Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Ann Widdecombe and the rise of Strictly Come Democracy

By pretending to make a fool of herself, she ends up making a fool of us

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Isn't democracy just amazing? Are Britons not the luckiest, nay most ingenious, people on the planet? Their ancestors – at least the power merchants among them – contrived the first parliament in the world and in time, after desperate struggles and sacrifices, came universal suffrage. Makes one proud. In the 21st century this plucky nation took people power that much further, that much higher, created The X Factor! Strictly Come Dancing!! I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!!!

Citizens, we're all in it together – fine hands that have never touched dust, grubby hands inlaid with dirt and tar, sweet, unlined hands of children, veined and creased old hands, all texting, voting, then awaiting the results, with fervent, killing anticipation. I saw a young man having an asthmatic attack as the X Factor results came through and a 12 year old chewing her nails and fingers until they bled.

Simon Cowell is more powerful than all MPs put together and to mark this startling advancement of active electoral engagement, Ann Widdecombe, a ruthless über-Tory MP, has left the irrelevant, old Parliament and got into the modern, much-more-influential palace of democracy. The shrewish politician is also a shrewd politician. Sparkling in bling and sequins, this iron maiden turned unlikely people's princess may be on her way to amazing victory in Strictly Come Dancing. What bliss it is to be alive in this dawn of popular will.

Ms Widdecombe's intolerance, her frightful social conservatism, and hardline tendencies are all puffed away by a floaty waltz, a foxtrot. Just a few reminders: she converted to Catholicism because she is against women priests. She voted for 42 days' detention without charge for terrorist suspects. She defended her government's policy to shackle pregnant prisoners. Just last week on The Andrew Marr Show she came out robustly against letting mothers breastfeed their babies in the workplace.

Yet from left and right, they pat and praise this game old bird. By pretending to make a fool of herself she makes fools of us. Allen Ginsberg, the Sixties bisexual beat poet, wrote: "Democracy! Bah! When I hear the word, I reach for my feather Boa." The excessively clever Ms Widdecombe did just that, smiled, and invested in our collective idiocy – reaping high dividends.

Today's citizens truly believe they are changing the course of history when they disavow parliamentarianism and turn instead to interactive television, distracting programmes which feed the ego. There they can disdain expert opinion, ensure the exit of this or that wannabe on Strictly, X Factor, I'm a Celebrity and others. I watch the shows too – as fab entertainment, not because they mean true government of the people, by the people, for the people.

While the population is preoccupied with song and dance, Britannia as she was burns, burns down. Unlike millions of citizens in all other European countries, though some do want to revolt or register their alarm, most British adults are doing little about the state we are in or will find ourselves in very soon. TV is their opiate. They have other diversions too, folk who can't be bothered with politics, economics or the social environment – except the odd rant on radio phone-ins and the internet. Fans came out on a bitterly cold night when the World Cup cities were chosen and declared. Many cried like babies because football was not "coming home". They should save their tears. Soon some of them may not have homes to live in. Here are some home truths, facts gleaned just this week, facts you are not likely to get from Cowell or cheeky Brucie or even Ant and Dec.

New findings published by the impeccable Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that half of all children living in poverty are from in-work households. The Government still insists that work is the only way out of an impecunious, hopeless life – either false propaganda or foolish, untested sanguinity. Thirteen million Britons are living in poverty, 44 per cent of them in "deep poverty", the highest proportion on record. By this summer, the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds was the highest in 18 years. The nation's children and youth are being wasted under the polished new Thatcherism worn proudly by our PM.

Next, a report by civil servants (which, remarkably, had no publicity) warns that the new housing policies could lead to seriously increased homelessness, overcrowding, peripatetic families whose children may have to be taught in temporary classrooms; second-rate education, then, for those who need it most. Nearly a million households will be affected. We know police authorities are worried about an increase in crime as these inhumane polices are pushed through by Tory ideologues and their new best friends, the Lib Dems.

Funding for sports for young people is to be severely cut, libraries too; Health Secretary Andrew Lansley (who worked in marketing getting gullible customers to buy from big food giants and other such clients) is a deregulation fundamentalist, as is fat Eric Pickles, who wants thin government.

No more tough action from ministers to stop smoking, excessive drinking and bad eating habits. Instead those who ply the people with addictive products are now key government advisers. So too Philip Green of Topshop and other outlets, who manages to avoid paying tax in this country in spite of making billions. And then of course the vote on tuition fees. Think of what all this means. Think and get angry and do something. At least wake up.



One has to admire the student protests, which continue in spite of punishing police tactics. A small number of other activists are doing what they can, but the rest of the country seems to have lost zeal and muscle, has become one big couch potato, holding mobile phones and remotes, consumed by the glitz and glam of reality democracy.

What a treat awaits them this Christmas. Vince Cable, drunk on power, swaying this way and that on hiked-up tuition fees – his own policy – will appear on a special Strictly Come Dancing show. He will smile, glide, carry his partner to ecstasy and the people too. And they will forgive him all his political sins. Meanwhile, as I said, Britannia turns to ash.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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