Morgan and Rowling’s clash of values shows up what Westminster’s lost

From Gary Lineker to Michael Sheen, social media players have taken over the battleground of ideas – and we are gripped by them
Piers Morgan and JK Rowling
‘Not just a fight between rich celebrities’: Piers Morgan and JK Rowling Photograph: PA

Something new is happening in our political culture. We live in fast-moving times, and it can be hard to pinpoint important changes – but this is surely one. I think of it as the emergence of political avatars, the players and voices across social media who are now replacing elected politicians as the representatives of values, belief and ideology.

I’m using “avatar” not in the Hindu sense of embodied deities, but in the modern sense of online creatures or personalities who stand for, or in front of, aspects of real life.

They are as varied as you can imagine: Gary Lineker, former footballer and broadcaster; JK Rowling, novelist; Piers Morgan, daytime television presenter; Michael Sheen, actor; Laurie Penny, writer; Arron Banks, financier and Ukip supporter. The only things they have in common are that none is an elected politician; all have very strong views and are followed by thousands or millions of people every day; and are addicted to social media, Twitter in particular.

The rise of vocal players from outside the political establishment has been going on for a long time, of course, nudging aside traditional newspaper commentators and politicians keen to make speeches. But it’s gathered even more momentum in the past few weeks.

Take this week’s famous spat between Morgan and Rowling. The author lured her enemy into a Valentine’s Day trap by appearing to get him to forget that he had once idolised her. She quoted an old Morgan piece, which he didn’t recognise, after which he accused her of “humblebragging”. It followed an exchange in which he had called her “superior, dismissive and arrogant” and she had called him a “celebrity toady” – all good playground stuff.

The story featured in the following day’s newspapers, appeared prominently on the BBC news website, and was avidly discussed across TV and radio. It was almost as if two of the most important political players in the country had suddenly locked horns.

So what? Well, without inflating anybody’s sense of importance too much, both Rowling and Morgan have become important political voices. The Harry Potter author has used the fact that she is loved by so many millions around the world to champion political causes. She is a long-time Labour supporter. She fiercely opposed the campaign for Scottish independence, likening some SNP supporters to death eaters, the Harry Potter baddies. She was equally vocal in supporting the remain cause during the EU referendum. As a strong, very wealthy and leftist woman, she is almost everything Morgan dislikes.

Gary Lineker
Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Gary Lineker represents the not ‘particularly political sporty bloke, who has thoroughly decent instincts about immigrants’ constituency. Photograph: Rii Schroer/REX/Shutterstock

Morgan, meanwhile, having been ousted as editor of the Daily Mirror after a long feud with the Blair government, reinvented himself as a television interviewer and celebrity – America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent, Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, a short-lived slot on CNN, and now ITV’s Good Morning Britain, with Susanna Reid. After winning the US celebrity version of The Apprentice he became friendly with its then host, one Donald Trump, and since then has been a vehement promoter and supporter of the US president. Although originally on the left, Morgan now makes outspoken attacks on liberal opponents of Trump, including, predictably, “humourless feminists”.

So when Morgan and Rowling square up, we are seeing not just a fight between rich celebrities but between dramatically opposing worldviews. This is a fight about the role of women in public life, about the behaviour of Trump’s America, about honesty and the role of the press – you name it. And millions of people are gripped, booing or cheering from the sidelines.

Because these avatars did not come up through the party political system, and don’t have to appeal to middle-ground voters, they can sound fresher and represent views that don’t generally get covered in the Westminster bubble. So, to take obvious examples, Lineker represents the “not particularly political sporty bloke, who has thoroughly decent instincts about immigrants” constituency. Penny is currently tussling with the American alt-right in a classic confrontation of modern ideas; we have lots of powerful women in politics now, but it’s hard to think of anyone in the Westminster or Edinburgh parliaments who would perform this role.

Casting across the spectrum, who speaks for the Blairites? Hardly anyone elected. The real answer is John Rentoul, the writer and blogger. And if you want the authentic voice of British Trumpery, you would probably turn not to the hapless Paul Nuttall, but to the Ukip donor Arron Banks.

We’ve always had controversialists in the press, and proxy fights about politics. But one thing that has certainly changed is that most mainstream politicians have backed out of controversies about fundamental values. When I started as a parliamentary journalist, we were inundated every Friday with speeches that MPs claimed they were going to make about family values, hooliganism and the young, political corruption, or whatever.

My impression is that the political class is too contrite to weigh in like this now. They have left the field clear for the Facebook or Twitter contenders. And they, in turn, are much more quickly picked up by the old-fashioned mainstream media. It’s a question of heft and speed, perhaps, rather than something new in itself.

Is this to be applauded or derided? On the plus side: lots of fresh new voices from all parts of the spectrum, earning their audience by their wit, speed of response to events, and the coherence of their arguments. On the minus side: arguments become too swiftly simplified. And because the new avatars of politics aren’t elected, there is no penalty for failure or inconsistency. At the very worst they can simply end their accounts.

There is a final point to be made. One celebrity, who proved the master of the ferocious Twitter assault, has now become one of the most important politicians in the world. He is Donald Trump.