Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, illustrated as part of the set for the 2009 British Comedy Awards. Photo: Ken McKay
Take This Week. The whole show is conducted in a lamely comic style that it is hard to imagine any sentient creature finding amusing. Guests are required to dress up in daft costumes and present their arguments in the form of limp skits, pitched at an audience whose implied level of intelligence is imbecilic. The atmosphere is matey, informal, and the overwhelming impression is that nothing much is at stake in any of the decisions that parliament takes. While Neil’s dog pads about the set, former Tory leadership candidate Michael Portillo chats on a sofa with professionally amiable Blairite Alan Johnson – no class antagonism here, only mild disagreements. Politics appears as a (mostly) gentlemen’s club where everyone is friends. People from working-class backgrounds, such as Johnson, can achieve entry to this club, provided they accept its rules. These rules are never actually stated, but they are very clear. Parliament is not to be taken too seriously: it is to be treated as a (boring) soap opera, in which the lead characters are self-serving individuals who don’t believe in much beyond getting themselves elected. On no account are any intellectual concepts to be discussed, unless to be sneered at as pretentious nonsense. It has to be accepted that nothing very significant will ever change: the basic co-ordinates of political reality were set in the 1980s, and all we can do is operate inside them.Watch one of the BBC’s political programmes – such as the Daily Politics and This Week, both fronted by Andrew Neil – and you encounter a particular tone. British television viewers are unlikely to take much notice of this tone because we take it for granted. Take a step back, however, and it is really rather curious. These ostensibly serious programmes are conducted with an air of light mockery, which Neil, with his perma-smirk and smugly knowing air, personifies. The tone, I believe, tells us something about the widespread disengagement from parliamentary politics in England. (The situation in Scotland is now rather different: the popular mobilisation after the independence referendum has reversed the trend towards cynicism about politics that still dominates south of the border.)
If you were designing a programme specifically to put people – especially young people – off politics, to convince them it is a tedious waste of time, then you could hardly do better thanThis Week. The programme seems to be aimed at literally no one: if you are staying up late to watch a programme devoted to politics, then presumably you are pretty serious about politics. Who wants this unfunny froth?
It would be bad enough if this tone of mirthless levity were confined to This Week, but it increasingly dominates political coverage of all kinds on the BBC. It thoroughly permeated the BBC’s election-night coverage this year, which Neil anchored. This trivialising tone is perhaps even more troubling than the problem of bias (as is well known, former Murdoch editor Neil was a Thatcher cheerleader; Nick Robinson, the BBC’s former Political Editor, meanwhile, was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association). The election-night coverage was notable for the disconnection between the shock and alarm that many in the audience felt about an unexpected win for the Conservative Party, and the guffawing banter of Neil and his associates. Reading out tweets and sharing gossip, the grinning Laura Kuenssberg, who has recently replaced Robinson as the BBC’s Political Editor, seemed to treat the whole evening as a jolly good laugh. Perhaps there isn’t that much at stake for her – she was, after all, born into immense privilege, the daughter of an OBE and a CBE, and the granddaughter of a founder and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
But where does this tone – with its strange mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent – come from? The quick answer is class background. The tone of light but relentless ridicule, the pose of not being seen to take things too seriously, has its roots in the British boarding school. In an article for the Guardian, Nick Duffell, author of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion (Lone Arrow Press), argued that, from around the age of seven, boarders are required to adopt a “pseudo-adult” personality, which results, paradoxically, in their struggling “to properly mature, since the child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded, as it were, inside them.”
“Boarding children,” Duffell continues, “invariably construct a survival personality that endures long after school and operates strategically ... Crucially, they must not look unhappy, childish or foolish – in any way vulnerable – or they will be bullied by their peers. So they dissociate from all these qualities, project them out on to others, and develop duplicitous personalities that are on the run.”
Now that the working-class perspective has been marginalised in the dominant British media and political culture, we increasingly live inside the mind of this psychically mutilated adolescent bourgeois male. Here, ostensible levity conceals deep fear and anxiety; self-mockery is a kind of homeopathic remedy that is used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation. You must never appear too much of a swot; you must never look as if you might like or think anything that isn’t already socially approved. Even if you haven’t attended boarding school yourself, you are still required to operate in an emotional atmosphere set by those who did. Andrew Neil, who came from a working-class background and attended a grammar school, attained access to the top table by simulating the mores of the privately educated elite. Thatcherism depended on the conspicuous success of people like Neil – if they could make it, so could anyone.
