Voices: Matt Hancock’s actually got a point about I’m a Celebrity

Champion of the people Matt Hancock is bravely stepping forwards to teach his fellow politicians an important lesson when it comes to engaging with the common man.

He’s off to Australia to join the latest series of I’m a Celebrity – munching on creepy crawlies and kangaroo testicles to show us all that politicians are human too. How brave! How laudable!

Look, it’s obviously a ridiculous choice for a sitting MP – one whose constituents, presumably, would prefer him to be focused on their issues to faffing around in the Australian rainforest.

But in a classic example of the right argument for the wrong reasons, maybe there is something in his desperate attempt to justify his own participation. “It’s as clear as day that politicians like me must go to where the people are,” Hancock wrote in The Sun, “particularly those who are politically disengaged. We must wake up and embrace popular culture.”

It’s hard to know who he’s trying hardest to convince here – himself or his constituents. But in pointing out that popular culture doesn’t have to be something we all sneer at, he’s sort of accidentally making a valid point anyway.

You don’t have to go on I’m a Celebrity, but you can absolutely be interested in popular culture alongside more traditionally “intellectual” pursuits. And even if it’s not something you enjoy, even when certain trends in popular culture might be damaging, by its very nature, pop culture often has profound and interesting things to say about society – whether these insights are deliberate or accidental.

Love Island, for instance, is a pretty fascinating demonstration of how sexist (and racist) stereotypes still prevail in plenty of dating scenarios. Big Brother in its early incarnations was a genuinely interesting social experiment. Even Strictly – as well as demonstrating and catering to our appetite for escapism – has been gently pushing against heteronormative and ableist expectations in recent years.

I’m a Celebrity itself is a sort of modern equivalent of the village stocks – and I suspect that many people might enjoy an opportunity to throw food and jeer at Hancock. (Last year’s winner Danny Miller has already predicted the public will use him as a “toy”.) In fact, you could probably write whole essays about our frustrated desire for some way – any way – to hold those in power accountable for their actions.

Again, I’m not saying you have to love these shows, nor am I denying that sometimes their interest lies in exposing some pretty unpalatable truths about our culture or society. But announcing with pride that you’ve never seen a single episode can make you sound a bit like you’re trying too hard. It’s in this – and in his talk of reaching out to engage a different demographic in politics – that Hancock might actually have something useful to say.

Politics isn’t just for people who consume PMQs like it’s its own reality TV show. It isn’t just for people who studied history or politics at university. And politics already exists in one form or another in pretty much every reality TV show in existence.

During the height of Partygate last year, one of the key articles of proof that the story had “broken through” with the public came when Ant and Dec made fun of Boris Johnson during the presenting section on I’m a Celebrity.

There’s even a bit of a tradition of politicians (and those linked to politicians) on reality TV at this point – Hancock follows Nadine Dorries, Stanley Johnson and Edwina Currie on I’m a Celebrity, as well as Ann Widdecombe and George Galloway on Celebrity Big Brother. He’s hardly a trailblazer when it comes to the format.

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So yes, politicians absolutely should look beyond the Westminster bubble. And no, consuming popular culture doesn’t automatically mean you lose a few IQ points. Nor is ignoring popular culture somehow evidence of your intellectual superiority.

But eating eyeballs yourself Matt when you’ve still got a Covid inquiry to answer to? When your presence will be a tangible, visible reminder of pain and heartache for many, many people? When you’ve got a hugely important job to be doing back in the UK?

Well, I suppose technically you will be getting people talking about politics – even if it’s just reinforcing views on how self-serving, dishonest and egotistical many politicians are.