Lost at sea: Why appealing to the hipster generation is the wrong way to go for British politics

Sarah Aston

Former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (pictured) has left divided opinions over the legacy she left yet her strong leadership style earn her the admiration of several foreign leaders. Photo Source.

The death of Margaret Thatcher, perhaps one of the most divisive and controversial figures in British history, on April 8th 2013 has sparked intense debate over the success of her administration and the success of her style of politics.

Dominating the headlines, politicians, scholars and the general public are divided over whether the nation should celebrate Thatcher’s determination and force in pushing through undoubtedly unpopular policies at a time of economic instability, or whether we should learn the important lesson that such a style of politics is unsuccessful due it’s highly divisive nature.

Whether Thatcher was popular or not or whether you agree or disagree with the policies that she implemented during her time in office is entirely up to you. One important thing to take away from recent headlines, however, is the move away from the Thatcher style of politics that we have taken in British politics and whether this move is a positive or negative thing.

Overall, one could argue British politics today has been reduced to theatrics and digestible sound bites that sound good but have very little political use.  In September 2012, David Cameron became the first British Prime Minister to appear on a chat show in the United States. Chatting and joking with David Letterman, Cameron spoke of British ambitions and the crisis in Syria.

So far not groundbreaking news, but following the infamous publicity stunts of Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in the weeks of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the current culture of paying more attention to Theresa May’s leopard print shoes or Samantha Cameron’s new dress, this publicity move from Cameron marks a radically different approach to politics than was seen in the Thatcher era and has been branded by some political commentators as “politics for the hipster generation”.

Some of you may say that this should be regarded as progress and that David Cameron is merely recognizing a shift in the priorities of the general public. But do we want a Prime Minister that appeals to the whims and fancies of a hipster generation, famed for their fickleness and superficial understanding of domestic and world politics, or do we want a Prime Minister willing to implement unpopular yet necessary policies?

The era of ‘New Labour’ can be seen as the turning point in British politics when politics became less about introducing policies that were necessary and more about introducing policies that boosted the popularity of the party. Whilst previous Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Mayor had maintained a sense of tradition within politics, even if the policies themselves often caused controversy, Tony Blair and the Labour party courted aspects of pop culture (“Cool Britannia”) being photographed with popular TV actresses and musicians.

Fast forward to 2012 and Boris Johnson is being heralded as the next Conservative Prime Minister after becoming stuck in a zipwire and then being filmed dancing to the Spice Girls at the Olympic Closing Ceremony. For what reason? Because he makes people laugh, but should he be judged as a politician purely by these antics? Judging by last month’s disastrous interview with Eddie Mair, probably not.

Whilst political interest in Britain is declining and the turnout for general elections has been at its lowest for the past three political elections, interest in fashion and culture is increasing. As a result, British politics seems to be increasingly dumbed down not only to what its leading players are wearing, who they can be seen with and what catchy slogans one can couch a policy within but also in terms of the introduction of actual policy.

Whilst the Coalition government is seemingly going some way to rectify the current trend of introducing superficial policy to appeal to the masses with the introduction of a radical new welfare system, the same cannot be said for foreign policy.

David Cameron’s recent op-ed to The Telegraph can be taken as the most recent example. Writing in defense of Britain’s nuclear programme Trident, the Prime Minister stated “we need our nuclear deterrent as much today as we did when a previous British Government embarked on it over six decades ago”. Whilst this is almost unequivocally true from a Realist IR perspective, the timing of Cameron’s statements should be taken into account.

Nuclear programmes are vital for international stability. You can battle out the various moral dilemmas or liberal arguments however much you like, but generally speaking nuclear weapons have reduced the likelihood of war. This is not a popular argument and as such Cameron has never before directly stated that he is adamant about maintaining Trident. Surprising then that suddenly he has stated that Britain needs a nuclear weapon.


Because North Korea and the possible threat of war has started to change popular opinion about Britain’s nuclear defence. That the Prime Minister’s confidence to state that Britain needs a nuclear programme is dictated by the headline and popular opinion should worry you.

The likelihood that North Korea will move beyond aggressive rhetoric is highly unlikely and Cameron no doubt knows this. What he is doing, then, is arguably pandering to a public that once the crisis is over, will no doubt return to their criticism of nuclear policy. Whilst every Prime Minister needs to absorb public opinion, contradictory statements regarding foreign policy matters help no one and as a result Britain’s foreign policy agenda is often lost at sea.

However much one might criticize Thatcher, what we need to take into account is her unswerving determination to push through policies she thought would benefit the country. In both domestic and international politics, Britain needs someone who will enact policies that serve Britain’s interest. Politicians swayed by the media and the desire to be regarded as ‘cool’ or ‘popular’ are not what this country needs.

So whilst the hipsters of Brixton might burn their poster of Baroness Thatcher for introducing unpopular policies, what we need to start realizing is that the politicians today are doing us no favours.

What started with Tony Blair has now spiraled out of control and matters of national security are now being dictated by the whims of a generation unused to war and instability and uninterested in politics unless it’s controversial or in the headlines. Let’s face it, in today’s current climate we need politicians who know what they are talking about and are unafraid to take on the hipster generation or opinion polls.

One Response
  1. Todd Carter Reply

    Though I agree with Ms Aston’s assertions that British politics is ever-changing; becoming less popular, and having to cope with continually decreasing voting turnouts: I do not think that one can assume that politics in the UK is becoming ‘dumbed down’. Though we might not see another ‘In Place of Strife’, I fundamentally disagree with the premise that we’re moving closer and closer to a ‘Downing St. for Idiots’ culture (nor indeed a concentration on the lives and exploits of politician’s ‘W.A.G.’s).

    As the author correctly states, Britain’s political figures are certainly subjected to ever increasing levels of public and media scrutiny (whether trivial or not). To accuse – as is implied – that this has led to a lack of substance and intricacy from the statesman of today is a rather large leap. Given, as Ms Aston so rightly points out, the lack of interest on behalf of the majority of British citizens with regards to party politics and policy adoption (not to mention actually voting, and participating within Britain’s democratic system) – most politicians are under pressure to come up with, and evolve exciting or intriguing ‘sound bites’ or legislative concepts in lieu of hugely complex policy titles in order to attract people’s attention in the slightest. This doesn’t mean that their ideas and proposals aren’t complex. On the contrary, it means Britain’s post-Thatcher statesmen and women are just more aware of the fact that, like all businessmen, they have to ‘sell’ and ‘package’ their products and policies successfully.

    Furthermore, after establishing this point, the article – in my view at least – appears to go off almost at a complete tangent. To accuse Cameron’s current government of the same kind of ‘spin-mongering’ as Tony Blair’s New Labour administration is somewhat ill-informed. I do not see how you can label a government that has raised higher education fees, introduced enormous public service cuts, and given its all to push through controversial (at least within the political discourse and tradition of the Tory Party) ‘Gay-Marriage’ legislation – all of which it has seen as important steps for the long-term prosperity of the nation – as another symptom of a new generation of post-Blair politicians solely concerned with winning the public relations war, and of pleasing the electorate.

    I have to say, upon reflection, in my view, the article itself may be a tad guilty of doing exactly what it warns against: ‘preaching to the hipster generation’.

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