Comedy and politics: the great debate

During the Edinburgh Festival the Political Studies Association organised a Festival of Politics which included a public debate about the relationship between comedy and politics. I was there as someone who studies the representation of politics in fiction and my fellow panelists were comedian and Ab Fab regular Helen Lederer and comedy writer Tim Telling of the Daily Mash.

Prior to the session Martin Kettle wrote this about the subject, quoting Helen and myself . Martin’s view, that satire was damaging our politics was contested in the New Statesman by Helen Lewis Hasteley.

In the session at Edinburgh, Helen, Tim and myself generally agreed about the difficulties comedians have in talking about politics and questioned how much influence they had. If that sounds a bit dull we did have some interesting things to say – although there was a very rude man in the audience who thought we were all talking rubbish.

Irrespective of that strongly held view, this is what I said to kick off the debate:

Potentially comedy and satire can perform a very useful function in our political culture. This is because if democracy is to work it needs, as John Stuart Mill said, the public to be vigilantly skeptical about their political representatives. The last thing they should be is deferential.

In theory at least, in satire, all vices are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals and society into improvement. In satire, therefore, wit can be a political weapon.

Satirists and comedian can also say more about politics than a journalist or academic – they aren’t bounded by reference to sources and the need to be descriptively true to the facts. They will also often have a larger audience – certainly compared to academics!

As a general rule however, comedy mostly invites us to laugh at politics: it is too often anti-political. Comedians encourage audiences to laugh at politicians, to ridicule them as an end in itself. Politicians are depicted as being: financially and morally corrupt; liars who will say and do anything for votes; who are all the same, no matter to which party they belong; and who do not represent us, only themselves.

Undoubtedly some politicians lie, cheat and steal: politicians have always lied, cheated and stolen. However, the impression that comedy gives us about our representatives as a class – that they are morally inferior to the rest of us – is just wrong. It is however a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not responsible because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong.

The idea that a corrupt elite is screwing a noble people is powerful and pervasive and by no means new. It is therefore no surprise that it is reflected in comedy. It is certainly a view of politics that is popular amongst neo-liberals. It was at the heart of the popular 1980s situation comedy Yes Minister which repeatedly showed viewers that their political leaders and civil servants were feather-bedding themselves at the tax-payers’ expense. This was why Margaret Thatcher loved the series: it expressed her view that, as representative politics was a moral hazard, it should be replaced as far as possible by the market.

Few comedy writers and performers are neo-liberals – some even attack politicians from a left-wing perspective: many were disappointed by New Labour’s failure to significantly reduce inequality and alienated by Tony Blair’s role in taking Britain into the Iraq War. However, the cumulative effect of the same jokes ridiculing politicians and highlighting their supposed foibles can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit – and neo-liberals are amongst the nicest of those forces.

Comedy has always relied on stereotypes. There was a time when the Irish were thick; the Scots careful with their money; mothers-in-law fierce and ugly; and the Welsh stole and shagged sheep. The corrupt politician is one such stereotype, one that is neither racist nor sexist and seemingly acceptable to all.

In the 1930s Graham Greene defined ‘a humorist in the modern English sense’, as someone ‘who shares the popular taste and who satirizes only those with whom the majority are already displeased’. This led to what he disparaged as ‘safe and acceptable’ comedies.

The picture of politics that emerges from comedy today illustrates Greene’s point. For comedy now holds up a mirror less to the reality of politics but to our own prejudices about politics.

Clever comedians – the funniest comedians if not the most popular comedians – subvert stereotypes and prejudices. They make audiences reflect on why they think the things they do. It is however a brave comedian who does that – their audience is their income after all, so it is natural that they want to please them. Michael McIntyre doesn’t make his millions by asking audiences awkward questions of themselves.

Yet, comedy can do more than confirm our prejudices about politicians. While in Edinburgh I saw Matt Forde who told audiences about how he grew up in working class Nottingham and became interested in politics, acquired a rather strange fascination with Tony Blair and worked for the Labour MP Paddy Tipping. In his act, representative politics was presented as almost ordinary – not the domain of a vampiric morally deranged class of freaks.

In 1965 the BBC broadcast Dennis Potters’ play Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton. This was about a leftwing Labour candidate whose agent forces him to drop his ideals in the pursuit of votes. Viewers are meant to see the agent as a cynical manipulator. You might not think there were many laughs there, but there were. By the end we come to realize that the agent is as much the frustrated idealist as is Nigel Barton. For he turns to the camera and tells the viewer: ‘You may despise me but don’t blame me because it’s all your fault’. That is perhaps a truth not many appreciate hearing – and for that reason it’s not one many comedians articulate.

For, just as politicians are the prisoners of their voters, so most comedians are the creatures of their audiences.

Steven Fielding

A new Turkish revolution?

One of the most remarkable events since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 occurred recently, when the country’s top military brass resigned en masse. Equally remarkable was the relatively limited coverage and analysis of this event in the British media: Turkey after all is at some point set to join the EU while its strategic importance in the Middle East is becoming increasingly apparent.

