News of the death of Simon Hoggart a couple of weeks ago caused widespread dismay. For so many years he skewered politicians with wit and ridicule in his parliamentary sketches and on the radio it seems hardly possible that it’s all come to an end so suddenly. Who will we have in future to talk about Gordon Brown’s chancellorial speeches as ‘bloated with gloating’, about Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, as ‘a man who smiles as often as an undertaker whose budgie has just died’, about David Cameron who ‘smiled like the Cheshire cat after a large sherry, and he did something I can only call pursing his nose’, about Nick Clegg and chums (‘increasingly, the leading Lib Dems are beginning to resemble the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm’), or about a poor joke by Ed Miliband (‘A three-year-old child would eschew it. If you found it in your cracker, you would send the lot back to Taiwan’) [all from his final Guardian sketches in December 2013].
Why do we miss funny people so much when they die? With some exceptions like musicians and poets I can think of few other groups of public figures who cause such a deep sense of loss. Another fairly recent example was Linda Smith, who died at a younger age, and whose biting wit and perfect timing are still missed (‘Erith [her home town] isn’t twinned with anywhere, but we do have a suicide pact with Dagenham’).
One explanation is that laughter is so appreciated that anyone who can excite it reliably over many years is almost bound to be loved. Another is that truly witty people are rare in the public world, and the world can’t afford to do without any of them. But I think there’s another explanation in the case of one sub-set of homo ridens, and that is satirists.
The problem with satire is that there aren’t enough satirists to go round. And, on the other hand, their proper objects of their ridicule, the rich and powerful, constantly increase in number. This is certainly true of the world of politics. Was there ever an age when so many politicians and public figures deserved to be attacked with wit, scorn and contempt, the chosen weapons of the satirist? Just consider this (ridiculously brief) list:
- ‘We’re all in this together’, it tells us, yet the UK government is intent on punishing the poor, again and again, for the crimes and failures of the rich. One in six children in the UK lives in poverty, and nearly 350,000 people are reliant on the Trussell Trust’s food banks, a rise of 300% in 12 months. The richest one per cent of people in the UK take home fifteen per cent of all income, compared to 6% in 1979.
- Bankers and allied cabals, far from having learned any lessons from the ignominy of their fall, are back awarding themselves even bigger salaries and bonuses. Top bankers earned on average £1.6m last year, an increase of 35% over the year before.
- The world of the elites revolves around London, which has now developed its own economy and society so divorced from the rest of Britain that it might as well be anchored in the middle of the North Sea as a separate city state. The London media, mirroring the government, ignore what happens elsewhere, and fail to notice the gradual breaking up of the UK.
- Control of the country has been effectively hijacked by a small group of public schoolboys, whose experience of life outside politics is confined to PR, journalism and daddy’s wallpaper business.
- The UK government’s project to reduce the size and meaning of public services through cuts and restructuring is well-advanced. In England, an unadvertised top-down reorganisation and market solutions are rapidly eroding the NHS, and the schools ‘system’ is a chaotic mish-mash under the increasingly tight control of a single individual, the Secretary of State for Education.
- Thanks to Edward Snowden we now know that every single communication we make using the internet is open and available to be read by government spies in several countries. And companies the size of medium-size states are allowed to collect the most intimate details of our personal lives and use them to sell us their stuff.
- The House of Lords now has ‘about 760’ members (its website is unable to give an exact number). Outside North Korea and China it has few rivals as a legislative body for gigantism, corruption, absence of democracy and procedural absurdity.
Simon Hoggart belonged to an endangered species, the parliamentary sketch writer (how many of them are left?). His small barbs were left in the skins of a select few, the inhabitants of the Palace of Westminster – a building of gigantic irrelevance to most of the population. And he’d travelled a long way from the northern, working-class roots of the family of his father Richard, author of The uses of literacy. His wit was urbane, even-handed and ultimately unwounding. What he lacked was what Jonathan Swift, the most lacerating of satirists, called ‘saeva indignatio‘ – literally, ‘fierce indignation’, or ‘the fury of outrage’ – words that appear on his self-written epitaph. In other words, wit and a way with words are not enough. To be effective rather than decorative satirists must attack and pierce the armour of their targets, and touch the dissatisfactions of their listeners. Fire in the belly is an essential job requirement.
