A tide of acid that can scar as well as entertain

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The Independent Online
STRAIGHTFORWARD, funny and terse: a man who had been hidden from public view for nine long years has reappeared. Welcome back, Neil Kinnock. Where were you hiding all that time? The mean response to his renaissance on television and around Westminster is that a man who was not up to the top job has returned to earth. The more interesting answer, though, is the question: given what the top political jobs involve, who is up to them?

The media coverage of Mr Kinnock during his leadership years gouged out his spontaneity and persuaded him to armour himself (as he admitted this weekend) with windy circumlocution. In public, at least, he became a different man: a thick, false skin overspread his natural self. He reacted furiously to the accusation that he was 'weak'. Weak-v-tough images became central to his thoughts and actions. Gradually the swagger and the macho pose replaced the real, more complicated Kinnock.

This is not just a Kinnock issue. Many top politicians are damaged by the interaction between the media and satirists (what one might call anti-politicians) and their true selves. John Major is also infuriated by the way he is caricatured as ineffectual. He responded by dropping his fresh, open parliamentary manner and trying to sound fierce. His penchant for 'toughing out' crises, whether they be over the pound or Norman Lamont, may also be connected to these lampoons. After Euro-summits, he talks about 'who blinked first', just as Mr Kinnock might once have done.

Most senior politicians live in an uneasily close relationship with their caricatures. Some have the inner strength to ignore the subject but, these days, not many. They now live in a world where appreciation is rare, deference even more so - and where ridicule is constant. So what? A free and active democracy is working. There is no better way. Yet there is a price to pay for media aggression, and it is worthwhile occasionally remembering it.

Forget all those super-talented, hard- working and honest citizens who are lost to public policy because, having seen what happens in politics, they would not touch it. Think only of those already at the top and take just one small element of their lives, the satirical attacks on them.

Most us would agree that, from Private Eye to Spitting Image (not, granted, a long journey) political satire is one of the things the British do well. When the empire died, we could take comfort from the brilliance of our royal pageantry. So now, perhaps, we can console ourselves for the decline of the political culture by our world pre-eminence in wobbly latex.

Although today's caricaturists are rarely as effective as the 18th-century masters of the grotesque, Gillray and Rowlandson, modern politicians have to tolerate a daily diet of ridicule that would have had their predecessors dead of apoplexy. Since the Sixties, a tide of acid has been rising. It is highly entertaining, and probably good for public order: millions of depressed and angry citizens can turn on their televisions and let off some mental steam at the sight of their leaders being portrayed as rubbery lunatics.

But the victims of Spitting Image are damaged by those attacks. The programme is banned in a few eminent households, which tells its own story. Who could cope with being turned into a cartoon figure, or a serial in Private Eye, and stay quite sane? Cabinet ministers, who believed for years that they were people of substance, wake up and discover that most of the country thinks of them (if it thinks of them at all) as grimly hilarious two-dimensional caricatures.

Some deal with the problem by embracing their images: the most obvious example is Margaret Thatcher, whose political personality became fully developed only when she started behaving like her own Iron Lady caricature. She hammed herself up. Others, like Mr Kinnock once and Mr Major now, find their caricatures agonising. Was not Norman Lamont's complaint about the press last week partly a cry of pain from a rather serious fellow who has discovered that his countryfolk believe him to be a champagne-swilling rake who sits around the Treasury in his pyjama trousers giggling helplessly as the economy goes down the pan?

The effect of satire on politicians is perhaps less than the effect of attack-journalism, and the effect of either is perhaps not conclusive. But we should not talk about satire 'pricking their pomposity' without remembering that it can turn them a bit dotty, too. We should not laugh at the lampooning of Mr Major as a gormless wimp without pausing to reflect that these attacks may be damaging a real person and, by distorting the way he responds, may be damaging the country. There is no answer to this. I would not swap the caricatures for happier politicians. Nor would I swap the most aggressively inquisitive journalism for a minister's beauty sleep.

But we anti-politicians help to make the job a coarse one in which better natures and freer spirits fail. A political world in which senior politicians talked about their fears and their options openly, and where their thoughts were discussed by a serious, trustful public, is so far from our experience it is hard to imagine. Perhaps, in this wicked world, deceit from the one side and abuse from the other is the best we can achieve. But watching Mr Kinnock return to the human race from behind his political caricature was, for me, a shaming, slightly shocking, experience.