For a military that has for almost a century seen itself as holding a special place within Turkish politics as the ‘guardian’ of  the Republic and – since 1950 – of Turkish democracy, the resignation of dozens of officers sent a powerful message to the current government and the public. Precisely what this message is, however, is not entirely clear. What is clear, though, is that the apparent resignation of this ‘guardianship’ role by long-serving members of the armed forces opens up a real possibility for further improvements in Turkish democracy. It is imperative that the current government learns some lessons from the past and grasps this opportunity with speed and dexterity.

In a forthcoming article, Burak Cop and I compare political development across Spain, Greece and Turkey. Our analyses point to a key oversight by past leaders that has contributed to the failure of Turkey to become a fully functioning democracy. There are many historical parallels across these countries, including weak economic development, extreme political violence, and a military that at times became actively involved in politics. One fundamental difference that we highlight, though, is the process of constitution-writing. Spain is now considered the ‘model’ country when it comes to writing a democratic constitution because of the consensual nature in which the Spanish constitution was designed and the subsequent large-scale support for the resulting political institutions. While the document itself contained considerable ambiguity, what seems to be important is that elites who could have caused the government serious trouble if excluded from the process were included in the constitutional negotiations.

Greece provides a very different model, in which an extremely popular elected leader, Konstantinos Karamanlis, managed to draft the democratic constitution with the input of only a handful of advisors and without negotiation across elite factions. While many elites initially made noises about the need to rewrite the document, they did no such thing when they had the chance and instead supported the Constitution designed by Karamanlis.

How does this compare with the Turkish case? Since its founding, Turkey has had three constitutions. The first, in 1924, was designed by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, without consultation with potentially disruptive elites (including the religious conservatives or the Kurdish tribal leaders). The second, in 1961, was designed by a group of civilians selected by indirect elections after the 1960 military coup. This was a fairly democratic constitution but the problem was that one of the most popular parties in Turkey had been banned from participating in its design and persisted in questioning its legitimacy in the years that followed. Another important weakness was that there was no attempt to include representatives from the Kurdish regions of Turkey. The 1982 Constitution, which followed the 1980 coup, was far less democratic in design and in procedure —none of the political parties that had existed before the 1980 coup were allowed to participate in its design. The result has been a quasi-authoritarian document questioned by all civilian elites.

For the past decade, the government has periodically discussed the idea of drafting a completely new constitution. This topic has cropped up again in recent weeks, and the large-scale resignation of top military leaders has made it even clearer that Turkey desperately needs a stable democratic regime built upon a legitimate constitution.

What do the lessons of Spain and Greece tell us about how the current government should proceed? We argue that Turkey should follow the Spanish rather than the Greek example. In Turkish politics there is no one like Konstantinos Karamanlis; there is no one with the widespread popularity and legitimacy, with whom most groups of elites are willing to go along. There are, in fact, groups with long histories of suspicion and distrust, any of which could cause serious problems for the regime if excluded from this process. This includes the social democratic left, the reformed far-right, and the Kurds. If the religious conservatives were not currently already in power, they would be included in this list.

Ultimately, for any constitution-writing process and the resulting constitution to be legitimate, these groups will have little choice but to settle their differences and work together in drafting a new democratic Turkish constitution.It is a pity that currently so few Europeans seem to think that the fate of Turkish democracy is a subject of little importance to them.

Lauren McLaren

What do you think the Government’s Commons majority is?

On paper, it’s 76.  Those with some knowledge of way Westminster works in practice will have remembered to add in the five non-sitting Sinn Fein MPs, plus the Speaker and his Deputies, which takes it past 80.  The really sharp amongst you might mention that the eight DUP MPs usually (though not always) vote with the government, which would take you to close to 100.

But the average majority in practice has been a whopping 142 – and we bet no one thought it was that.  That’s the mean average in the 306 whipped votes to have taken place since the election; we’ve excluded the 25 occasions when Coalition MPs were given a free vote.

The first clue to working out what’s going on is to note that the figure of 142 is the mean average.  The median average is a much less surprising 94.  This suggests that there are some very high outlier figures, dragging up the mean average – and indeed that’s what happening.

The key factor is the behaviour of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Most of the time (some 238 votes so far), Labour oppose the government, and when they do the average majority is 91 (with a median of 87).  But when Labour abstain (44 votes), the majority averages 270 (median: 276); and when Labour support the government, the average majority rises to 421 (median: 450).  (The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that these numbers don’t sum to 306 – because there was one vote when the government was whipped, but Labour allowed a free vote).

The most striking example of this occurred on 21 March this year when the Government won a vote endorsing military action in Libya by 557 votes to 13, thanks to the support of the Labour frontbench, producing the largest Coalition majority so far this Parliament of 544.

