3 September, 2023
The Times, by Robert Covile
hat links Taylor Swift, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nadine Dorries? Global fame? Devastating sexual charisma? In two out of three cases, sure. (Sorry, Cristiano.) But the real answer is that they are symptoms of perhaps the most important underlying trend in our politics: the great shift from institutions to individuals.
In the old days, it was institutions that had the power. Record companies. Football clubs. Political parties. But that power has been getting weaker and weaker. When her record label sold the masters of Swift’s albums to one of her enemies, she re-recorded them with the parenthesis “(Taylor’s Version)”. When the Saudi government decided to turn its football league into a juggernaut, it gambled that the social media sway of Ronaldo, Neymar and its other recruits would have people cheering for teams they’d never even heard of. As for Dorries, she finally quit parliament with a breathtakingly solipsistic 1,800-word Mail on Sunday column — after months in which her media appearances were many times more frequent than her visits to parliament or her constituency. Resignation letter, Nadine’s version.
This focus on individuals isn’t completely new, of course. Victorian voters went dizzy for Dizzy and gaga for Gladstone. But what’s different is the extent to which loyalty has been displaced by fandom. Think of the Corbynite capture of the Labour Party. Or the Johnson ascendancy on the Tory side. Or the way Trump crushed institutional Republicanism underfoot, to the point where the only new policy in its 2020 manifesto was to “enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda”. Or the way that a footballer — Marcus Rashford — forced a government with an 80-seat majority into a U-turn on free school meals.
Of course, there are still institutions that matter. But these days, they tend to be expressions of fandom themselves. It’s hard to imagine the RSPB denouncing ministers as “liars” and pronouncing sententiously about “a nature and climate emergency” in the days of Jonathan Dimbleby, Magnus Magnusson or Colonel Sir Tufton Beamish. In an individualistic age, people become members of the RSPB, or the Church of England, out of motivation rather than obligation. The same is true of political parties.
Conservative and Labour clubs used to be at the heart of the community — not least for lack of other options. Today, if you care enough to give a political party your card details, you probably really, really care.
This trend has all kinds of implications for our politics, not many of them positive. It makes parties harder to manage, because MPs don’t feel as strong a need to fall in line. All other things being equal, it moves parties away from the centre: it’s striking that Labour’s membership has been falling even as its poll ratings have been rising, because compromise upsets the fans. It makes things tough for politicians such as Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, both institutional men. And it may, as we’ve seen in other countries, make it easier for insurgent parties if they can find the right figurehead. I suspect that a party led by money-saver Martin Lewis would have a decent chance of following in the footsteps of Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche party — though surely no Briton would be as gauche as to name their party after their own initials.
But that’s not all. Parties with smaller memberships will tend to be more influenced by passionate groups on their fringes. They will also struggle to do controversial or transformative things unless they can win over other fandoms, or find charismatic individuals to act as their champions. If Margaret Thatcher was attempting her programme of national revival today, she would be doing so with an army of supporters roughly seven times smaller. Likewise, one of the many reasons Theresa May ran into trouble in 2017 was that her manifesto agitated all manner of motivated interest groups: teachers (school funding), animal rights activists (fox hunting) and elderly people who wanted to keep their own homes. There’s a broader problem, too. One of the defining tendencies of online communities is to self-radicalise. Whether it’s the far right or far left, or fans of Ariana Grande or My Little Pony, the more you become involved with a group, the more it defines your identity — not least because the way you gain status in a group is to be the most committed member. But this means that you lose a common frame of reference. The art of politics is about trade-offs. But fandoms tend to deal in absolutes.
To see what I mean, just look at the recent row about nutrient neutrality, which revolved around the trade-off between housebuilding and phosphate emissions. The government wasn’t actually weakening pollution targets — it was promising to put hundreds of millions more into cleaning up rivers. But no one cared about the policy detail. This was a clash of fandoms between housing zealots like me, and nature nuts like the RSPB. And we were starting from completely different places.
Indeed, this is something particularly worrying about the age of fandom: that there are many more fans of blocking changes than making them.
In 2011, the coalition put forward some modest planning reforms. The Daily Telegraph promptly launched a campaign called “Hands off our land”, recruiting a gallimaufrey of fandoms from the Campaign to Protect Rural England to Friends of the Earth to the
Football Association to, yes, the RSPB. And of course the movement attracted celebrity support: Jo Brand, Bill Bryson, Tony Robinson, Michael Morpurgo and more. The government duly caved in.
Today, one of the most striking and encouraging phenomena in Westminster has been the growth of the Yimbys — young policy enthusiasts who have pinpointed our failure to build and grow as our key economic weakness. Groups such as Britain Remade,
PricedOut or the team behind Works in Progress magazine are winning argument after argument, on both left and right.
But as a mass movement, they are monumentally outnumbered. And while there are plenty of celebrities keen to defend the view from their garden, it’s hard to think of a Feargal Sharkey or Martin Lewis equivalent who can whip the nation into a frenzy over house prices, grid connections or unbuilt dual carriageways.
It’s a tall order, but those of us who want Britain to thrive need to not only win the policy argument for growth, but somehow make it cool again. Does anyone have Taylor’s number?