Is Lembit right?

by Stephen Tall on February 4, 2008

Lembit Opik has been making the headlines again today, this time for his defence of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozys headline-grabbing wedding to former model Carla Bruni.

Most Lib Dems are, I guess, fairly accustomed to greeting Lembit’s pronouncements on media intrusion into celebrities’ lives with a slightly embarrassed shrug. As liberals, we have no problem with folk living their own lives in their own way; but Lembit’s unabashed upfrontness (such as last year’s Hello photoshoot with his current beau, Cheeky Girl singer Gabriela Irimia) can distract from his and the party’s more serious message.

That’s not much of an issue for President Sarkozy – he’s pretty much guaranteed blanket media coverage for anything he says or does. It’s more of an issue for a spokesman for the UK’s third party, who is probably only known to the public for his forays into minor-celebdom.

But Lembit went further than the usual ‘my private life is just that’ liberal response in his interview on the BBC Today Programme this morning, suggesting that celebrity couplings can rekindle the public’s interest in politics:

On the whole the media can be as critical as they want of these situations. The public tend to be more generous. They basically say we want people who connect, we want colourful people. Just because a politician has an attractive partner, that doesn’t make them worse at politics. Maybe it actually makes them better and more inspirational in terms of the general public.”

The purist liberal in me is instinctively uncomfortable with such remarks: the blurring of the personal and professional in political life is, I think, demeaning for the individuals concerned – everyone needs a private place where they can hide from the public gaze; and unhealthy for the wider public – who become distracted from the issues which will directly affect their lives. But as Ming Campbell discovered, when he got fed up with answering questions about his socks and resigned as party leader, there is an insatiable appetite for personal trivia. If you want to get on in politics, you just have to accept it, and deal with it.

But is Lembit right? Does public curiosity about the private lives of public figures help engage the electorate with politics? Or does it simply allow the public to feel they’re taking an interest in politics while paying no attention whatsoever?