“Anyone capable of getting themselves elected as President should on no account be allowed to do the job”. So said the late author Douglas Adams. To Reykjavík’s credit, it did the next best thing and elected someone who didn’t really seem to be trying. Here in London, we recognise something familiar in the unexpected rise of Jón Gnarr and The Best Party. We too have a mayor elected primarily because it seemed like a nice idea at the time. While I have high hopes for The Best Party, who seem to me like a thoughtful and progressive bunch, I fear that the inexplicable rise of these two men—one a comedian and accidental politician, the other a politician and accidental comedian—tells us more about the state of our society than it does about them.
At first glance, Boris Johnson, the right wing Mayor of London, and Jón Gnarr, the anarchist comedian and accidental mayor of Reykjavík, have little in common. Jón, an Icelandic ex-punk singer turned anarchist comedian, rose to fame with his avant-garde comedy and his appearances in films, television and radio. Boris is a bona fide member of the British aristocracy famed for his unkempt appearance and inexplicable ability to charm his way out of a scandal.
Both men have established themselves as people who don’t play by the rules and defy our lazy shortcuts to classify politicians. Jón Gnarr has an innate dislike for classifying people and deliberately refuses to be placed in a box. Boris meanwhile is the opposite of the modern polished politician. Famed for being dishevelled, disorganised and muddled, were he a Green Party member he would be written off as an environmentalist cliché. But since he is a Conservative, and breaks the stereotype, he can do what Boris does. But it goes beyond simply not obeying the rules; they’ve created their own rules. And when you create your own rules, no one judges you by the same standards as other politicians. That might explain how every scandal Boris inexplicably stumbles through makes him seem more charming and more loveable, but also explains the freedom that Jón has to be creative without fear of being judged by same standards as other politicians.
In part it may be symptomatic of a greater ill. Politics has become so discredited, and society so celebrity obsessed, that we care more about who a person is than what they’ll do. Neither Boris nor Jón ran on any real platform, but somehow it didn’t matter. The main thrust of Boris’ campaign was to bring back the famous London red bus—a sincere pledge, but one no less ludicrous or irrelevant to the people than Gnarr’s promise to put a polar bear in the city zoo. Most people who voted for Boris were either unaware, or simply didn’t care, that behind his shocking blond mop and affable demeanour lay a hard right politician. Nor did the voters of Reykjavík care that most The Best Party’s platform was either vague or silly—at least they were entertaining. And here lies the nub of the matter. The politics of the centre ground killed political theatre and it took the heart out. People are tired of the same old plastic mould politics with rent-a-face politicians, which means when anybody different comes along we jump aboard—whatever they stand for. Politicians argue more and debate less. The strategy meetings, polling data and focus groups have identified the small minority of f loating voters who swing an elections and now nothing else matters.
But the fault is as much ours as it is theirs. What Boris and Jón Gnarr show us is that while we continue to hold notions of what a politician should be and constrain what they can say and do, we’ll be stuck with the same old second rate hacks, refusing to engage in anything more meaningful that a short term expediency. Meanwhile, thoughtful and intelligent individuals will continue to shun politics, leaving us with the same old secondrate hacks running our countries.