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

A scandal of two halves

As our last post indicated, the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009 inflicted damage to popular perceptions of politicians. But what impact has the phone hacking scandal had?

Despite the furore it created within the political class and the turmoil it generated within the media, the public reaction to ‘hackgate’ has been largely left to speculation – until now.

In November 2010, YouGov conducted an online survey on behalf of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which probed public trust in various groups of professionals, covering the media, politicians, and senior police officers. The University of Nottingham repeated this survey over the weekend of the 15th July 2011, by which time the full implications of the phone hacking scandal had become apparent. By comparing the two surveys we think we can identify the impact of ‘hackgate’ on trust.

The results are as stark as they are important.


% Trusting in Nov 2010

% Trusting July 2011

Change (%)

Broadsheet Journalists




Tabloid Journalists




Senior Police Officers




MPs in General




Your Local MP




Government Ministers




Top Civil Servants




Trust in journalists – both broadsheet and tabloid – is down by around a quarter. This can most easily be observed for broadsheet journalists, which was gauged by asking about trust in “journalists in newspapers such as the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian”. The percentage of the public who expressed trust in them fell by 13 points: this, despite the fact that the scandal primarily focused on tabloid journalists and was actually broken by a broadsheet. The public, however, do not appear to have made this distinction. Trust in tabloid journalists (asked by referring to “journalist in newspapers such as the Sun, the Mirror or the Daily Star”) has similarly fallen by around a quarter, although as this is from a much – much – lower starting point the absolute change is relatively small.

Senior police officers have also not escaped a loss of trust. While the relative size of the change is fairly small, this may be only the beginning of a downward trend.

This is, however, a scandal of two halves. If trust in newspaper journalists and the police has fallen, there has been a remarkable resurgence in trust for politicians and senior civil servants. Trust in MPs in general saw a dramatic 7 point increase, representing a relative increase of well over a third. Such changes are replicated, although to a smaller degree, for respondents’ trust in their local MP, government ministers, and senior civil servants. Whatever the partisan effect of the scandal, the political class as a whole appears to have benefitted from it.

From these data it is obvious that the public has not only taken notice of the scandal, it has also reacted strongly in terms of who they now do – and do not – trust. In particular, it seems likely that the role of individual Parliamentarians in exposing phone hacking and the Parliamentary select committees anticipated scrutiny of Rupert Murdoch, his son James and former executive News International executive Rebekah Brooks (which occurred a few days after the second survey) probably played some part in improving perceptions of politicians.

When MPs do bad – as with expenses – public trust nose dives; but when they are seen to do good voters still give Parliamentarians some credit.

Whether these trends continue or are reversed will depend on the nature of any revelations to come: the phone hacking scandal is clearly not yet over. But it also depends on how the leading players react to these revelations. The big question is: can MPs continue to reverse what many once saw as an inevitable popular decline of trust in politics? The answer appears to be in their hands.

Data note: the sharp-eyed reader may have noted that the figures used for 2010 are not quite the same as those reported by the CSPL yesterday (although they are not that different).  They come instead from a companion survey carried out at the same time by YouGov, also for the CSPL, to test the differences between face-to-face and internet surveys.  Our 2011 survey was also by YouGov, and to make valid like-for-like comparisons we make here use of the YouGov survey from 2010.

Fieldwork periods: 15th Nov 2010 – 20th Nov 2010, n=2551, 15th July 2011 – 16th July 2011, n=2012. All changes discussed significant to at least p<0.02. Figures are based on unweighted data.

Jonathan Rose and Cees van der Eijk 

Trust in politics: down, down, deeper and down?

In the last couple of years there have been three major events in British politics: the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, the 2010 General Election and the phone hacking scandal of 2011. In this post we look at the impact of the first two; and in our next we assess the effect of the third.

A survey commissioned by Committee on Standards in Public Life the sheds some light on this question. Conducted in December 2010, the survey focused on how the public perceived the conduct of politicians, public officials and other professional groups, and on the degree of trust these groups engendered. It was published today.

