There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle over Armando Iannucci’s acceptance of an OBE. Alastair Campbell has accused Iannucci of hypocrisy because, despite his situation comedy The Thick of It mocking the Establishment, he has happily received an honour from the same source.
Campbell – generally regarded as the template for Malcolm Tucker, the sweary spin doctor in the series – has a score to settle. But I can see why Iannucci does not believe he has betrayed any principles: for The Thick of It suggests he is so loftily contemptuous of representative democracy as currently practiced, accepting an OBE has no political meaning: it’s all a joke. Campbell, in contrast, takes politics very seriously indeed.
I am writing a book on politics and fiction since the 1890s and so have some perspective on Iannucci’s series – which is one of a number of current political comedies that articulate a kind of anti-politics.
First broadcast in 2005, The Thick of It, like the 1980s Yes Minister – with which it has often been compared – is set in a fictional government department. Instead of Jim Hacker’s earlier Department for Administrative Affairs The Thick of It is located in the Department of Social Affairs. Instead of haughty civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, The Thick of It has Tucker, the Prime Minister’s belligerent enforcer to ensure that the representatives of the people are kept in line.
Both series focus on Westminster. Yet, while public choice theory provided Yes Minister with its weary-eyed explanation of how the people’s will was never translated into government policy, The Thick of It assumes a lofty, Olympian stance. Significantly, prior to making the series Iannucci claimed he had ‘become increasingly appalled by how the truth is quite unashamedly contorted in political debate’: The Thick of It is consequently about how politics distorts ‘truth’.
This means however that while Yes Minister had an implicit, solution to the problems it identified – taking power away from the politicians and civil servants – The Thick of It has no resolution to the predicament it outlines. To the question, ‘how can “truth” be told in politics?’ there is no answer. Politicians are instead repeatedly thrown into a fevered vortex where appearance and reality are hard to distinguish; there are ‘scandals’ which are no such thing while words and phrases come to mean their very opposite. If Anthony Jay’s 1980s mockery had a Thatcherite purpose, Iannucci’s is an end in itself as he invites the viewer to observe, God-like, the foibles of a sick democracy of which they are seemingly themselves not part and so not responsible.
Yes Minister often showed Hacker trying to implement a policy and coming up against various impediments – the most important of which was, of course, the entrenched civil service – but sometimes it allowed him to prevail. In contrast, politicians in The Thick of It spend their days fighting media-concocted pseudo-crises meaning that policy development and implementation hardly exist. The point of holding office is not to do anything except to keep the other lot out: policy is as a result something ministers come up with at the back of speeding cars to try and placate the media.
It is no wonder, then, that Iannucci sees no problem in accepting an OBE from the Establishment – for if The Thick of It is any measure of his attitude to politics, he does not take any of it seriously. While true satirists are meant to use their comedy to change the object of criticism, The Thick of It merely exudes a smug self-satisfaction: we are so much better than them, it sneers, those fools who we elect to govern on our behalf. The series consequently invites viewers to stand back and laugh at the shortcomings of everybody involved in politics – the politicians, spin doctors, journalists and even the public – rather like an entomologist might observe the behaviour of ants scrambling about in an ant hill.
There is an awkward question to be asked of the viewers here – one never posed by the series: how come they keep electing such liars? What does that say about them? Now, that is a topic worthy of a true satirist.