Untimely Observations

Joking Aside

The recent exchange of friendly fire on this site between Colin Buchan Liddell, Andy Nowicki and Paul Deussen (not to mention readers’ comments) has raised the interesting subject of humour in politics.

Humour is an unpredictable weapon, which can easily explode in a user’s face. Humour is very personal, and what seems vastly funny to one person will not seem remotely so to another. To take an everyday example, I have always loved Laurel and Hardy, but I have never liked Charlie Chaplin (too preachy, too saccharine, too stagy); others may find that inexplicable.

Probably all of us have at some time made jocular comments to people who took them in the wrong way. Probably all of us have found ourselves at some stage sitting stony-faced while everyone else around us is “corpsing” – or the other way around.

Humour is part of our personality phenotype – some of us like surrealism or word play, others prefer slapstick or bottom jokes (Rabelais devotes a whole chapter of Gargantua to defecation), while some seem to have no zest for amusement at all. Humour is also highly contextual, with different kinds of humour finding favour in different periods, countries, classes and communities; all jokes are in some way “in-jokes” that rely on specific and often subconscious shared assumptions.

For this reason, humour dates very quickly – despite the cinéaste snobs who tell us certain comedians, shows or texts are classics ‘everyone’ ought to find amusing (Chaplin is a good example). It takes rare genius to transcend period and circumstances; what seemed roaringly funny to audiences in 1930 or 1970 usually now seems flat, or we enjoy it largely ironically, through a nostalgic prism. Shows like Bilko, the Ealing comedies or the Carry On films are enjoyable partly because of their datedness, their kitsch reflection of what looks like a more agreeable social order – a time when, whatever their other shortcomings, Britain was British and America American. With comedy, you really ‘had to have been there’.

Political humour is of a different order from other humour, because the ingredients of spontaneity and simple joy have been replaced by the perceived need ‘to make a point’. Probably only those who already strongly agree with whatever that point is will really relish the humour, and even then it is a vinegarish kind of relish – a slightly savage sense of “Serves you right!” as they peruse some supposedly biting editorial or look greedily at some caricature of some hated politician impaled on a policy. Implicit in most jokes are schadenfreude and the comforting conceit that the butt of the joke is in some way inferior to the teller – stupider, uglier, fatter, smellier, clumsier, unluckier, or whatever it may be. In political humour this dark edge is brought out until it almost completely overshadows the humorous elements. Political comedy is ponderous, and often predictable – humour used as a bludgeon rather than a rapier.

Celebrated political satires like Samuel Butler’s anti-Puritan Hudibras (published between 1663 and 1678) or Swift’s Modest Proposal (1729) were both popular and influential, but I doubt anyone ever really laughed at them. We read them now purely for their historical rather than their hysterical qualities. Likewise, we admire the skill of 18th/19th cartoonists like Gillray, Rowlandson or the Cruikshanks, but we are unlikely to think them actually funny. I have a 1791 Gillray print, “French Democrats Surprizing the Royal Runaways” (Republican troops apprehending the fleeing King Louis XVI) and while the faces and poses of the protagonists are rendered with verve, the effect is more engaging than exhilarating. Caricatures of world-engulfing emperors or tyrants hovering over the chamber-pot were edgy (and risky to publish) – but were they ever actually amusing? Yet I would rather flick through a Gillray compendium than watch the 1980s series Spitting Image, which seems to have dated much more quickly than Gillray and his contemporaries. (This is not because Spitting Image was boringly leftist, although it was – the Conservative-supporting Jim Davidson has fared even worse in the obsolescence stakes.)

There was a time when politicians could make even very barbed jokes and it would not necessarily harm their political prospects. For example, when Benjamin Disraeli was asked to explain the difference between misfortune and calamity, he replied:

“If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be misfortune. If somebody pulled him out, it would be a calamity.”

Australia’s fourth Prime Minister George Reid was being heckled at an early 20th century public meeting by someone who pointed to Reid’s paunch and shouted, “What are you going to call it, George?” Reid replied: “If it’s a boy, I’ll call it after myself. If it’s a girl I’ll call it Victoria. But if, as I strongly suspect, it’s nothing but piss and wind, I’ll name it after you.”

More recently again, there are countless anecdotes (some apocryphal) of Churchill’s wit, such as the time a female Labour MP remarked acidly “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee”, to which he returned “If I were your husband, madam, I’d drink it!”

These sorts of things were uttered at a time when people understood intuitively that not everything was political, and politics was in any case about more than just being universally acceptable. Politicians then had a right to a private life, and private opinions. There was also a sense of proportion; nobody really thought that Disraeli wanted Gladstone drowned. It was a joke, and while the notoriously dour Gladstone probably did not like it much, such squibs were essentially distractions from soon-to-be-resumed substantive debate. Having a sense of humour may not have helped politicians like Disraeli attain high office, but it did not hinder them either.

A dwindling number of comedian-politicians survived into the Thatcher period and even beyond, tolerated or even liked by their party leaders, but significantly never entrusted with high office. The most famous was the roué-raconteur Alan Clark, who delighted in scandalizing the sort of people who like to be scandalized. His career was littered with post-prandial extravagances – being drunk at the dispatch box, praising English football hooligans, saying that “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” was the best song in Cabaret, rejoicing in the news of Israeli troops shooting Palestinian rioters, pulling faces and mouthing to a Guardian journalist the words “Isn’t it awful? behind then party leader William Hague’s back, when Hague was delivering a make-or-break speech.

It is impossible to imagine Thatcher or Major ever having said anything remotely similar. It would somehow not have seemed “prime ministerial” – and this is why senior politicians usually employ attack dogs to lampoon their opponents and say the things the dignity of their office precludes them from saying.

Now, however, everything is political, all politics are portentous, and for politicians “every moment is a defining moment” (T. Blair). There has also been the freezing effect of political correctness, or the possibility of PC disapproval, which makes politicians weigh every word before they speak. Mainstream politics and public culture are increasingly characterized by a dull and pompous conformity in which everything has become a ‘serious ishoo’. Another contributory factor is that politics now is a profession rather than a public duty, which makes politicians worried about risking their livelihoods.

As an example of how much less tolerant of humour politics are today, last April David Cameron was widely criticized for telling a more than usually hysterical female Labour MP to “calm down, dear”. This rather lame remark implied (to the left) that Cameron held a blatantly patronizing and sickening and – err – err – blatantly patronizing and sickening attitude that needed to be stamped out so that women legislators who should be treated exactly the same as male legislators could be – err – treated differently. No witty riposte – just whining bluster and muttered outrage, the sort of afflatus for which George Reid could have found a name.

Another problem of political humour is that it is often taken at face value by those at whom it is aimed, who of course have a vested interest in trying to portray your jeux d’esprit in the worst possible light. Sometimes, your opponent may genuinely have no sense of humour; on other occasions they will know you are joking but will nonetheless pretend that you are not because ‘this is a subject no-one should joke about’. This is particularly apposite to those on the right, whose motivations and actions are almost always given the worst possible construction. When tempted to satirize some more than usually stupid PC standpoint, we should stop and consider how our caustic satire would look to casual readers if presented to them on the front page of a mass-circulation newspaper or on TV with all the jocularity carefully excised.

There is much scope for humour in what we do, and a lot of what the left does is intrinsically risible. It also does us a great deal of good to whistle in what can often seem like darkness. But before we press that significant “Send”, we should stop for a moment and wonder whether our very individual ideas of humour are likelier to aid or to alienate.