Editorial from the February 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard
Many a media career has taken root in the traditional enrichment of the national life through the satirising of its eminent persons. We are now experiencing a revival of this tradition which began some thirty years ago, as the wartime reverence for political leaders wore thin under the abrasive reality that the post-war world was as gritty as ever with coercion, fear and poverty. So the fringe theatre sprang up; and Private Eye; and just in time to make sport of Macmillan's blundering into the Profumo affair, That Was The Week That Was.
Before Profumo the worst the satirists could do to Macmillan was to caricature him as Supermac - a combination of actor, father-figure and magician, who could conjure up an unprecedented well-being for the people. After Profumo (although that was not the only reason) he felt unable to continue as Prime Minister. It was a long time, before memories became blanketed to the extent that Macmillan could re-emerge, not as Supermac but as the frail but anguished champion of compassion for the sick, the unemployed, the striking miners.
Of course those old satires were pretty tame stuff compared to the downright Spitting Image, where a pin-striped Thatcher berates Cabinet meetings which are a cross between the Zoo and Bedlam; where Kinnock is a bumbling purveyor of resoundingly empty cliches; where Reagan is not the powerful man in the free world but a brainless narcoleptic. Now that Denis Thatcher has been so pitilessly lampooned as the boozy author of those "Dear Bill" letters, does anyone remember that he he really a rich, manipulative capitalist?
Well this is all very well. As the untiring pedlars of the deception that this murderous social system is the best human beings should hope for, those leaders deserve our contempt. But when we have had a good, contemptuous laugh at them, what then? It was recently officially admitted (as if we didn't suspect it in the first place) that when he was Prime Minister Macmillan decided to suppress the facts about the Windscale Fire in 1957. As an incident, that fire was as serious as Chernobyl; its nuclear pollution was as lethal as Three Mile island. We shall never know how many people have died, and how many more will yet die from its effects but, there is no doubt that some of them would have been saved had the facts been made known at the time. Thirty years afterwards is rather too late for them. The truth was covered up — and the people died — because Macmillan's priority was to protect the interests of the British ruling class in relation to those of their American counterparts.
More recently, it becomes daily more evident that Thatcher was bent on victory in the Falklands war at whatever cost. For one thing, the war tapped a well (which many devotees of the satirists might have assumed to have dried up by 1918) of blind jingoism among the British working class, which helped the Tories to their triumph at the polls in 1983. It was of little account, that hundreds of workers had to die, and hundreds more to suffer horribly, to achieve those victories.
What we are arguing here is that politicians may be laughed at but they must also be taken seriously, for what they are. Their role is to persuade us to keep in being a social system which is not supportable in any human terms. Capitalism deprives the majority of people of a full and happy life; what it leaves of their lives it distorts, commonly into a monster of fear and destruction. In simple terms, it kills and tortures millions of people. It can be justified only through deceit — and that is the source of satirists' raw material.
Yet all this sorry mess rests on the acquiescence, if not the enthusiastic support, of that majority — the people who suffer under capitalism. We don't have to endure this system; there are more effective ways of defending ourselves against its ravages than laughing at its spokespeople. Satire claims to add to the gaiety of our lives when in fact it is a depressingly sterile response to a desperate problem which cries out for an urgent solution. And that is in our hands. If we continue to treat capitalism as a laughing matter the joke will be on us.