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Send In the Clowns

17 Sep 2023 4 minute read
The Laughing Clowns by Bernard Spragg is marked with CC0 1.0

Ben Wildsmith

I’m supposed to be light relief here. Whilst everyone goes nuts about the 20 MPH speed limit, or what we call our national parks, my enviable role is to make a paper plane with ‘wankers’ written on the wings and lob it into the political space. It’s an easy job.

Over the eighteen months I’ve been doing this, we’ve had the death throes of Boris Johnson’s playpen tantrum, Liz Truss’s reckoning with reality, and Rishi Sunak’s realisation that being the bestest behaved boy ever doesn’t guarantee a transition from Head Prefect to world statesman.

If that wasn’t enough, nearer to home Andrew ‘Reet peTite’ Davies has reliably acted as a comic foil to Mark Drakeford’s crushing worthiness. The only anxiety I’ve had is whether satirising all this actually detracts from its inherent comedy.

Humour is best positioned as a valve to release the pressure of relentless seriousness. When ‘We’re Going to Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’ was sung by marching soldiers in 1939, it was in the expectation that the politicians responsible for their prospects were engaged with the matter as if their own lives depended upon it.

Without that belief, no lightheartedness would have been possible.

Maniacal certainty

In more recent times, Spitting Image thrived because the absurd seriousness of its targets demanded satirical puncture.

A man like Douglas Hurd, for instance, was so concerned with acting as a vessel of traditional rectitude that the only sane response to him was to render his neglected hairstyle as an ice cream cone.

Likewise, Margaret Thatcher’s maniacal certainty, and seeming disregard for criticism, gave birth to a host of comic imitators who only needed to exaggerate her by a few degrees to satisfy their audience’s need for well-crafted mockery in the face of her relentlessness.

Historically, politicians were earnest oddballs whose obsessional nature was simultaneously a professional strength and a source of mirth for anyone with a balanced life. Think of the hours that Gordon Brown must have spent reading up on economic theory when you were down the pub or playing Angry Birds.

Traditionally, we have allowed dweebs to indulge their obsessions on our behalf as long as we get to take the piss when they get it wrong. That was the trade-off.


The current traffic from Westminster to jobs presenting shows on the grubbier fringes of satellite TV reveals a fundamental change in the sort of personality who thrives in contemporary politics.

Theresa May is an almost forgotten figure now, but it is only a couple of years since we observed her excruciating attempts to express well-meaning awkwardness on a stage that has no room for self-doubt.

Since then, her kind has been wiped out in favour of post-Johnsonian politicians who can avoid criticism by outpacing it with self-parody.

When Suella Braverman tweets her latest fascist-adjacent take on immigration, it’s with the knowledge that instead of leaving her vulnerable to accusations of inhumanity, any resistance will only serve to strengthen her brand.

After all, if the Home Sec. gig gets pulled, she can perform the same act on GB News for more money.

Showbiz for ugly people

Politics has always been ‘showbiz for ugly people’, but its current incarnation seems to operate in a space that forgives triviality as if it were a given prerequisite of national life.

The 20 MPH furore currently raging here and in the English press is less to do with the policy itself than the novelty of democracy throwing up a real-world outcome.

You actually do have to drive slower because of this democratically mandated change to motoring regulations, and that is a shocking revelation in a political hall of mirrors where narrative has replaced outcomes.

You’ll notice, for instance, that no immigrants have been removed to Rwanda. Neither has the UK left the ECHR. Boris Johnson certainly didn’t build a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland, or one built out of plants across the Thames.

These are all storylines in a soap opera, whereas your upcoming speeding fines are very much non-fiction.

According to an international poll published this week, 42% of people aged 18-35 believe that military rule is preferable to democracy. I stand ready with my bucket of glitter each week ready to throw it over politicians who have equipped themselves with a collapsible car.

With potentially 12 months to go before an election, and the prospect of American democracy collapsing into mob violence in the interim, I wonder how strained the laughter will become.

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9 months ago

To be fair, a military junta might be better than what San Steffan puts out.

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