Steve Richards: Don't laugh, politicians deserve pity not ridicule

The comic as swaggering bully making jokes about Cameron being posh, I don't think it's funny any more

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The Independent Online

Politics is partly highly charged theatre, as ambitious players make their moves on a crowded stage. Sometimes the reverse is also true. Theatre can be highly political. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games was an example of both, intoxicating political theatre which also showed why politics is so theatrical.

As the NHS was celebrated vividly with bright lights and hundreds of dancing nurses, I was reminded of Hamlet, the scene when Hamlet asks the players to act out his father's murder. The murderer Claudius is in the audience when the play is subsequently performed. At the opening ceremony, David Cameron must have felt a little like Claudius as he watched Danny Boyle's players: a Prime Minister who seeks to overhaul the NHS with contentious reforms, watching a jubilant portrayal of the NHS as it is and was. Danny Boyle was the mischievous Hamlet. The players performed. Cameron was the uneasy ruler. Boyle knew what he was doing, just as Hamlet did.

Even those who support the Coalition's version of "reform" in relation to the NHS must acknowledge the dramatic impact: the ruling ministers pursuing their haphazard revolution challenged before a global audience at a moment that should have been their triumph, the opening of London's Olympics. Shakespeare would have loved it.

This captures not only the potency of an institution, in this case the NHS, but also the fragility of power. The powerful are more precarious than they seem, at the mercy of uncontrollable events, the will of their parties, the ambition of others and the fickle media.

I have been wondering for some time why political satire is not as funny as it was. Part of the reason is that the victims are so obviously weak or in a weak position. Take the case of Cameron surrounded by ministers and advisers who ache to complete the revolution begun by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Yet they cannot do so. They do not have a majority in the Commons that shares their evangelical zeal. Most voters moved away from them long ago and seek a more sophisticated relationship between state, private sector and citizen. How constraining to discover that Boyle speaks for more of the UK than Andrew Lansley does. Cameron sat there last Friday night with no choice but to applaud an implicit act of insurrection.

Cameron is not alone in being trapped by circumstance and context. It is the norm for leaders. Before him Gordon Brown was caught in a deadly sequence from which there was no escape. When he became Prime Minister, he was fleetingly popular fuelling speculation about an early election. By the time he had to decide whether or not to call one, the polls were moving away from him. Had he called the election in October 2007, he would have lost, yet his failure to do so made him look and become pathetically weak, condemning him to three years of hell. Either move was bound to destroy him.

Similarly, Tony Blair was trapped by Iraq. If he had opposed the war, he would have seemed in advance a weak leader in the eyes of many, or the many he cared about. By supporting the war, he showed how weak he was, too fearful of challenging the US, too determined to show that a Labour Prime Minister could work with a Republican President.

There is no call for satire when leaders dance around a cluttered stage, head in hands, caught in darkly absurd situations. By contrast many satirists are powerful and wealthy. Jimmy Carr's made much of the bankers' greed: ho, ho, ho! But then it emerged he was greedy, too, and earned millions more than most of the politicians he mocked: ho,ho,ho! This has become a slight problem with Have I got News for You, in which Ian Hislop, earning thousands per programme and buttressed further by his powerful base of Private Eye, mocks obscure cabinet ministers who have virtually no power and have no idea where they are heading in terms of policy or their careers.

I am leaving London for a short while and heading for the Edinburgh Festival to perform my one-man show, Rock 'n' Roll Politics. I am listed in the comedy section and hope to get plenty of laughs, but I don't do satire. I can't do it, the comic as swaggering bully making obvious jokes about Cameron being posh. I don't think the dynamic very funny any more, and I write as someone who still laughs at Peter Cook's ridiculing of Harold Macmillan and Peter Sellers' wonderful evocation of a leader delivering a meaningless party broadcast.

I prefer to focus on the inherent absurdity and drama of politics, leaders in impossibly weak positions having to affect displays of mighty strength, a wild, anarchic media falling for the affectation and feeling the need to knock them down to size, the glorious unpredictability of not knowing what will happen next.

Political satire is dead, but, at a time when politics is all shook up, there is still plenty to laugh and cry about. Ask Cameron, any of his predecessors and the nervy leaders-in-waiting, from Boris to Ed, who hope to seize the crown.

Steve Richards' 'Rock 'n' Roll Politics' from today at 12.30, Assembly George Square, Edinburgh;