Politics After Satire?

It’s often said you can’t satirise politics anymore, but the Brexit fiasco ending in a socialist government would be a punchline of historic proportions.

Illustration by James Clapham.

The defining feature of contemporary politics, we’re told, is that it’s impossible to satirise. We live now in a turbocharged fever-dream, its characters, narrative twists, and denouements too on-the-nose to be countenanced as comedy, a form which at least sets itself limits of plausibility.

Back in the coalition years, when the alleged conjunction of the prime minister and a dead pig was not so distant, I passed the time by writing a satirical novel. It was the story of an aristocratic It-Girl who, taking her cue from the claim that the British ruling class were somehow an oppressed minority, styled herself as under threat from a progressive tyranny. Her ascent to power through the classical routes of murder, seduction, and Lady Macbeth-esque boosting of her fiancé (who wasn’t, in the slightest, based on Boris Johnson), heralded a neo-Victorian era, with the eradication of the welfare state promoted as a way to activate the population’s innate resourcefulness. This felt like a logical extension of the coalition government’s austerity dogma, wrapped as it was in the creepy ubiquity of Keep Calm and Carry On, and harking back with cynical disingenuity to ‘Blitz spirit’, whereby stoically enduring outrageous hardship becomes a measure of true Britishness.

The novel never saw the light of day, nor did it need to. Several years on, we retain not only Johnson’s blithe and thuggish irresponsibility, cloaked by an adroitness at playing the pantomime version of himself, but have also discovered Jacob Rees-Mogg, an etiolated oddity who makes Francis Urquhart look like Arthur Scargill. What was once absurdly apocalyptic speculation now seems like gentle observation.

But, as with earlier complaints about the ‘death of the protest song’, those mourning political comedy fail to appreciate what exists. One notable case study is 2017’s #grime4corbyn phenomenon. Grime4Corbyn ticked both political comedy and protest-music boxes, on the one hand earnestly asserting the compatibility between the concerns of the young disenfranchised and the politics offered by Corbynism, while on the other being fuelled by gleeful awareness of its incongruous aesthetics.

Elsewhere, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? incurred outrage — including from the liberal left, who cautioned that we should steer clear of satire in case our opponents insist it’s real. Online, comic responses to laughable politics abound, their authors often remaining pseudonymous, unpaid, and unsung outside the mayfly glory of a viral tweet. Situationist irreverence informs both the be-realistic-demand-the-impossible ambition of Fully Automated Luxury Communism and Ash Sarkar’s weaponised satirical register-mixing ‘I’m literally a communist, you idiot.’ This is less comedy gone political, more the recognition that comedy is now inherent to politics.

Dismissing all contemporary politics as hopelessly ridiculous, and no more than that, obscures how serious things still are. Compared to the grand guignol of Spitting Image in the eighties, coalition-era comedy — even latter-day The Thick Of It’s portrayal of responsibility-without-power — did little to engage with austerity’s material evils: cutting Disability Living Allowance, closing libraries and restricting Legal Aid. The sleight-of-hand that decoupled the imposition of austerity from those responsible for the financial crisis saw one’s choice of formal politics narrow until grim, disbelieving laughter could seem like the only available response.

There’s a somewhat different urge to laugh right now, with previously hidden absurdities grown too glaring to be denied, so out in the open that the current political landscape resembles one of those Georgian cartoons where, everywhere you look, every participant is dripping in shit. The blackly comic ludicrousness of the present moment is revelatory of the incompetence, venality, and self-absorption that so many of us have always known was there.

After the bad joke of the referendum, the fracturing of the ruling class over Brexit means the joke is on them as well as on us. The unpredicted, vindicatory gains for Labour in 2017’s general election, meanwhile, held the elation of the genuinely unexpected joke, both ridiculous and sublime. In an age of diminished expectations, the idea of the establishment’s existential crisis ending in the election of a socialist Labour government feels like a punchline of historic proportions.