Because the survey replicates many questions asked in 2004, 2006 and 2008, we can track the course of public opinion over a significant length of time. For obvious reasons, one might expect the expenses scandal to have had stark consequences for the repute of, and trust in, politicians. On the other hand, general elections serve to ‘cleanse’ the political system by throwing out the rascals, and so generate a temporary boost in public regard for politicians.

Even though the survey cannot disentangle these two countervailing effects, it does show their net impact. And the results make uncomfortable reading for the political class.

Amongst many other findings, the report shows that perceptions of the actual behaviour of MPs have become much more negative since 2008. This is made plain from the percentages subscribing to the notion that all or most MPs are:

  • ‘dedicated to doing a good job for the public’: 26 per cent in 2010 (-20 per cent from 2008);
  • ‘competent at their jobs’: 26 per cent (-10 per cent);
  • ‘telling the truth’: 20 per cent (-6 per cent);
  • ‘making sure that public money is spent wisely’: 18 per cent (-10 per cent);
  • ‘in touch with what the public thinks is important’: 15 per cent (-14 per cent).

Other questions reveal that:

  • 33 per cent of respondents rated ‘overall standards of conduct’ in public life as (very or quite) high, down from 41 per cent in 2008;
  • trust in one’s local MP has fallen from 48 per cent (in 2008) to 40 per cent.

Clearly, in December 2010 the fallout from the expenses scandal had not dissipated in spite of the General Election. The Coalition might have been described as marking a ‘new politics’ but so far as many in the public were concerned it was obviously not new enough.

Can MPs to redeem themselves in the public mind? Or have they been permanently tainted by the 2009 expenses scandal? We address those questions in our next post when we look at the impact of the more recent phone hacking scandal on trust.

Cees van der Eijk and Jonathan Rose

Ed and the TUC: five things we know


I’ve written about New Labour over the years, teach Nottingham students about its rise and (maybe?) fall and will be producing a second edition of this book in the fullness of time. So, let me try and put Ed Miliband’s 2011 speech to the TUC in some kind of context.

No political speech from a Leader of the Opposition is going to tell us very much – they are usually about electoral positioning. So, while Miliband was talking to union delegates he was really addressing the wider public, hoping they might be allowed to hear a sound bite or two on the television news. The speech was, as a consequence, largely composed of Miliband’s back catalogue: he even slipped in a reference to the clunky British Promise. There was, in truth, little new here and nothing that would have been novel to those present in the room: politicians must bore themselves silly having to repeat the same words over and over again.

1. There has rarely been a good time for a Labour leader to address the TUC. Yet, while the union-party relationship has always been fraught, Tony Blair seemed to exult in bringing the brothers and sisters bad news. Miliband referred to the speech Blair did not give in 2001, due to it coinciding with the attack on the Twin Towers. He did not mention that Blair had anticipated a hostile reception because of his desire to speed up public sector reforms.

2. Red Ed, he aint. Miliband made a disparaging reference to Blair’s habit of telling the TUC that the unions had to ‘modernise or die’. But he didn’t say anything substantially different. Miliband claimed he believed Blair’s approach was too fatalistic, that it was possible to ‘shape’ change and that the established economic rules could be ‘rewritten’ – but the kind of changes he mentioned might best be characterised as tinkering on the edges of neo-liberalism.

3. Miliband will not support strikes over public sector pension reform. This was the bit he wants to go out on the television news and Miliband’s people had already trailed his refusal to back the unions over this issue. The Labour leader expressed his sympathy and blamed the government for looking for a fight but reiterated his disapproval of strike action during negotiations. Strikes, he said were ‘a consequence of failure’ and demanded that the government ‘negotiate properly’. But even if ministers don’t – and there were some in the room who said they weren’t – it seems unlikely Ed will ever be persuaded to endorse a strike.

