The 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s passing reminds us of the dearth of wit in modern monochrome politics, where every utterance is micromanaged to avoid straying off point or offending anyone. In some ways, this is a sign of progress reflecting that the challenges we now face are not as existential as those of the past. The great issues that exercised earlier generations produced political giants and robust debate where wit-laden invective was the norm.
Why has humour deserted politics? With many great issues settled the two main parties have increasingly moved to the centre often competing for the same vote. With policy differences not always easy to detect, the emphasis on differentiation through personality politics has increased. This in itself is a challenge in an era that has seen politicians increasingly emerging from similar backgrounds. Politicians are also having to sell themselves personally, in a post Blair era of spin where political individuality has been sharply curtailed. As a result, there are very few politicians today who have the genuine ability to openly and skilfully use wit to their benefit.
While it was never an essential quality to be a great leader, wit has been too much of a common hallmark of great politicians not to have some importance. A quick wit is often associated with a quick mind. When used effectively it can be devastatingly effective, charming, undermine an opponent or create a defensive shield. President Obama, the perfect president for the social media era, has regularly deployed humour to his advantage. Always in on the joke, Obama has avoided the fate of his predecessor, who provided an embarrassment of riches for comedians and late night talk show opening monologues. The current British politician who has been most successful in this regard is Boris Johnson. A distinct personality as much as a politician, there is a knowingness to how Johnson presents himself. His carefully orchestrated bumbling dishevelment helps him shrug off the type of gaffes that would haunt others. The contrast with Ed Miliband could not be greater. The electorate, however, is shrewder than it is generally given credit for. “BoJo “endures because voters see past and are not put off by the larger than life persona while Miliband, choreographed to within an inch of his life has failed to win either electoral affection or respect.
This bland sea has created a void where humourists are beginning to emerge with some of the most engaging current political commentary. While political satire has always had a long and rich tradition, particularly in Britain, we are now seeing a “comeditariat” move from sniping from the periphery to the mainstream. Not only vocal, they are also becoming more politically involved. The 2015 General Election will see every comedian, amateur and professional with views on the subject. Some though are stepping out from behind the microphone. With apologies to XTC, while the main parties are all making plans for Nigel, Farage will be running against a real comedian, Al Murray. Murray, a different character from his little Englander alter ego, may yet be the best antidote to a politician other politicians are unsure how to respond to. Similarly, while critics may write off Russell Brand as having all the zealous idealism of a first year student, but it is hard to dismiss him entirely. Brand has a lot to say, and a younger audience yearning for differentiation is all too ready to listen. It will be interesting to see how these two prevail.
The current breeds of humourists are not just Statler and Waldroff cynically chortling at politicians. Some have the air of frustrated idealists who are demanding more from their politicians and the political system and, whatever their merits, they are connecting to an audience that politicians are failing to capture.
By Hannah Dowling, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.