Personality Politics: Our Not So New Obsession

Without a doubt U.K party politics has become more centralised over the past two decades, that is, it has become more about the party leader and less about party policy. This change in our political system can be attributed to many different factors which influence one another: a decrease in loyalty due to a dilution in political ideology; technological advancement, particularly in the media; entrenched distrust in the system as the number of scandals increases; and, of course, the rise of PR.

As our political parties attempted to become more ‘catch-all’ and less ideologically-orientated, the impetus was on the party leaders – or perhaps more accurately, the spin doctors as party leaders – to present this change to the public, to become the best ‘all-rounder’. Thus, we are at stage where personality politics is all we seem to talk about in the run up to elections, which these days is all the time. But nowhere is our increasing obsession with our leaders more apparent than in political TV debates.

One particularly interesting and striking example of this phenomenon is the TV debates which took place in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum. The first two of these debates involved Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, the de facto leaders of the opposing campaigns. The third took a rather different form, involving three spokespeople for each campaign from various political parties or, in the case of Elaine C. Smith, from non-political professions.

Now, anyone who watched all of these debates will most likely tell you that the latter was by far the most intelligible and informative out of all three. However, on brief analysis of the media coverage of these debates it becomes apparent that the latter was the least talked about. Indeed, the BBC website hosts an easily accessible and extremely thorough breakdown of the Darling/Salmond debates, including polling data, social media analysis and key quotes. Whereas, on the contrary, it reveals no articles discussing the third debate, let alone an in-depth analysis.

The few articles and pieces of analysis that can be readily found are in newspapers, primarily Scottish national newspapers, and on the ITV/STV websites. However, even their coverage of the third debate is pitiful in comparison to that of the Darling/Salmond show-down. Thus, a debate which had the potential to be highly influential, if not the most influential out of all three, is forced down the media-agenda and consequently the public-agenda.

Now some people may read this and come to the conclusion that the media are to blame, and they are to an extent. But we must always bear in mind that they are working off of data which is telling them that we, as a society, prefer to hear about the personal politics of our leaders over the political policies of our parties; so much so, that in a vote with two campaigns dedicated to no one party, we managed to assign party leaders.