is to get inside?
Professor Steven Fielding