What is the difference between John Major and John F Kennedy?
Well, the answer may seem obvious – one is the most flamboyant US Presidents in history, while the other is one of our, well, let’s say, greyer, Prime Ministers.
But the reason that we have one while the US has the other is clear according to Armando Iannucci: we don’t do personality in this country in quite the same way.
Iannucci, whose impressive roll call of comedy shows include the British comedy The Thick of It and the US satire Veep, is probably one of the best people to understand transatlantic divide and he tells this week’s Radio Times why.
“In the UK, ‘personality’ seldom translates into votes,” he writes. “The Cleggmania that briefly tsunamid the nation during the leaders’ debates in the 2010 general election didn’t lead to a surge in the Lib Dem vote. Meanwhile, John Major, perhaps the greyest statesman since measurements of greyness began, is actually one of the 20th century’s longest-serving prime ministers.
“We have a tradition of being unimpressed by politicians who look like they’re trying too hard to impress us. Winston Churchill, you remember, was thrown out after winning the war, and replaced by the charisma-vacuum Clement Attlee.
“In the end, we buy the programme of ideas offered by a party, rather than the portrait of its leader. When a party doesn’t look like it has a coherent programme, or has run out of ideas, it’s rather rudely rejected. That’s because, no matter how hard a British prime minister tries to centralise power in his or her office, we still have an executive where some real power is still spread across many departments.”
In his essay, Iannucci cites the key reason why America is different.
“The default setting of the US constitution is the freedom of the individual, so American politics can often be about the forceful expression of individuality. That’s why the country swears in army generals, actors and community organisers to the office of president; the more you can show you’re not a politician, the better chance you have of being elected one.
“America reveres big personalities: it carves their faces into the side of a mountain. But with reverence for personality comes a suspicion of ideas. A figure like Al Gore, who had things to say about technology and climate change, was perceived as being too wonky. A manager like Mitt Romney, who lived and breathed PowerPoint, simply didn’t connect.”
* The full article is in this week’s Radio Times, out on Tuesday