4. Those listening to Miliband’s speech did not like it. Their applause was tepid at best and the delegates in the room frequently expressed annoyance at his failure to answer questions in the way they wanted. Miliband even referred to them not liking some of his answers. If more polite than Blair ever was, Miliband is not looking for applause from this kind of audience. Like Blair he is looking elsewhere – and for good electoral reasons.

5. Miliband will keep on making speeches like this until there are more trade unionists. The Labour leader said that the unions represent ‘the hard working men and women of Britain’ and gave examples of how they have helped improve workers’ pay and conditions. However, he also pointed out that they only represented 15% of those employed in the private sector, claiming that this was because they were not ‘relevant’. If the unions want to be taken more seriously by the Labour leader, the answer is in their own hands: they have to recruit more ‘hard working men and women of Britain’.

Steven Fielding

Fings wot I learned at the weekend

Just before the hell that is the party conference season comes the joy that is the academic conference season: weeks of schlepping around to assorted hotels and universities, sitting in seminar rooms, and eating and drinking too much.  Last weekend, I was at the annual Elections, Public Opinion and Parties conference at the University of Exeter.  As my colleague Matthew Goodwin tweeted during it:  “When I was a kid, I never thought I’d be spending weekends listening to debate about the effects of district magnitude size”.  Here are ten things I learnt in the process:

1. A decreasing percentage of Scots see an ideological difference between Labour and the SNP, which makes judgements on performance more important – and those judgements are becoming more informed, as an increasing proportion of people recognise what the Scottish Parliament is responsible for, and what it is not.

2. At the same time, the percentage of Scots who think that a SNP government will lead to independence is ‘small and falling’.

3. Out of 124 political parties in the European Parliament, 69% collect some ‘contribution’ from their MEPs’ salaries which then goes towards the national party’s funds.  Parties on the left collect higher ‘contributions’ from their MEP.

4. Women are more likely to be elected in European elections than in national elections: there is no country where women perform better in national than European contests. Plus, women who run in European elections are more politically experienced than those who run for national office.

5. In the local elections of 2011, the Lib Dems did worst in Lab/LD and LD/Lab contests, with their vote share down by an average of 18% and 15% respectively.

6. The fall in Lib Dem support has not changed the party’s base of support in terms of its class and gender balance but it has disproportionally lost youth support; those that have defected from the Lib Dems since 2010 admire Tony Blair as the most capable post-war Prime Minister, those who have stuck with the party mostly admire Margaret Thatcher.

7. Nick Clegg’s net personal approval rating is poor: -25. But there’s some way to go before he hits Michael Foot’s worst rating of -56, or Margaret Thatcher’s of -59.

8. The legislative success of minority governments increases as their popularity with the public rises; in Canada minority governments polling 42% or more manage to secure the same proportion of their legislation as majority governments.

9. The distance between the residential location of a voter and that of the candidates matters in the UK.

10. But the best (and apparently this is several years old, but had passed me by): the distance from a voter’s house to the polling station makes no difference to their likelihood to vote in a UK general election.  But in local elections, once that distance gets to 600m turnout falls.  For European elections, the key figure is 500m.

Philip Cowley

The good terrorists

When I first read Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men (1905) I thought it was one of the most shocking books I’d ever read.  I mean that literally: the ending left me bewildered.

Wallace was a writer who just churned out stuff on a prodigious scale – mostly low-grade, thrilling page-turners, the sort of fiction that people read but critics ignore – and The Four Just Men was one of those. As I am writing a book on how fiction depicts politics I felt obliged to read the book – and it was with a heavy heart (as a veteran of too many Edwina Currie novels) that I began my task.

The Four Just Men is the story of how a group of glamorous, continental European vigilantes possessed of almost superhuman powers of ingenuity  – they are described as ‘ubiquitous as well as omnipotent’ – seek to prevent Sir Philip Ramon, the British Foreign Secretary , from pushing through his Aliens Extradition Bill. For they believe this legislation will result in the deportation of numerous continental freedom fighters who had found a safe haven in Britain. Once back home and in the hands of their corrupt and oppressive governments such individuals, the Four Just Men fear, would be imprisoned or killed. So, they send a letter to Ramon – which in the context is very respectful and civilized – explaining these concerns and outline what will happen should he persist with the Bill: he will die.