Another good example of huge Coalition majorities occurred during the passage of the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill, which was discussed on the Floor of the House of Commons in March 2011.  As reported in The Independent, Conservative MPs complained bitterly to their whips at having to stay late to vote on divisions where the Government was enjoying massive Commons majorities.  The Independent calculated that the Government’s day-to-day majority between January and March 2011 was 150, and it had enjoyed a margin of more than 250 in 24 out of 75 votes.  What the story didn’t point out, however, was that this was because most amendments on the Scotland Bill were being put by SNP MPs, and that the Labour frontbench chose in almost all occasions to join the Coalition in opposing them in the no lobby. This factor on the particular Bill, more than any other, contributed to the high Government majorities in the first quarter of this year.

The consequences for any government backbench rebellion succeeding should be obvious.  On paper, it would take 39 Coalition MPs to rebel to defeat the Government – but only if the Labour frontbench was to vote with the rebels.  There are plenty of issues on which 39 Conservative MPs might rebel, but there aren’t as many on which the Labour party would be willing to join them. That is not to say that it won’t happen at some point in the future, merely that it is not likely to happen very often.

The hurdles in overturning a large in-built Coalition majority are even more acute for the Liberal Democrats. Their backbench MPs number only 35, so even if all of them vote against the Government with all the Opposition MPs, that would still not be enough to defeat the Government.

For the Government’s majority to fall much below 50, both Conservative and Liberal Democrats need to rebel in decent numbers, with the support of the Labour frontbench and the minor parties. This has been happening rarely since May 2010.  The Government’s majority has only fallen below 50 on only six occasions in its first fifteen months in power.

But it can happen.  On 9 December 2010, over university tuition fees, 21 Liberal Democrat rebels combined with six Conservative backbenchers, the Labour frontbench and the minor parties, reducing the Government’s majority to 21, which remains the lowest Coalition majority thus this Parliament.

The Coalition not only has a stable working majority on paper, but also a very high average day-to-day working majority in practice.

This was one of the conclusions of a paper given at the recent Elections, Public Opinion and Parties conference, held at Exeter University.  The full slides from the presentation are downloadable here; all the data are correct as of the start of the summer recess.  This updates, and replaces, the earlier slides we uploaded in July.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Popular education: changing the world?

In this piece for Ceasefire I explore the remarkable work of the La Máscara Theatre company – the only feminist collective theatre group in Colombia.

I use the article as an opportunity to reflect on how and whether popular education can be of use in the building of global and national movements of resistance.

Sara Motta

Downton Abbey: just a bit of fun?

Downton Abbey is that very rare thing – an ITV series popular enough to be commissioned for a second season. It also seems to appeal to middle-class viewers – when was the last time the Daily Telegraph put together a readers’ quiz about an ITV series? –  so watch out for lots of adverts for expensive German cars.

Such is its popularity, the Today programme interviewed A.N. Wilson and Alison Light about Downton Abbey’s ‘significance’. Wilson’s use of ‘bollocks’ to characterise claims the series was anything other than a ‘sanitised version of the past’ briefly sent ripples through Twitter. You can hear Wilson dropping the B bomb here.

Wilson’s potty mouth distracted attention from his serious point – but John Humphrys constant ho-ho-ing suggested that Today’s producers looked on the segment as just a bit of fun. After all, a period drama with lots of posh people lolling about in nice dresses and dashing uniforms can’t be ‘political’ (dread word) can it? The essential academic consensus however is: yes, it can. But Anthony Trollope put it better than might any social scientist: ‘The writer of stories must please’, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘or he will be nothing. And he must teach whether he wish to teach or no.’

As I suggested in an earlier post, Downton Abbey is part of a new wave of period dramas, one that has gathered force, tsunami-like, over the past year or so. Like the poor, period dramas have always been with us, but Downton Abbey’s popularity, the success of The King’s Speech, the revival of Upstairs Downstairs (of which Downton Abbey is, let us say, an effusive ‘tribute’) and a new television adaptation of South Riding suggests that something significant is going on.

It would be too crude to link too straightforwardly the renewed popularity of period drama with the return of the Conservative party to office, and impossible to prove which one is the cause of which. But Julian Fellowes, who created the series, was recently translated into a Conservative peer: make of that what you will. Moreover, A.N. Wilson, who seems to be on a bit of mission here, certainly thinks the series reinforces old-fashioned class prejudice.

The last time Britain was in the grips of an economic crisis – the 1970s – was also the last time period dramas like Upstairs Downstairs and When the Boat Comes In ruled the roost. As I pointed out in a paper last year, in the face of this crisis, these dramas tapped into an undoubted popular desire to return to a past world of (invented) certainty. Yet, they also tackled many live political issues while, arguably, promoting class consensus (in Upstairs Downstairs) and individualism (in When the Boat Comes In).

What lessons will the second season of Downton Abbey teach its viewers? We’ll have to see – but as it is set during the Great War I predict an emphasis on pulling together in the face of adversity. After all, as the Prime Minister reminded us recently, we’re all in this together.

Anyone for Economic Downturn Abbey?

Steven Fielding