If there’s plenty of good material in 2014 for fury and outrage, where are our Swiftian satirists? Why aren’t there at least a few comics filled with anger about the injustices and absurdities of our condition?
Well, one obvious answer is that the comics are there but their stages are not. In the 1980s we enjoyed on television a weekly dose of the vitriolic ‘Spitting Image’, whose rubber puppets fixed the public personae of a whole generation of politicians: Margaret Thatcher the dominatrix and her Cabinet ‘vegetables’, Roy Hattersley and his spluttery speeches, and the two Davids: Steel the miniature puppet in the pocket of dark, sinister Owen. Each Friday night Ben Elton spat long skeins of outrage, each faster and higher pitched than the last, at the latest government enormity.
Today the BBC, fearful about losing yet more licence fee at the hands of a vengeful government, would not dream of returning shows like these to the prime-time screen. Satire is confined to what by now are tame a very few ghettos like ‘Have I got news for you’. Producers seem to assume that viewers’ heads are filled with the product of all those baking programmes. Channel 4 long ago lost the habit and the claim of being radical and risk-taking, fills its schedules with tired ‘reality’ shows and undemanding comedy, and joins in the government’s baiting of the poor (‘Benefits Britain’).
The result is that the truly Swiftian satirists of our day, like Mark Thomas, Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy, are sidelined to the live circuit, where their listeners are small in number and already on-side, and tame radio shows.
There is, though, another possible explanation. It could be that comics who might twenty or thirty years ago have turned naturally to satire are persuaded that there are no large-scale audiences today who are able to digest indignation with their comedy. Most people, they fear, have simply retreated so far from a concern for the public and social good, or are so lacking in hope and confidence that political tides can be turned, that satire is not a tradeable commodity. Much better to retreat to domestic comedy or innocent farce.
I hope this isn’t true. The fact that satire survives, in a wondrously scabrous and eighteenth century form, in the newspaper cartoons of Steve Bell, Martin Rowson and others, suggests that the genre is still alive and capable of living well in other media. And, after all, saeva indignatio can still be much more effective than other methods of deflating the powerful. A good example is the response to Michael Gove‘s recent attack on ‘leftist’ interpretations, by historians, teachers and even television comedy series, of the significance of the First World War. Several historians, including Prof. Richard J. Evans, whom Gove attacked by name, left their academic bunkers to defend themselves with sweet reason and wise words. But laughter has proved a far more lethal way of countering Gove and exposing him as the extremely clever but very stupid schoolboy whose short trousers have slipped down to his ankles, revealing his nakedness.
Jonathan Swift, were he alive today, would love to sink his teeth into Michael Gove, and he’d surely devote a second Gulliver’s travels to mocking some of the idiocies of our own age. I can be fairly certain of the latter because ‘A voyage to Brobdingnag’ includes a mordant attack on the House of Lords. Gulliver proudly describes to the King of Brobdingnab the excellent constitutional arrangements of his native land, including those of the Upper House:
‘I then spoke at length upon the constitution of an English parliament, partly made up of an illustrious body called the House of Lords, persons of the noblest blood, and of the most ancient and ample patrimonies. I described the extraordinary care always taken of their education in arts and arms, to qualify them for being counsellors born to the king and kingdom …’
The king seems sceptical, and enquires:
‘What qualifications were necessary in those who are to be created new lords: whether the humour of the prince, a sum of money to a court-lady, or a prime minister, or a design of strengthening a party opposite to the public interest, ever happened to be motives in those advancements. What share of knowledge these lords had in the laws of their country, and how they came by it, so as to enable them to decide the properties of their fellow-subjects in the last resort. Whether they were always so free from avarice, partialities or want, that a bribe, or some other sinister view, could have no place among them.’
Finally he takes Gulliver’s hand and gives him his considered conclusion about the state of his beloved England:
‘My little friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable panegyric upon your country. You have clearly proved that ignorance, idleness and vice are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator. That laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them.’
Nearly three hundred years later who can say that the House of Lords is not in need of similar treatment?