No programme did more to normalise the mode of mandatory light mockery than Have I Got News for You. In a 2013 essay for the London Review of Books, “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, Jonathan Coe positioned Have I Got News for You in a genealogy of British satire going back to the 1950s. Coe argued that, back then, satire might have posed a threat to the authority of establishment politicians who expected unthinking deference from the electorate. Now, however, when politicians are routinely ridiculed and a weary cynicism is ubiquitous, satire is a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.
No one typifies this more than Boris Johnson. Coe points out that Johnson’s success crucially depended on his appearances – sometimes as guest presenter – on Have I Got News for You. The atmosphere of generalised sniggering allowed Johnson to develop his carefully cultivated, heavily mediated persona of “lovable, self-mocking buffoon”. The show allows Johnson to present himself as a hail-fellow-well-met everyman, not a member of an old Etonian elite. In this he has been abetted by his sometime antagonist Ian Hislop. Hislop always has the guffawing, self-satisfied air of a prefect who’s caught out some slightly posher kids stealing from the tuck shop. No matter what the infraction, Hislop’s response is always a supercilious snigger. While this snigger might be conceivably appropriate to MPs being caught with their trousers down, or even with their over-claiming on expenses, it seems grotesquely out of kilter with the kind of systemic corruption that we now know has occurred over the last thirty years in Britain, in everything from Hillsborough to the phone hacking scandal to paedophilia involving major establishment figures – not to mention the behaviours that led to the financial crash. As the editor of Private Eye, Hislop has played an important part in exposing these abuses. But on television his mocker-in-chief persona serves ultimately to neutralise and cover over the extremity and systematicity of the abuse: one snigger fits all situations.
Coe’s discussion of Johnson is strikingly similar to the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.
In the UK, this concept of a “spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle” goes beyond politics in the narrow sense. The populist right-wing celebration of this energy is surely what kept Jeremy Clarkson in his job as a presenter of Top Gear for so long, and its appeal is what must have motivated over a million people to sign a petition calling for Clarkson to keep his job after he had punched a producer in the face. The prevailing media culture in the UK allows the privately educated Clarkson to come off as a plain-speaking man of the people, bravely saying what he thinks in the face of an oppressive ‘political correctness’ that seeks to muzzle him. The success of Top Gear is another testament to the power – and, sadly, international appeal – of the English ruling-class male mentality. Who, more than Clarkson and his fellow presenters, better exemplifies this bizarre mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent? What, after all, is it safer for a ruling-class adolescent male to like than cars?
Clarkson is just one of a range of British television celebrities who play the role of pantomime villain; a persona entirely devoid of compassion for others. Except this is a pantomime with real blood. Take the former Apprentice star and Sun columnist Katie Hopkins, for instance. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemned her likening of refugees to “cockroaches” for its obvious echoes of Nazi rhetoric. Hopkins is allowed to get away with this because of what we might call the innate postmodernism of the English ruling class. Both she and Clarkson say hateful things, but with a twinkle in their eye and their eyebrows ever so slightly raised.
There is an immense complexity at work in this ruling-class mummery. The humour allows Clarkson and Hopkins to be conduits for a racism that has very real, very tragic effects, whilst also letting them off the hook. The humour reassures them, and their audience, that they don’t really mean it. But the problem is that they don’t have to “mean” it: they help define the terms of debate, and allow migrants to be dehumanised, whatever their “true” feelings about the issue might be.
However, Hopkins’s persona was troubled when she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year. While much of the time she stayed in role as a spiteful, hard-hearted bigot, there were inevitably moments when the facade cracked, and she could be seen caring for others. While this increased her popularity – she almost won the show – it was also in danger of destroying the Katie Hopkins brand.
Most tellingly, her greatest moments of vulnerability came when she was asked to accept tenderness from others. In order to survive in the harsh and emotionally retarded world of the English ruling-class male she was trained for in private school and at Sandhurst, Hopkins has clearly been required to forgo any public acceptance of warmth or kindness from others. Sadly, the wearing of such character armour is not now confined to Hopkins and the rest of the privately educated elite.
Self-educated working-class culture generated some of the best comedy, music and literature in modern British history. The last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over not only business and politics, but also entertainment and culture. In the UK, comedy and music are increasingly graduate professions, dominated by the privately educated. The sophistication of working-class culture – which combines laughter, intelligence and seriousness in complex ways – has been replaced by a grey bourgeois common sense, where everything comes swathed in a witless humour. It’s long past time that we stopped sniggering along with the emotionally damaged bourgeoisie, and learned once again to laugh and care with the working class.