The British Broadcasting Corporation was established, and continues to operate, partly to fashion a sense of British national identity. (1) It does so by trumpeting Britain’s good points but also by worrying about the nation, thereby adding a reflexive anxiety and creative imagination to the problems it confronts. (2) One such worry of recent vintage – the trend towards political populism – emerges as a pervasive theme of the BBC’s eight-part drama MotherFatherSon (2019). As the programme’s name implies, MotherFatherSon is, on one level, a (reasonably engaging) family drama series. Max (Richard Gere) is a super-rich, global media mogul. Kathryn (Helen McCrory) is his ex-wife who devotes herself to the homeless. Max has raised his and Kathryn’s son Caden (Billy Howle) to be a ruthless, callous carbon-copy of himself. Since this is not Cadan’s true character but rather a role into which he has been shoe-horned, Caden eventually suffers a breakdown and a stroke. The drama traces his rehabilition – physical and moral.
In this regard one of MotherFatherSon’s cleverest aspects is the way in which the sympathetic figure of the threesome changes over the course of the series. Initially the character with whom the viewer identifies is Kathryn, not least when she forms a relationship with a pleasant homeless man (Joseph Mawle). Ultimately however it is Caden himself who attracts the viewer’s sympathy, while his mother compromises her integrity by becoming editor of a hefty part of her ex-husband’s empire as a reward for taking part in a cover-up.
On another level MotherFatherSon is a political drama. It centres around a British general election, to which the media, including Max’s corporation, has to respond. Television drama sometimes finds it difficult to deal with the British parliamentary system, and in MotherFatherSon the entire party system gets sidelined, with the political contest played out as if it were a presidential battle. Nonetheless the contest is certainly animating, taking the form of a battle between liberalism and populism.
In the liberal corner is the Prime Minister of the past decade, Jahan Zakari (Danny Sapani), who is both black and a Muslim. In the populist corner is Angela Howard (Sarah Lancashire). Zakari ticks the “identity politics” boxes in terms of both race and religion, rather associating him with the liberal tendency to focus on identities other than class – and arguably to over-emphasise other identities at the expense of class. The murder of Zakari’s son in a horrific Islamaphobic attack certainly evokes our sympathy. Yet as Prime Minister Zakari is empty. The most striking aspect of MotherFatherSon’s politics is the presence of an absence: Zakari sets out no programme and comes out with no answers. This void has resonance in contemporary politics, where politicians have increasingly formed themselves into a tight neoliberal elite, a homogenous class with more in common with each other (regardless of supposed party differences) than with the electorate. (3) Zakari’s main belief (which rather echoes the views of former real-life British Prime Minister Tony Blair) seems to be that he should represent both those who voted for him and those who do not. How this stance does not degenerate into an alibi for inaction is not explained.
By contrast Angela Howard is marked by her rhetoric as unashamedly populist. Unlike the Prime Minister she has her finger on the pulse of popular discontent. Though no socialist (she is a successful businesswoman) she has a bold plan for state intervention to solve the country’s housing crisis, creating whole new towns off the back of her practice of providing housing for her businesses’ own staff. She seems too good to be true and she is. It emerges that (a) those disloyal to her regime may not benefit from the housing generated by this programme; (b) there is a hint at the cult of the individual with her model towns featuring statues of herself; and (c) once she is (predictably) elected, she muses about the merits of abolishing future elections, though new media figure Kathryn vows vigorously to campaign against any such move. At one point Angela observes that she has gained legitimacy from the 17 million votes which were cast in her favour. The choice of the figure 17 million is hardly accidental, corresponding as it does to the votes cast in real-world Britain for leaving the European Union. This sweeping likening of (real-life) Leave-voting Britons to (fictional) Angela Howard-voting Britons does little to restore the BBC against charges of being “institutionally Remainist”. (4) Be this as it may, in MotherFatherSon only Angela Howard seems to have any answer to the seething discontent of the British working class. Jahan Zakari’s platform by contrast seems to be one of lame support for the status quo, which (rather like Hillary Clinton in America) makes it difficult for him to advance a compelling argument as to why he should be in office.
In sum, MotherFatherSon seems to warn that those who propose radical change are not to be trusted with the ship of state since the result will be tyranny. Such a stance is highly supportive of conservatism with a small “c”: the dissatisfied will just have to put up with it. This stance corresponds to complaints about BBC impartiality being quite artificial and concealing a deeply conformist purpose, and in recent decades an outright neoliberal purpose. (5) The programme puts forward its normative message about the totalitarian dangers of populism, yet simultaneously and substantially undermines this message through the overt emptiness of Jahan Zakari’s policy. By so doing MotherFatherSon encapsulates in stark terms the profound dilemma confronting liberalism in contemporary politics: its inability to provide an answer to the public’s pressing concerns.
Danny Nicol is Professor of Public Law at the University of Westminster where he is a member of the Centre for Law, Society and Popular Culture. He is author of Doctor Who – A British Alien? (2018).
(1) Danny Nicol, Doctor Who: A British Alien? London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, ch.1.
(2) Jean Seaton, “The BBC and Metabolising Britishness: Critical Patriotism” in Britishness: Perspectives on the British Question eds. Andrew Gamble and Tony Wright. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) p.78.
(3) Peter Mair, Ruling the Void London: Verso, 2013; Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Class London: Simon and Schuster, 2007.
(5) Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society London: Quartet Books, 1973. p.200; Tom Mills, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service London: Verso, 2016.