The British Tradition of Political Satire

Having been the moderator of a small political forum a few years ago, I got the distinct impression from the non-British (mostly, North American) forum members that the concept of political satire was almost alien, or at least the concept of politically neutral political satire was alien. It always had to have an agenda.

When I look at the political landscape in the USA, I feel it is always taken very seriously, and any attempt to satirise it comes with a barb. I rarely see politically neutral satire in which nobody is safe. There are exceptions, of course, the meme site LOL Politics has taken this stance but not all of its jokes are political in nature, sometimes they just feature politicians.

Yet here in the UK, things are very different. We have always had a tradition of politically neutral satire – it’s probably because of the regulation we have of political neutrality on the airwaves, something that is held up in the BBC charter, which is even more critical around election time. That seems to have morphed into a situation where all parties and candidates are lampooned equally.

This neutrality may make broadcasters tread carefully, but it also means that we get to laugh at everyone equally. The trailer above is for Channel 4’s latest offering Ballot Monkeys, a satire of party activists campaigning in the run-up to the election. It follows a decades-long tradition of making light of the political process and is arguably more in touch with what real people think than our current brand of cardboard cutout politicians.

Non-Fiction  Satire

For many, Spitting Image is where it all started. The 1980s were politically very divisive and a time when most people were interested in it – probably the last time it really animated people. We had the last of Old Labour in Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. Free Market Tory Margaret Thatcher was our PM almost through the entire decade. Both figures were divisive in their own ways. Labour were unelectable in continuing to push their socialist roots, yet few people liked Thatcher. The old Liberal Party were a spent force and would become the third party – even after they merged with the Social Democrats – and experience a minor resurgence until they entered government in coalition in 2010.

Nobody was safe with Spitting Image. John Major was the grey and dull figure, whose highlight of the day was discussing the quality of peas with his wife. We lampooned politicians, celebrities and even the Royal Family. Who can forget the portrayal of The Queen Mother as a hard-drinking, senile and randy old lady who once stumped up Buckingham Palace as her stake on a horse at the Grand National?

About ten years ago, some of the team came together for 2DTV. It had its moments but wasn’t well received and it focused more on celebrities than politics. The funniest running joke for me was Prince Philip’s attempts to halt the relationship between his eldest grandson and”Kate Middle Class” 😀 The Beckhams were a long-running joke and to give it an international flavour, George W. Bush featured regularly. In the sketches, he was shown as a child-like figure who ignored his advisors. Expasperation led to his military advisor inventing “Professor Liebstrum”, a sock puppet, who was the only entity able to influence GWB’s opinions and policies.

People with a long-time interest in politics still watch Have I Got News For You. It’s a funny take on the week’s news and features two teams answering questions about the week’s events. It’s less of a game show and more of an opportunity to ridicule politicians and politics, celebrity culture and the Royal Family. It’s on the BBC so once again, it is not permitted to side with any particular party. It has now been running for 25 years and Ian Hislop – Editor of political satire magazine Private Eye – is one of the team captains.

Political Satire in Fiction

It was a little before my time and I wouldn’t have understood it then, but older people remember Yes Minister with a degree of fondness. It ran for three seasons and followed the working life of fictional Rt Hon MP Jim Hacker as he sought to change legislation and cut through red tape, often with hilarious consequences as any good 1980s British sit-com would do. Yes Prime Minister followed in 1988 and it is said to have been one of Prime Minister Thatcher’s favourite sit-coms at the time.

More recently, and seen as a natural successor to Yes (Prime) Minister we had The Thick of It, a series about Spin Doctors and Civil Servants working in the highest echelons of government. I only saw a handful of episodes but thoroughly enjoyed what I did see. It gave us Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm “F***cking” Tucker. There is a video below, warning it’s very sweary! Both of these shows reflected the situation of the time but some of the jokes are timeless.

And now for the election we have Ballot Monkeys featuring some well-known modern sitcom figures. I haven’t seen it yet, but I did see a clip this morning on Matthew Wright and it looks to be an absolute hoot! The great thing is that it satirised all of the parties vying for our votes this coming election. The clip I saw involved party representatives all onboard campaign buses as they travel the country to woo potential voters.

We Brits are great at laughing at ourselves and if we can’t have a laugh about our own politics once in a while, then we may as well not bother getting up in the morning on Election Day.

Don’t forget to vote on 7th May!


13 thoughts on “The British Tradition of Political Satire

  1. cjmoseley

    I don’t know about the Americans not getting the same kind of political satire… South Park, Family Guy, American Dad and to a lesser degree the Simpsons all seem to be equal opportunity satirists…

    1. Hmm, yes those things certainly satiire politics but a lot much more besides. There appears to be (from what I know of) no equivalent of The Thick of It or Have I Got News For You.

      1. cjmoseley

        No they don’t really have anything that is exclusively political satire, that is true.

      2. A shame really, I almost feel sometimes it might help to tone down the hyperbole of typical political dialogue and fear of “the other party”.

      3. cjmoseley

        Although the various Late night talk shows have become quite political and funny in recent years too…

  2. fillyourownglass

    Americans take their politics, or specifically their political parties, far too seriously. We could use a good dose of your party neutral satire. I agree that it might help to ease the need for instant retaliation by the opposing party.

    1. Thanks, Karen. I suspected as much.

      I watched Ballot Monkeys last night, it was incredibly funny but I’m not sure it would translate very well for somebody who doesn’t have a knowledge of British politics. Sadly, this is one area where our shows won’t cross the Atlantic.

  3. tominalbion

    Great post, I forgot how good 2DTV was in particular!

    I agree that the US doesn’t have the same rich tradition of political satire as the UK, it’s sad when there is so much to be laughed at!

    1. I suppose people like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones provide a comedy all of their own. The difference is that comedy is not intentional!

  4. susurrus

    I loved your post. I’m never sure British political humour is politically neutral, although great efforts are made for it to appear that way.

    Provided it’s genuinely funny and insightful, I don’t care if it appears to be biased – I just allow for that in any mental filing of the idea, if that makes sense.

    I think that the UK missed out on a lot of fun by not widely screening Jon Stewart’s ‘rants’ on The Daily Show – some of them were really excellent and the odd time I’ve seen him responding to a really challenging ongoing event, he’s been masterly..

    1. By “politically neutral” I mean that it is equal opportunities, all parties and figures are ridiculed equally. Anybody who went onto a show to make jokes about Cameron while extolling Milliband’s virtues will be looked upon with scepticism in having a political agenda. That’s why I love Have I Got News For You.

      Certainly we are a slightly left leaning country today despite that UKIP has decided we’re all limp-wristed commies, and our political satire reflects that. I’m very proud that we can make shows like Ballot Monkeys where we can also laugh at ourselves – but that’s one of the best things about this country I think 🙂

      My girlfriend shares Jon Stewart videos and I think it’s hilarious though so far, I have only seen him ridicule Republicans. I may be wrong as I’ve only seen a handful of his videos.

      1. susurrus

        I think he’s viewed as a liberal in the US but have seen him ridicule the current administration too.

      2. Ah, that’ll be the British satire in his DNA then 🙂

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