Nick Timothy is Director of the New Schools Network and a former Chief of Staff to Theresa May.
Is there anybody in Britain more annoying than Benedict Cumberbatch? The 39-year-old thesp is wonderful to watch as he plays Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet or Stephen Hawking – although Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal was surely superior – but what on Earth does Cumberbatch think qualifies him to opine so forcefully on every political matter of the day, from spending cuts to counter-terrorism policy?
Perhaps it was when he played William Pitt that Cumberbatch learned the qualities of statecraft that led him to lecture theatre-goers this Autumn. Ranting about the Government’s response to the migration crisis affecting the Middle East and Continental Europe, his unsolicited speech ended with an eloquent cry of “fuck the politicians!”
He certainly must have been channelling his inner Pitt the Younger when he told reporters he would “like to sit down with Theresa May and get a full understanding of how her political economic model works.” Sadly, Cumberbatch never did get in touch with the Home Secretary, so she didn’t get to receive the benefit of his wisdom, and he hasn’t yet shared his own political economic model with the rest of us.
We do know, however, that the Cumberbatch Model involves opposition to spending cuts. Addressing a TUC protest in 2010, he said: “cutting the arts makes them more and more elitist. I don’t mean to sound selfish but I don’t want to be in subsidised arts if I’m going to be performing only to Tory sons and daughters.” As an Old Harrovian, he is surely the living proof that the children of the privileged often do not turn out to be Tory. And as an arts luvvie, he must surely have noticed that of all government spending, as Danny Alexander recently explained, arts subsidies benefit the rich – like Benedict and his family – more than the poor.
But then, Cumberbatch’s political activism seems to have little to do with the interests of hoi polloi. In interviews, he has lamented, “in exile in Russia, poor Edward Snowden.” Perhaps it was playing the role of Julian Assange that led Cumberbatch to empathise with the treacherous Snowden, but the irresponsibility of these egomaniacs – and the danger to the public they have caused – seems to have passed our national treasure by.
In fact, Cumberbatch’s trendy, artsy liberalism puts him squarely on the side of the likes of Assange and Snowden. In 2013, he performed a silent protest after David Miranda was detained at Heathrow after travelling with highly-classified, insecure material stolen by Snowden. Cumberbatch posed for photographs while he held up sheets of paper that had written on them: “hard drives smashed, journalists detained at airports…is this erosion of civil liberties winning the war on terror?” Perhaps it was the expertise Cumberbatch accrued while acting in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that led him to understand what would win the war on terror. If only he would tell the Prime Minister the answer.
On one issue, Cumberbatch – and a great number of his fellow celebrities – do have an answer, and that is the regulation of the press. Celebrities who never tire of using the media to tell us their political views – including not just Cumberbatch but Bob Geldof, Alan Bennett and Stephen Fry – and those who have used the press to build up their own profile – like Charlotte Church – now demand an official regulator to protect their privacy and dictate what the media should report. Supported, as they are, by left-wing journalists such as John Pilger, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Polly Toynbee, and Labour politicians including Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, the political agenda against the “right-wing press” is not difficult to discern. And this, from the likes of Cumberbatch and Toynbee, who claimed that the detention of David Miranda was a “disgraceful” attack on the freedom of the press – even though Miranda was not a journalist and the High Court ruled that it was not only lawful but “imperative in the interests of national security.”
But this sort of hypocrisy is not new among Britain’s politically-active celebrities. Martin Freeman – coincidentally Cumberbatch’s co-star in Sherlock - called on the country to vote Labour during the general election campaign. But it soon emerged that despite being a former member of the hard left Socialist Labour Party, Freeman sends his son to a £12,000-a-year private school, while his partner declared herself bankrupt after failing to pay a £120,000 tax bill.
Chris Martin – the Sherborne-educated lead singer of Coldplay – likes to write provocative political messages on his hand or on the side of his piano as he performs, often about American foreign policy or fair trade. But surely his stupidest protest was the one in which he declared: “shareholders are the great evil of this modern world.” How he thinks his record label was able to finance Coldplay’s music has never been explained, but as he said in the same interview, “I don’t really care about EMI.”
Then there are those celebrities who, every time an election comes round, threaten to leave the country in the event of one party winning or another. This year, the appalling Katie Hopkins – famous, as far as I can tell, for appearing on The Apprentice and making a series of ignorant and offensive comments – threatened to leave the country if Labour won power. On the other side, Paul O’Grady – famous for playing the drag queen Lily Savage – threatened to live abroad if the Tories won. Fortunately for us all, O’Grady performed a u-turn and ITV can continue to produce icons of television culture such as Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs.
But at least, I suppose, these celebrities believe in elections. Days after the general election result, Charlotte Church appeared to reject the result. She joined a march in Cardiff holding a placard saying: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Sadly, there appears to be no sign of her joining that other proud patriot and supporter of high taxes, Sean Connery, who lives as a tax exile in the Bahamas.
You might argue that it doesn’t matter very much what these celebrities think, say and do. It might not matter that Stephen Fry believes he knows exactly what ISIS “MOST want us to do”, and that we should therefore not bomb them in Syria. It might not matter that celebrities like Bob Geldof and Stan Collymore said they’d take refugees into their own homes and then failed to do so. It might not mean much that George Clooney believes he is such an expert on the Elgin Marbles he can lecture Britain about the need to return them to Greece – just as it might not matter that he refers to them repeatedly as the “Pantheon Marbles”, as if they were from Rome, not the “Parthenon Marbles” from Athens. Perhaps he thinks acting in The Monuments Men taught him all he needs to know. Perhaps he doesn’t realise there is a difference between pretending to be an elected representative of the people and being one.
So if I had a wish for 2016, it would be that these pompous, hypocritical, self-obsessed political celebrities would take a vow of silence. If that proves impossible, surely it is time for our politicians and the media to stop humouring these vain and ignorant liberal luvvies. Doing so would be good not just for my sanity but the standard of political debate in this country – which might at last reflect the full complexity of the problems we face, rather than whatever happens to come across the half-witted mind of a public school-educated actor.