The Foreign Secretary however believes that his Bill will rid Britain of an unwanted criminal element, that he is honour-bound to live up to commitments already given to foreign governments – and that he must ‘vindicate the integrity of a Minister of the Crown’. The Four Just Men, after all, stand outside the law and have unilaterally assumed the powers of judge and jury: Ramon is in contrast a democratically elected representative of the people.

In the face of Ramon’s resolve, the Four Just Men demonstrate their ability to murder him, if necessary. The press and public becomes involved in the hunt for the men and as the moment at which the Bill passes through Parliament arrives – and so the time when the Four Just Men say they will execute Ramon – crowds gather in Westminster to show their support for the Foreign Secretary.

At this point I assumed Wallace would feel obliged to vindicate British Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. Surely, the Four Just Men – with the irredeemably foreign names of Manfred, Gonsalez, Poiccart and Thery – would fail? For this was an Edwardian pot-boiler, one serialised in the Daily Mail and written by a future Liberal Parliamentary candidate (for Blackpool, by the way). This was also a time in which the historian James Vernon has claimed the British constitution was ‘deeply embedded within English culture’, being ‘central to the way people imagined themselves’. And yet, despite this – and all the police protection – Ramon dies. Hence my shock.

I read the novel again to try and work out what was going on. Then, I think, I found the explanation. While Ramon is not a bad person he is hardly a sympathetic character. Wallace describes him as a man ‘with that shade of blue in his eyes that one looks for in peculiarly heartless criminals, and particularly famous generals’. He has few friends, no family and induces only fear amongst colleagues. Ramon is a ‘cold-blooded, cynical creature … He was the most dangerous man in the Cabinet, which he dominated in his masterful way, for he knew not the meaning of the blessed word “compromise”’. So, Ramon, the almost inhuman, ultimate, political animal dies because he refused to compromise – the salve of representative democracy – and to recognize that the other fellow might have a point. But, of course, the other fellows in Wallace’s novel are terrorists, albeit men he presents as probably having right on their side.

What was Wallace saying? Did he and his readers even know?  The book was serialised in the Daily Mail and to induce interest Wallace promised to personally pay a cash prize to readers who correctly predicted exactly how the mystery would end. As it turned out Ramon was electrocuted by his telephone. I didn’t see that coming, but then neither did he. Wallace unfortunately failed to notice that the small print of the competition rules did not limit the number of winners – and there were quite a few. If this oversight ruined him it also suggests that it was the ingenuity of the plot that preoccupied the author, and his readers, rather than the possible politics of the work.

Whatever were the author’s intentions and his readers’ reception, if only to pay off his debts Wallace wrote more Four Just Men stories. Rowing back from the subversive implications of the first novel, in these tales they are eventually pardoned and ultimately side with the rule of law. Moreover, when the novel was turned into a film in 1921, while the Four Just Men are still foreigners Ramon has become a bad factory owner, meaning that the awkward political questions originally raised by Wallace could be side-stepped. Taking this process further, the 1939 film version turns the Four Just Men into Great War veterans intent on defending the British national interest. Finally, when the novel was transformed into a 1959 TV series designed for the Anglo-American market, just one of the men is British, but he is an MP played by the redoubtable Jack Hawkins. By this point the inconvenient ambiguities of the 1905 novel had all been ironed out, or ‘dumbed-down’, some might say.

Edgar Wallace, if he evokes any kind of recognition today, is best known as the man who created King Kong. He should however also be remembered as the man who suggested – knowingly or not – that there were some occasions when it might be a good idea for politicians to compromise with foreign terrorists – and that in the Edwardian Daily Mail! A provocative thought, in these times.

Steven Fielding