In this engagingly written history of electioneering in Britain from the eighteenth century to the present, Jon Lawrence explores the changing relationship between politicians and public. Throughout this period, he argues, British politics has been characterized by bruising public rituals intended to bestow legitimacy on politicians by obliging them to face an often irreverent public on broadly equal terms.
Face-to-face interaction was central both to the disorderly civic rituals of eighteenth-century politics, and to the Victorian and Edwardian election meeting. Perhaps surprisingly, it also survived in pretty rude health between the wars, despite the emergence of the new mass communication media of radio and cinema. But the same cannot be said of the post-war era and the rise of television. Today most politicians are content merely to offer the semblance of meaningful engagement--walkabouts, canvassing and meetings are all designed to ensure that most senior politicians come into contact only with the smiling faces of that dwindling band, the "party faithful." Lloyd George and Churchill might have relished the rough and tumble of a tumultuous public meeting, but their modern counterparts tend to be more risk-averse (and not without reason, given that the cameras are always present to capture their mishaps).
But this is not another nostalgic lament for a lost "golden age." On the contrary, Electing Our Masters argues that politicians frequently still crave the kudos to be derived from bruising encounters with an irreverent public--hence Tony Blair's so-called "masochism strategy" in the 2005 election campaign, with its succession of gruelling sessions before live studio audiences. As Lawrence points out, the vital question for today is: can we persuade our broadcasters that such encounters must form a staple of modern, mediated politics?