Anthony Sampson: Why can't Britain produce a Michael Moore?

His crude crusade against the cynicism of politicians appears all the more refreshing in Britain
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The Independent Online

What is the real political significance of the success of Fahrenheit 9/11, the blockbuster film by Michael Moore? In America, it has broken all records for a documentary movie. And its impact became clear at the Democratic convention this week, where Moore boasted that he was moving votes away from the Republicans.

What is the real political significance of the success of Fahrenheit 9/11, the blockbuster film by Michael Moore? In America, it has broken all records for a documentary movie. And its impact became clear at the Democratic convention this week, where Moore boasted that he was moving votes away from the Republicans.

But its reception in Britain has been more unexpected: for the past two weeks, it has been the second biggest hit in the box offices behind Spider-Man 2, and ahead of Shrek 2 and Harry Potter. When I saw it in London, the young multiracial audience clapped at the end with spontaneous enthusiasm. At a time when politicians are facing still smaller audiences and dwindling turnouts, they see queues waiting to see a rumbustious film about US politics.

In America, the phenomenon appears less surprising, because Moore is recognisable from the old tradition of US populism: the folk hero from the small town who comes to Washington to champion the true principles of democracy against the cynical and corrupt politicians.

Moore wields a blunderbuss, not a precision weapon: he is not so much against Republicans as against all politicians: when he confronts congressmen who would never encourage their children to become soldiers, it is a Democrat who provides his prey. His message is that the whole political system is rotten.

Democrats in America have been uncertain about the value of Fahrenheit 9/11 as an ally against George Bush; for the multimillionaire John Kerry, with his wooden and repetitive speeches, has been in many ways more vulnerable to populists than Bush, who has his own brand of folksy Texan appeal.

But Moore's blunderbuss was a necessary weapon against Bush's cynical manipulation of the media with contrived images - like the preposterous Hollywood sequence which showed the President landing on an aircraft carrier, in full flying kit, to tell Americans that the war was over. It took a master of the tricks of Hollywood to beat these Hollywood myths; and only a hardened populist like Moore could pull it off. And in the end, his movie taught Kerry a few tricks in populism - like the attack on the Saudi royal family's links with Bush, which Kerry exploited in his speech on Thursday.

In Britain, on the other hand, the political background has been different, for we have had no real equivalent to that populist tradition. The Jarrow hunger-marchers or the CND demonstrators may have had their political impact; and the marchers through London before the Iraq war helped to arouse MPs to the anger in their constituencies. But it was the House of Commons which remained the chief arena for debate.

Television, with its rules about balanced coverage, can never allow the kind of full-blooded assault on government which Moore mounted. Instead it provides satire, like the barbs of Rory Bremner or Have I Got News for You, which makes fun of all politicians without ever going for the jugular.

It is left to Parliament to provide the theatrical set-pieces where party leaders confront each other in time-honoured style. The formal exchanges in debates, or at Prime Minister's Questions, can provide traditional theatre, and they can sometimes determine the fortunes of the leaders; but they can never echo the speech of ordinary voters in the constituencies, or represent their real anger against politicians. Michael Howard might dazzle viewers with his lawyer's rhetoric; but he can never appear as a man of the people - or peepil, as he would say.

The more professionalised politicians have become, inside their Westminster bubble, the more remote they appear from their voters. And all serious British politicians are becoming more seriously worried about this remoteness, as they see declining turnouts and diminishing interest in their views and speeches. When Tony Benn - a genuine populist - left Parliament, he said he was leaving to "devote more time to politics"; and he has made his point by performing in his own roadshows across the country to packed houses. His success has made many politicians wonder about their limitations. The British may still be suspicious about populists, but they still long for politicians who can call a spade a spade.

The arrival of Michael Moore in Britain may yet have more impact on Britain than on America. For his crude, simplified crusade against the cynicism of politicians appears all the more refreshing in a country accustomed to restrained and formalised exchanges.

It breaks through all the careful balances of parliamentary debates, of Question Time and Any Questions?, to show politicians and government as many voters see them: to provide a prolonged catcall of protest and anger which, for all its sentimentality and simplifications, clearly connects up with millions of people who feel excluded from the political process.

So British politicians ignore Fahrenheit at their peril: while they wonder anxiously about the empty polling stations and disillusioned voters, they will have to look more seriously at Moore's blunderbuss.

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