Say what you want about the impact social media has had on society, at no other time in history would you get to watch in real time as a former presenter on a late-afternoon game show engaged in a fierce debate with the MP for Plymouth Moor View.

Former Countdown maths boffin Carol Vorderman, 62, has become a fierce anti-Tory campaigner on Twitter, going after Johnny Mercer, the minister for veterans’ affairs, after he suggested that if military personnel past or present are using food banks the issue is “budgeting”. The MP’s wife then weighed in accusing Ms Vorderman of directing harassment their way and branding the TV personality a “celebrity attack dog”, before Ms Vorderman hit back with claiming Felicity Cornelius-Mercer had been harassing her “for months”.

As a debate it wasn’t exactly high-brow, but it did speak to the increasing prevalence of ostensibly mild-mannered celebrities using their social media to share their political views. What, if anything, does this tell us about the state of modern politics? Our culture? Ourselves?

Celebrity activists

The Herald: Gary Lineker will be back on the BBC next week after refusing to back down over his criticism of the Government's immigration policy

Vorderman is far from the first well-kent face to pipe up on politics in recent months. Gary Lineker was temporarily stood down from presenting Match of the Day in April after questions arose over comments he’d made on Twitter about the government’s rhetoric on immigration being “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ‘30s”.

Home secretary Suella Braverman hit back saying “equating our measures” – which Lineker wasn’t, as it happens – “to 1930s Germany is irresponsible and I disagree with that characterisation” while the rest of the Match of the Day team, starting with Ian Wright, stood down in solidarity.

The former Leicester striker has been hailed by refugee charities for his advocacy, Harry Potter star Emma Watson was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world thanks to her feminist activism, and Jamie Oliver has forged a secondary career as a proponent of healthy school meals.

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Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof has even been nominated – twice – for the Nobel Peace Prize for his charity work, though may be best remembered for a cutting putdown by Russell Brand – more on him later – at the NME Awards. After receiving an award the Irishman intoned: “Russell Brand, what a c***”, only for the comedian to snap back “it’s no surprise he’s such an expert on famine, he’s been dining out on ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ for 30 years.”

Not everyone is happy to hear from the great and the good though.

‘Shut up and dribble’

The Herald: LeBron JamesLeBron James (Image: Getty)

LA Lakers forward LeBron James is regarded by many as the greatest basketball player of all time, rivalling iconic Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan. Along with MJ, Kevin Durant and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo he’s one of only four men to have been awarded a lifetime contract by sportswear giant Nike, and one satirical video extolling the virtues of his native Cleveland declared “our economy’s based on LeBron James”.

In a 2018 video on his Uninterrupted social media channel, the four-time NBA champion declared then-President Donald Trump didn’t “give a f*** about people”, and made his voice heard on issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement. In response, Fox News host Laura Ingraham took him to task over his grammar – despite referring to him as a ‘jumb dock’ in her intro when she presumably meant ‘dumb jock’ – called him “barely intelligible” and, most famously, ordered Mr James to “shut up and dribble”.

A similar response greeted Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford when he launched a campaign for free school meals for children in poverty over the summer holidays, with Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke stating he “should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics” after the England international missed a penalty in the shoot-out against Italy in the Euro 2020 final.

Musicians can expect much the same treatment should they speak out on social issues, often with unintentionally hilarious consequences. Rage Against The Machine received a social media backlash for ‘getting political’ – presumably by people who thought the machine in question was the washing machine – the Dead Kennedys for criticising the right wing – ‘Nazi Punks F*** Off’ clearly too subtle a message for some – and the lead-up to the 2020 US election saw a TikTok trend where MAGA-hatted youth used Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ to declare their support for Trump and hatred for the media. “Information age of hysteria/calling out to idiot America” indeed.

@ckettle_3 Green Day knew it all along, since 2004! #trump2020 #republican #americaproud #conservative #wakeup #maga #patriots ♬ American Idiot - Green Day

Strangely, “shut up and dribble” or “shut up and play” doesn’t appear to apply to those expressing right-wing opinions. Southampton legend turned anti-vaxxer Matt Le Tissier has appeared on GB News to have a pint with Nigel Farage – who wanted Lineker pulled from the BBC for his stance on refugees – while Ted Nugent regularly pontificates on Fox News. The aforementioned Mr Brand has gone from calling for the overthrow of the capitalist system to promoting vaccine conspiracy theories, interviewing Tucker Carlson and posing for pictures with Donald Trump Jr.

Even those who just simply say nothing can find themselves a cause célèbre for the right. 4Chan users, gun enthusiasts and overt neo-Nazis named Taylor Swift their ‘Aryan princess’, amid her point-blank refusal to discuss her politics.

Andre Anglin of the white supremacist blog the Daily Stormer wrote in 2016: “Taylor Swift is a pure Aryan goddess, like something out of classical Greek poetry. Athena reborn”. Ms Swift later affirmed her support for gay marriage, gun control, abortion rights and made clear “there’s literally nothing worse than white supremacy. It’s repulsive.” Openings for a new Aryan princess presumably remain open.

The stance of Starmer

The Herald: Keir Starmer at the Unite policy conference

It seems then that the left and the right can’t get enough of celebrities wading into politics – as long as it’s on their side of course – and many would argue that’s a reflection of the increasing ‘celebrification’ of the wider culture.

Arguments could, and do, rage for hours about where the process started. Some would point to John F Kennedy, who famously was held to have won a debate with Richard Nixon by those who watched on television, but have been roundly defeated by those who listened on the radio. For the present moment though perhaps we have to go back to Tony Blair.

Then, as now, the Tory party was collapsing on itself after a long period in government and Blair sought to leverage the ‘Cool Britannia’, Britpop scene to bolster his image with the youth vote. The future Prime Minister turned up at the BRIT Awards to present David Bowie with a lifetime achievement gong and famously invited Noel Gallagher, Nick Hornby, Vivienne Westwood and Ben Elton to Number 10 after his election. The Oasis guitarist would later declare “everything is Tony Blair’s fault… you made him into a President, no wonder he acts like one”.

His ideological heir, Sir Keir Starmer, hasn’t followed a similar path. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn made more of a fist of it with his connection to the Grime scene, presenting Stormzy with a gong at the GQ awards. Perhaps though it’s the sensible centrism of the current Labour leader which has seen social media declare Vorderman, Lineker and Rashford the real “leader of the opposition” at various points.

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It goes without saying that none of the three, or other like them, are saying anything particularly radical. While the England football team was accused of promoting “cultural Marxism” by taking the knee at Euro 2020 it seems fairly unlikely that Jack Grealish has read and understood all three volumes of Das Kapital: “yeah I thought the lads were really good today, worked hard for each other, and if the proletariat can achieve class consciousness then maybe we can turn over the bourgeoisie like we did the Croats today”.

Lineker’s company, Goalhanger, hosts a political podcast which features Alistair Campbell and Rory Stewart giving their take on the political issues of the day and the Match of the Day presenter is famously pals with Piers Morgan – he probably isn’t reading Lenin in his spare time.

With Labour non-committal on things like the anti-protest bill, wishy-washy on public sector strikes, and talking tough on immigration the fairly innocuous musings of Vorderman can seem a lot more radical than they would otherwise be, and provide a much-needed element of theatre.

If the alternative is the sensible musings of the kind of people who think throwing confetti over George Osborne was a terrorist act, I’ll take another Tweet please, Carol.