An exciting clash of political Titans today, as Sion Simon, former Labour MP for somewhere random in Birmingham and former minister for something that sounds so dull I think my skull will explode if I even type it, is reported to have criticised Colin Firth, man off the telly (and to be fair, also on the screen and presumably, if you ask nicely, the stage). Simon’s charge against Firth is not that he looked ridiculous in those tight britches in Pride and Prejudice or that agreeing to do Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was a mistake. No, he’s gone all serious on the actor’s ass. Firth, says Simon, should apologise for publicly deserting Labour for the Liberal Democrats in the last election (unsurprisingly, he assumes that the result of that election has been a Bad Thing). He then goes on to scorn Firth’s latest cinematic offering, The King’s Speech, in which Firth plays King George VI, for painting too rosy and sympathetic a picture of the aristocracy.
It would be easy to dismiss Mr Simon as a silly man with a silly name whose apparent ambition to live the dream as the first directly-elected Mayor of Birmingham is hardly going to be furthered by attacking a popular celebrity. Also, if he’s going to complain about popular culture that’s overly-sympathetic to the idle rich, The King’s Speech isn’t exactly a radical departure – what about Upstairs Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited or practically any adaptation of Agatha Christie? And that’s just the TV programmes. Painful though it may be for Mr Simon, most of us dream more about living in a country house with lots of liveried servants than we do about the Third Way leading to economic growth and better public services, wholly unrealistic though the former may be, and that’s what we prefer to see in films.
However, perhaps unintentionally, Mr Simon’s comments do illustrate the extent to which we judge politicians differently from everyone else and the extent to which they get so used to this that they forget that difference. Let’s run, for the sake of argument, with his belief that the Coalition has proved a total disaster. The reality is that in ordinary life people are always voicing political opinions that turn out to be wrong, making predictions about politics that turn out to be unjustified and cheerfully changing their minds about those opinions and predictions, without being expected to apologise about any of it. I never expected Communism to collapse or the IRA to call a ceasefire; I thought that Tony Blair, in 1997, was just pretending to be more right-wing than he really was to get elected (and voted accordingly). No-one’s ever asked me to apologise. It’s generally understood that part of political freedom is the freedom to be completely wrong and that goes just as much for famous actors who get asked about their beliefs in interviews as for obscure characters like me who pronounce on such things down the pub.
Of course, it’s different for the pros. Once you actually get elected to anything, your mistakes are public, the nonsense you spout gets quoted back at you, every disagreement with your colleagues is a split, every change a U-turn. And you will be under pressure to apologise all the time. It must be incredibly frustrating. But, then, politicians are seeking power to put their beliefs into effect in a way that everyone else isn’t. We therefore tend to insist that they are more consistent and coherent in those beliefs than the rest of us, not to mention more correct. The real kicker though, must come when they finally reach the top through carefully toeing the line and realise that, once you’ve finished making the concessions needed to satisfy, in no particular order, your civil servants, the City, your party activists, your MPs, the electorate, the Treasury, the European Union, the lobby groups, the protestors, the media, the Courts, the United States, the IMF, the G20, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all, you haven’t actually got much power left anyway. Considering all this, who’ d want to be a politician? Having authentic beliefs but no power to enforce them is preferable to having limited power to put into effect “beliefs” you don’t really believe in.
2017 EDIT: Let the record show that in May 2017, Sion Simon was defeated in the election for Mayor of the West Midlands (“unlimited power! Mwa-ha-ha!”). I doubt alienating the Colin Firth fanbase had much to do with it, but you never know.