The Greasy Pole column from the February 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now, There isn’t grass to graze a cow. Swarm over, Death!
Was John Betjeman’s 1937 despairing plea to Europe’s rampant air forces to put a halt to the menacing industrialisation of that Berkshire town with its vulgar profiteers but to spare the bald young clerks who add those profits? But it was not long after this that Slough nurtured a young man whose talents as a cartoonist were devoted to exposing the very social structure and circumstances that Betjeman despaired of: It’s not their fault they do not know, The birdsong from the radio. Steve Bell was raised in Slough at the grammar school where he enjoyed the Art lessons (and the novels of P.G. Wodehouse) but had something of a conscientious objection to being duffed up on the rugby field. So he moved up north where he could develop his illustrative skills along with burgeoning passions for left wing protest to the point that when his work was published worldwide, he was decorated with numerous honorary degrees and repeatedly named as Cartoonist of the Year. Early on in his time he fathered a succession of characters such as David Cameron as a speaking condom, Harry Hardnose as a newspaper editor and Able Seaman Kipling aboard a Royal Navy warship in the Falkland war. Such disrespect for the noble, enriched eminences of the social system of class was bound to provoke outrage, which served only to emphasise the truth that Bell at his most perceptively offensive was merely illustrating with an unfailing eye the facts of capitalism in its exploitation, cruelty and deceit.
In whole this process is often referred to as satire, which can yield an impressive income when it is transmitted in the right place and time. For example there was the television programme Have I Got News For You (HIGNFY) – a kind of panel game in which two personalities – Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, each with a partner, presented themselves to ameliorate popular dismay at some current events by exploiting anything about them liable to cause a laugh. Between these two, as a kind of conductor orchestrating the laughter, was Angus Deayton. There were rumours that Hislop and Merton were resentful of the fact that Deayton was paid £50,000 for each programme, which was a great deal more than they got. There was some concern that they took their revenge on him when in October 2002 he was sacked after big headline revelations in the red top press that he was in the regular habit of taking drugs such as cocaine and using a succession of prostitutes – all of which was officially beyond the bounds of the programme. But HIGNFY has lost none of its appeal since then.
One of its recent victims was Nicky Morgan, the Tory Minster and MP for Loughborough. Among her ministerial jobs was in 2013 as Economic Secretary to the Treasury and soon afterwards Minister for Women – excluding the bit in the title about Equalities – which was said to be due to her voting against the proposal for same-sex marriages which, said her detractors, made her just the Minister for Straight Women. She was locked in an enduring clash with Minister of Education Michael Gove over his proposals which did not prevent her supporting his later bid to become Tory leader. On another matter she accepted donations from a constituent who was at the head of a local radio programme and of a company specialising in security – which involved spying on other political organisations in order to develop legal advice to be passed to the opposition.
These events were politically undermining, keeping Morgan in an uncomfortable spotlight and some of her comments led to her leader Theresa May issuing terse instructions that a person she identified as ‘that woman’ should not be admitted to any cabinet meetings discussing Brexit. Then Morgan made matters worse by sneering at May after she had posed on a couch wearing – or perhaps 'displaying' would be a more appropriate word – glamorously patterned leather trousers. The news that this garment had cost £995 did not help May’s efforts to persuade us that she stands for a government of the ordinary hard working struggling folk; even worse that the people who make the trousers in some Far Eastern sweat shop are paid some £1.49 an hour. Dismissing Morgan from the government did not cost anything like that and amid the uproar it was overlooked that Morgan was herself not averse to a bit of expensive leatherwear because she is often seen carrying her bits and pieces in a handbag made of the stuff, which at £950 had cost almost as much as May’s legwear. Morgan’s response to this humiliation was to withdraw from a pending appearance as one of the panel alongside Paul Merton on HIGNFY. Perhaps she did this in the hope of keeping a low profile but that did not happen because the programme responded by substituting her handbag.
That was just one example of how HIGNFY might keep its reputation for ruthless responses to popular politicians who reject an opportunity to appear with them. There was Roy Hattersley, or Baron Hattersley PC FRSL, who when he refused to appear was not substituted by costly luggage but by a tub of lard – which was justified by Paul Merton on the grounds that there were similarities in appearance and style of operation. Hattersley first came into Parliament in 1964 as MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook. He had previously failed to win at Sutton Coldfield in 1959. He then devoted considerable energy to being selected for another seat, trying twenty-five constituencies until he was accepted at Sparkbrook and went on to win there. During his time in the Commons he held a variety of shadow and ministerial jobs and after Labour’s disastrous defeat under Michael Foot in 1983 he became Deputy Leader under Neil Kinnock, who was Party Leader until he had his own disaster in 1987. Alistair Darling admired Hattersley and ‘…enjoyed working with (him). He is good company, convivial and thoughtful’. He remembered the advice Hattersley gave him in 1988 after inviting him to join his shadow Home Affairs team: ‘You’d better remember that in politics there is no such thing as gratitude’. Which should have counted when Leo McKinstry in The Spectator derided him as ‘…this charmless figure of epic mediocrity’.
Laughter may be a defence against the essential nature of a social system which judges everything through a price and when profit can be reaped from the sale of entertainment. To change that would really be News For You.