LONDON — I wish to draw to your attention a group of workers who are in a sorry plight. The use of their skills is in decline; where once they commanded our attention, they are now held in low esteem; the buildings in which they once worked are half deserted; their future does not look good. It is, in a way, one of the products of globalization.
This group is Britain’s political comedians. Before the 1997 Labor government, political comedy thrived. A brief history of governments gives us the illustrious TV show “That was the Week That Was,” which mocked the Conservative government to death. That was the beginning of the end of political deference.
Mockery, gentle or scathing, then became the monstrous chaperon of political leaders; wherever the politicians went, there was the comedian, mimicking them, deriding them, never letting them go — and always morally superior. The chaperon comedian walked beside the politician holding up a distorting mirror for us to see the “truth” behind the suit and smart hairdo of our political leader. Politicians were silly children who fought and told fibs, and we, the viewers, were the adults who grew more and irritated at their shenanigans.
In the last years of the long Conservative era, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found her cruelest mirror in the TV show “Spitting Image,” in which, through her puppet caricature, she was seen as a brutal and violent neofascist; her successor John Major was excoriated by the political cartoonist Steve Bell as a feeble creature who wanted to be Superman and wore his underpants over his trousers. It made him absurd.
But that was the age that was and is no more. Since New Labor, political comedians have been flummoxed. This is partly because most of the best political comedy has come from the left of politics. Leftwing comics not only mock the absurd pretensions of those in power but also ground their sense of superiority over the politician on a tacit alliance with the powerless and exploited poor.
Now comics are divided. Some believe that exactly the same treatment should be meted out to New Labor, and that Prime Minister Tony Blair and his ministers engage in exactly the same pretensions, lies, corrupt practices and abuses of power as did the Tories. But others think there is a difference. Compared with the Conservative government, Labor ministers are more hardworking and serious and have far fewer connections with shady business practices.
Most importantly, New Labor, like the comics, conveys a sense of tacit alliance with the poor and powerless. The dwindling world of political comics ricochets with petulant and harsh accusations. Those who have lost the heart to mock the government are accused of cowardice and selling out. Those who continue seem somehow themselves to be petulant and striving, unfunnily, for effect. There is now no major TV or radio program that can hold up a mirror to the government and make us laugh in recognition. The chaperon has gone, to be replaced by a yapping dog.
There is, however, a larger reason for this dwindling of political comedy. That is that the sphere of British political power has shrunk since the explosion of political satire in the 1960s. Political satire is powerful when those being mocked are monsters, when their mistakes, lies, delusions of grandeur, have hurtful effects on the citizens; and when, in a society with a cautious and deferential media, exposing the mistakes and delusions of politicians clearly braces and invigorates the citizens. We watched “Spitting Image” and felt clearer and stronger for it. Political comedy was felt to be a vital part of the civic culture.
Today there is no deference in the media. Indeed, all the media, not excepting the BBC, have taken on themselves the role of exposing daily the human failings of political leaders. The comedians have nothing to add. The world of politics itself is seen as all smoke and mirrors and satire is part of that same world of illusion. It does not stand for a people’s truth vs. the leaders’ fantasies. Civic culture has become one of cynicism and of political fatalism. Why vote, they’re all the same? Why watch the news? They’re all little boys playing games. We all hate politics. There is no politics.
Neither the journalists nor the comedians have been able to leap the barriers of this shrinking civic culture to find where and how power does operate in 21st century Britain. The institutions and forces that most to shape our lives, from the European Union and International Monetary Fund through the transnational banks and financial institutions to Microsoft and McDonald’s are entirely anonymous. No comic could do a show mimicking the head of one of these corporations because no one in Britain would recognize him.
The well-known satirical magazine, Private Eye, which has successfully excoriated every significant government minister for over 30 years, now limits itself to such small and parochial targets that it reads like a school magazine. We, the readers and viewers, absorb the pettiness of this view and ourselves feel diminished by it, as the political culture is made small and shameful.
Against this historic trend, Blair seems puny. The more he inflates his moral sense to plead with us to be active citizens, responsible neighbors, tireless democrats, the more he is accused of insincerity and spin. Domestically, then, we seem trapped in a civic society doomed to go on shrinking.
There are groups of people who have made a leap over the parish boundaries. Campaigners against world capitalism, blown off the streets by Swiss water cannon in Davos last week, acolytes of the American Naomi Klein’s best selling book “No Logo,” and international humanitarian charities alone have been able to find a rocklike moral high ground from which to view, and show us, the world. That rock is crowded with international agencies but precious few ordinary citizens.
Never since the invention of representative democracy over a century ago has the mismatch between power, political morality and the power of the citizen been so disconnected. Meanwhile, as politicians worry themselves sick over falling voter turnout a new class of the politically engaged — those with international knowledge and access to the World Wide Web — will gather strength, and know of the less powerful citizen only if she becomes the victim of a disaster.
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