Ten years after the car crash in Paris that opened the floodgates of public emotion, the crying game is still playing well in politics and in the media. Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, was tearful when interviewed following the shooting of Rhys Jones, an event which also made the BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce cry when she first heard about it.
These displays of public emotion, whether they occur in front of the camera or are recalled later in an interview, now follow a definite pattern: tears first and then, shoulders squared, a return to work. Image-wise, a useful double whammy of sensitivity and professionalism is provided.
In a country where blubbing has become confused with sincerity, it takes a brave person to make the case for remaining dry-eyed. Not for the first time in recent years, that person has turned out to be Ann Widdecombe. It was inappropriate for the Home Secretary to be emotional, says Ms Widdecombe. “It does a patient no good, or a victim on the floor, if you are standing there crying. What you have to do is not sit down with a handkerchief, but produce solutions.”
If some flinty old Tory brute from yesteryear had articulated these views, no one would have paid much attention, but Widdecombe occupies a peculiar role on the British political scene. Her views may be predictable, but her personality is – or at least seems – more complex and interesting. Beneath the brisk, nannyish exterior lurks a sense that something emotional, perhaps even sad, is going on. This quality is what has interested TV and publishing executives. It is why, impertinently, Louis Theroux asked her if she was a virgin. She is perceived as being buttoned-up, unresolved in some mysterious and intimate way. Her image has something of the disappointed romantic heroine to it.
The reality is almost certainly less interesting. There is neither reason nor evidence to suggest that here is a pressure-cooker of pent-up feeling, but it is her good luck, or misfortune, that she answers a great public need for cliché. Not only is she unmarried, but she has a comic, matronly air to her which suggests that she is “a character”. The English like their right-wingers to be slightly dotty – Dr Rhodes Boyson, the mutton-chopped enthusiast of corporal punishment, once played the part to perfection. Ann Widdecombe is not notably witty but, thanks to the marvellous alchemy of celebrity, she now plays the Hattie Jacques role in the Carry On of contemporary politics.
Who could blame an ambitious person for playing up to her public image? Unsurprisingly, she is about to retire from Parliament, having presumably decided that being a celebrity, occasionally sounding off about this and that, is rather easier and more rewarding than being a working politician. In semi-comic battleaxe mode, she has just completed a series in which she bullies those she regards as social inadequates, bustling about council estates with a camera crew in tow. She has just agreed to appear on a series of TV ads for pasta.
Here, perhaps, is the way modern politics works. Those on the outer wings of their parties become media pundits, rentagob moralists, occasional comic turns. They appear on TV, arguing the issues of the day with a colour and character that has been leeched from parliamentary life over the past 15 years. Tony Benn’s joke on his retirement from the backbenches that he wanted to devote more time to politics has turned out to be prophetic.
In an age of cautious centrism, MPs who ask awkward questions are seen by those in power as loose cannons, potential vote-losers. They are marginalised, replaced the kind of production-line technocrats – the very people who have done so much to bore and alienate voters.
Ann Widdecombe may be irritating and egotistical, her views may be a bog-standard mix of family values and authoritarianism, but there are millions of people who heartily agree – or disagree – with them. Following one of her recent documentaries, a group of enraged and enterprising young people on an estate in north London filmed a documentary riposte and posted it on YouTube. “They showed adults doing normal everyday activities,” one of them claimed. “But each time they showed young people it was in the dead of night and we were hanging around in doorways.” It is difficult to imagine any member of the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet managing to provoke that strength of feeling.
How odd it is that the Westminster establishment has become so suffocatingly safe and dull that one actually finds oneself regretting the fact that Ann Widdecombe has traded in politics for a career in showbiz.