Mike Nesbitt’s early gaffe suggests he could use a lesson from his namesake to avoid becoming a real comedy character
Snake-eyed, misanthropic, cartoon Republican party reptile Monty Burns decides to run for office in Springfield.
In a memorable episode of The Simpsons, Mr Burns deploys an army of PR advisers and spin doctors to ensure he gets elected to Congress.
The personification of predatory American capitalism is shocked to find how bad his public image is among the “Joe Six-packs” of the fictional town. He is even more shocked when his election team suggest the best way to portray him as a man of the people is to break bread with the proletariat.
Inevitably this leads to the owner of Springfield’s nuclear power plant sitting down to dinner with Homer Simpson and his family at Evergreen Terrace, all filmed for a Republican party commercial. Of course the outcome is both disastrous and hilarious, especially given that Marge and Lisa are rooting for the Democrats while the boorish antics of Homer and his brood at the dining table ruin the publicity stunt.
Perhaps Mike Nesbitt has never watched The Simpsons, or seen this particular episode. The newly elected leader of the Ulster Unionist party had his very own Mr Burns Goes to Washington moment on Sunday just 24 hours after his triumph. On a BBC politics show, Nesbitt suggested it might be a good idea for him to spend 24 hours in the company of poor people. They might “adopt” him for a day in order that he can get direct first-hand knowledge of how the plebians cope with the recession.
Educated at elite Belfast private school Campbell College, before securing a double first at Cambridge, Nesbitt is at least honest enough to admit he doesn’t come from humble origins.
Yet his notion that he could reach out to the economically downtrodden by living with them for a day was another of those classic toe-curling stunts politicians deploy to show themselves one of the people or to get down with the kids.
Think of William Hague’s baseball cap on the big dipper, Tony Blair strumming a guitar alongside Noel Gallagher or even – for those of you old enough and with good memories – David Owen doing the SDP rap (no, seriously!) and you get the picture.
The proposal has been an early gift for the Democratic Unionist party. One of the DUP’s rising stars, Simon Hamilton – who represents the same constituency as Nesbitt – displayed his own comedic talents, saying the last thing a family struggling to make ends meet needed was Nesbitt coming to stay.
Nesbitt, a former Ulster TV news anchor, is an experienced broadcaster and PR operator. Although he certainly means well and is undoubtedly genuine in his concern for those at the bottom of the pile, his political version of The Secret Millionaire appears to have backfired only 24 hours into his new job.
Instead of stunts, the UUP leader, seeking to turn his party’s fortunes around after more than a decade of decline, should be thinking of substance. In particular the big question of whether the UUP should remain in a five-party power sharing coalition dominated by Sinn Féin and the DUP. At present the combined ranks of the 106 assembly members not in a government party totals two: Jim Allister of Traditional Unionist Voice and the Greens’ Steven Agnew. There are voices within the UUP, and they will continue to grow, crying out for the party to form the big opposition bloc they say is needed to hold the Northern Ireland executive to account and to deepen democracy in general. Even if Nesbitt is not inclined towards opposition he could, down the line, be forced into it as the party membership seek to make the UUP distinct from the DUP.
Meanwhile, if he wants to really know how the poor live, he could buy a DVD boxset of his namesake Rab C Nesbitt, the Glaswegian comedy character who survives against social adversity and often his own failings in his string vest in Govan. That might give the former television presenter plenty of insight into how those at the sharp end are coping.