Monday, 16 September 2013

David Cameron and the art of non-Renaissance non-self fashioning

Take a look at the video of David Cameron defending Britain against Russian officials' private jibes, taken a couple of weeks ago during the antagonistic and rather confrontational meeting of the G20 in Moscow. They'd said Britain was just a 'small island' (which it isn't, actually). Mr Cameron begged to differ.

Some of you will find it rather endearing. Some of you will find it cringeworthy. The Prime Minister is nothing if not good at PR, and he represents a strain of rather watery and laid-back, but certainly patriotic, conservatism (and Conservatism) that in this respect probably matches public opinion fairly well. Every leader has to have a shlock store somewhere.

But - as many more qualified to spot the similarities have pointed out - the really interesting thing is the way in which Mr Cameron was channeling Hugh Grant in Love, Actually. For those of you who aren't so hot on your early 2000s rom-coms, that was a rather fluffy and sappy Richard Curtis comedy in which a new British Prime Minister stands up to an American President with a very similar hymn to the virtues of a nation that's still 'great' by virtue of its film and music industries and its sporting achievements. David Cameron clearly ses himself, or wants us to see him, as a bit of a Hugh Grant - slightly bumbling, perhaps, but with his heart in the right place.

Literary theorists call this self-fashioning - a spectacular idea about the Renaissance for ever associated with the Harvard English academic Stephen Greenblatt, who starting in the early 1980s has really defined the way in which Renaissance figures wore the right clothes, had themselves painted in certain ways, made sure they had the right books, and so on. You don't have to do this sort of thing consciously (though fifteenth and sixteenth century noblemen often did): it can be part of an ethic, an ethos, a way of seeing and being that comes as a package.

And Mr Cameron's way of seeing is this: he's standing up for Britain in a very tough old world, drawing on just about every warmed-over cliche he can get his hands on. Though he wouldn't want to be seen as too strident or too pushy - an image that the diffident actorly persona of Mr Grant allows him to purloin. It's rather pleasing, in a way, to be reminded that our leaders have the same memory bank as we do: that they like linguistic fast food and the oratorical equivalent of a microwave dinner just as much as we do.

Leaders do this sort of thing a lot. Ronald Reagan, that actor-turned-politician, was a master of the art. His jibe at a moderator trying to turn off his microphone - 'I am paying for this microphone, Mr Green' - was a classic example. Almost exactly the same line had been used by Spencer Tracy in State of the Union. Reagan had probably stored up the verbal missile - or, if he hadn't, he was half-remembering something he'd seen and liked, up on the flickering big screen.

The Prime Minister's audience might only have been able to think back to Love, Actually. But Historians don't forget that sort of thing.

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