This week British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, the first serving Prime Minister to do so. Although American leaders regularly drop in to chat shows for a bit of shameless self-promotion, particularly in an election cycle, it is a far less common phenomenon in Britain. As a result, people in the UK have been left scratching their heads over why David Cameron chose to appear. British politicians have become used to the piercing questions of journalists like Andrew Marr, Nick Robinson and the widely dreaded Jeremy Paxman, all talented journalists who love to make politicians squirm under the spotlight. Lighthearted banter tends not to be a skill honed by our political leaders, which makes it all the more puzzling why Cameron chose to appear with a man known to enjoy embarrassing his guests.
Cameron, unfortunately, did not appear nearly as comfortable as President Obama when he dropped in to see Letterman a few weeks ago. President Obama appeared relaxed and lighthearted, while Cameron looked awkward and out of place under the spotlight. The Prime Minister looks considerably more at home while shouting abuse at the Opposition in the House of Commons! Among a series of questions that seemed more suited to a copy of The British Isles for Dummies, poor Dave was also caught out by Letterman’s decision to stage an impromptu British citizenship test, including questions on the composer of the famous patriotic song Rule Britannia and the Magna Carta. His incorrect guess at Elgar apparently could not be redeemed by his knowledge of when and where the Magna Carta was signed (in 1215 at Runnymede) among the more conservative bastions of the British press, some of whom have lambasted him for his lack of knowledge. This, I believe, is somewhat unfair. I imagine that very few Brits knew who composed Rule Britannia, and realistically probably even fewer care. Yes, it’s a tad awkward that Cameron studied history at Oxford, and possibly even more awkward that the Home Secretary recently suggested a new form of citizenship test based on knowledge of British history, but ultimately, we all know that British politicians should not venture out into the world of celebrity. (Especially posh ones who went to Eton and get compared to ‘that guy’ from The King’s Speech.)
British politics are very different from the personality politics of the US; when you do not directly elect a national leader, boundless charisma and ease at schmoozing with chat show hosts is not something that attracts much attention from voters. At a time when the UK is still riding on a high from the success of the London Olympic Games, Mr. Cameron’s self-confessedly “shameless” plugs for the benefits of the Olympics and the greatness of the UK seemed a little out of step. Ultimately, British politicians should probably stick to the tricky questions rather than seek out the spotlight of celebrity and popular culture; at least that way they don’t get asked questions like “so what’s the deal with Wales then?”
[Image Credit: http://www.24horas.cl/internacional/david-cameron-reprueba-test-de-historia-en-show-televisivo-324256]