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By 'eck, Gromit, mocking politicians isn't just fun – it's essential
23:47 GMT, 12 December 2012
07:50 GMT, 13 December 2012
Besmirched: The country was encouraged to see former Prime Minister Major as a prize goose during the 1997 general election
Some people say that John Major had no chance of winning the 1997 general election once the ‘back to basics’ sex scandals erupted. But is that right The economy was doing well. New Labour was untested. Could the dogged Major have prevailed had he not been besmirched by a cruel (and disputed) story that he tucked his shirt into his underpants
As political news scoops go, it was below the belt — literally — yet it acquired extraordinary potency. The country was encouraged to see Prime Minister Major as a prize goose.
At that self-styled temple to journalistic holiness, The Guardian, cartoonist Steve Bell started to draw Major with his underpants outside his trousers. Whenever the Tory leader was featured in a Bell cartoon, he was shown with his Y-fronts to the fore.
A perception of Mr Major as a socially awkward fellow somehow snowballed. Did it cause his downfall Not on its own. But it contributed to the way Mr Major was viewed by the rest of the media and by his Cabinet colleagues. That damaged his electoral chances.
I rehearse the matter of Mr (now Sir John) Major and his smalls because Ed Miliband, Leader of the Opposition, has just moved to try to neutralise the damage done by cartoons which compare him to goofy, jug-eared Wallace from the Wallace And Gromit films.
The comparison has been around for some time. Initially, Mr Miliband reacted to it crossly, telling satirists to grow up. ‘Come off it,’ he snapped, ‘let’s start to have a grown-up debate in this country.’ Oooh. Touchy.
Spin doctors urged him to adopt, at least in public, a more relaxed attitude to the comparison. In June, Mr Miliband made a scripted reference to his Wallace caricature, laughing it off.
That has just been taken a step further by a magazine article in which Mr Miliband’s press secretary embraces Wallace as a fine figure of manhood, one with whom Mr Miliband is now happy to be associated.
Wallace is ‘a man of principle’ and ‘a great British hero’, says the aide. Hmmm. Maybe Wallace is not so like Ed Miliband after all!
But how damaging is political caricature Can politicians overcome satirists by chuckling at their caricatures What is the point of satire Furthermore, in this age of Levesonian threats to the freedom of the Press, does jaunty coverage of politicians’ mannerisms, of the way they look, walk and talk, have a future
Received wisdom has it that David Steel, when his Liberals were in alliance with David Owen’s SDP, was undone by the TV puppet show Spitting Image which depicted him as a wee squirt entirely in Owen’s sway.
The same programme picked on Roy Hattersley, then deputy leader of Labour, for the way he spoke.
Hattersley (in many ways a formidable politician) had a lisp. Spitting Image mocked it so that anyone who came close to him was showered by saliva.
Comparisons: Ed Miliband has moved to try to neutralise the damage done by cartoons which compare him to goofy, jug-eared Wallace from the Wallace And Gromit films
Norman Tebbit was also sent up by Spitting Image. It used to dress his puppet in biking leathers and a spiked collar, adding to the idea that Tebbit was a street-fighting hard-nut.
Far from damaging him, it helped him, as did that nickname for Tebbit, ‘the Chingford Polecat’. Voters loved the idea of a politician who might actually have some fight in his bones.
Political caricature is as old as politics itself.
In the ruins of Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by volcanic ash in AD79, a villa wall bears an exaggerated drawing of a man wearing the laurel leaf of a civic elder. It shows him with a great big schnozzle of a nose and a set of toothless-looking gums. He could almost be a member of our own House of Lords.
But then satire is important in moulding historical memory. It can cement politicians in their place, establishing them as characters in the farce (or is it a tragedy) of Parliament and national life. Politicians need that prominence as it helps them to withstand temporary setbacks and to get their arguments heard.
Mocked: David Steel, when his Liberals were in alliance with David Owen's SDP, was undone by the TV puppet show Spitting Image which depicted him as a wee squirt entirely in Owen's sway
A good example of that would be Margaret Thatcher’s guru Keith Joseph, labelled ‘the mad monk’ and easily teased for his strange way of speaking.
Joseph was unbowed by the taunts. The public, intrigued, took notice of him and his Right-wing theories.
The same could be argued with recent political characters.
Take John Prescott (take him — if only someone would!). Prescott was a gift to satire, to the point that he even outdid it, just as warmonger Henry Kissinger’s award of the Nobel peace prize did.
'Amused': Nick Clegg reacted shrewdly when he found his filmed apology on tuition fees had been turned into a spoof disco video
Prescott was Les Dawson made political flesh. The Mail’s Richard Littlejohn brilliantly tagged him ‘Two Jags’ (which he loathes) and others seized on the way Prescott pulverised English grammar.
Tony Blair, aware that he needed non-technocratic balance at the top of New Labour, saw that Prescott would make an ideal deputy. Anyway, such a ham-fisted chimp was certainly never going to be a threat to Blair as PM.
Today’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, reacted shrewdly when he found his filmed apology (for the Lib Dems’ broken promise on tuition fees) had been turned into a spoof disco video.
Mr Clegg could have gone to law to try to prevent the video being circulated. Instead, he pronounced himself ‘amused’ and the danger passed.
Satire is less effective when targets ‘welcome’ it. If satire does not wound, is it less valuable
I would say not. The prime aim of satire is not to change behaviour or to cause offence. It is to amuse and — without wishing to sound unduly pompous — to reflect truth, as the writer or artist sees it.
Satire which rings false will not work. Attempts, early in Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour party, to portray him as Bambi were unsuccessful. Why Because Blair was no weakling with wobbly legs. He was sure-footed and ruthless.
On the other hand, the infamous ‘evil eyes’ poster of him was far more accurate. What about Ed Miliband and Wallace
The comparison certainly catches something of his geekiness, his gawkiness, all those nerdy faces he pulls.
But I believe that other images of Mr Miliband are much more powerful.
Miliband was pictured last week alongside I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! actress Helen Flanagan
For example, did you see that sweaty snapshot taken last week of him alongside busty I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here! actress Helen Flanagan at an awards dinner
There was something furtive — something insistent and slightly creepy in that photograph.
That, to me, comes close to catching the essence of the real Miliband.
But this discussion might soon become academic. Lord Justice Leveson, in his report on the Press, suggests that regulators should be able to stop ‘allegedly discriminatory reporting’ which does not comply with ‘the spirit of equalities legislation’.
That proposal — a blade at the throat of cartoonists such as Steve Bell and sketchwriters such as me — could well present a threat to any mockery of people on account of physical quirks or tics or other characteristics they might display.
The principal value of satire is that it provides a safety valve. We, the voting public, can feel that we are getting even with the fools and charlatans and show-offs who govern us and who remove so much tax money from our wallets.
I am not sure Lord Justice Leveson quite comprehends that important function fulfilled by the public mockery of politicians.
By the way, the name of the journalist who enthusiastically spread that quite possibly false rumour about John Major’s underpants
It was Alastair Campbell — the same Alastair Campbell who nowadays fills his days by complaining about the ‘irresponsible’ Press.