Why our politicians’ cracks need careful probing

by Kevin Meagher

THERE is no roadmap. No right and wrong about how “down with the kids” our politicians are allowed to be. No clear indications about where the “line” is that they should not cross when it comes to humour.

Wit is allowed, that much is clear. Disraeli, Churchill, even Wilson were exponents. Sarcasm too; but after that it go all blurry.

Last week both the prime minister and chancellor found themselves in trouble after foraying across these invisible demarcations with faltering attempts at mirth. David Cameron’s description of Nadine Dorries as “frustrated” during a reply to her at prime minister’s questions drew hearty guffaws at her expense. “Frustrated. Ha! He means she hates the coalition – but he also means she isn’t getting any! Hilarious”.

His pregnant pause gave lie to his subsequent protestations that it was merely a slip of the tongue, so to speak. It seemed deliberate. All he had to do was tee-up the gag and let the dirty minds of our Parliamentarians finish it off. They ignobly obliged.

He is said to have form. Cameron has what earlier generations would have called a “blue” sense of humour. Not a denotation of political allegiance on this occasion, but a predilection for making nob and fart gags.

His chancellor, meanwhile, is cut from similar cloth. In his speech accepting GQ magazine’s “politician of the year” awards last week, George Osborne suggested the magazine’s politics pages were the only ones not stuck together. With semen, you understand.

A bit lame, and GQ is not primarily intended as an onanistic aide, so in technical terms Osborne’s joke was as flaccid as the economy he now presides over.

Dave and George may be lousy comedians, but there is something altogether wonderful about our crude British humour. It may not be appreciated evenly across the gender divide (as Nadine Dorries’ admonishments here and here attest), but it is certainly classless. It binds together our society in a way few other cultural reference points manage. A collective snigger at puerile wordplay connects the playgrounds of Britain to the chamber of the House of Commons in seamless and raucous union.

And there is a style to suit all tastes. For every Frankie Boyle there is a Humphrey Lyttleton. His outrageous, prime-time double-entrendres on Radio Four’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue were pure cut-glass smut. An institution as British as bad weather.

Furthermore, it is a tradition that crosses the political aisle. Some may deprecate Cameron and Osborne’s public schoolboy vulgarity, but Labour should be wary about getting too pious about it all. Frank Dobson is a celebrated teller of filthy gags, as was the late Mo Mowlam. And the Labour benches were in just as much of a fit of giggles at the prime minister’s remark.  It wasn’t funny per se, and it was certainly a bit sexist, but everyone gets carried along on these occasions.

We live in changing times; that much is clear. There is a broader public acceptance of ribald humour with each turn of the generational ratchet. People are less stuffy. Authority is less defined. Boundaries have become fuzzier. Codes of behaviour more relaxed. Woe betide the po-faced politician.

But how far can our politicians go? What about statesmanship? How do our politicians fill the gap, (in a manner of speaking), between the impulse to appear lordly, composed and above the fray with the political imperative of being tuned into the same wavelength as the average voter?

It was a more manageable feat just a handful of years ago. For all his “call me Tony” shtick and estuaruial English, Tony Blair was always extremely careful about being too casual. His modernity was always carefully calibrated.

It is impossible to imagine either him or Gordon Brown sat on Jonathan Ross’s chat show sofa answering questions about whether or not they ever masturbated over a picture of Margaret Thatcher. David Cameron, memorably, had no such qualms. Blair preferred the inquisitorial hothouse that was The Des O’Connor Show recounting carefully rehearsed anecdotes instead.

For all their relative youth, Blair and Brown were of a different generation – just – to Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Miliband. And perhaps for politicians of the left, there isn’t the need to strain quite so hard in connecting with youth culture.

Is it, therefore, an urge to seize the zeitgeist and project an image of uncompromising modernity that propels politicians like Cameron and Osborne down this seamy path? Perhaps they are trying to show the “nasty party” at least has a sense of humour? Certainly it is useful cover from the charge that their own privileged backgrounds detach them from the concerns and tastes of ordinary people.

Cameron, in particular, is a serial offender. He set a questionable standard by being the first party leader to publicly utter the word “twat” during a trendy radio interview, disavowing the use of social media (“too many tweets might make a twat”).

As a wordsmith not quite the heir to Disraeli; and he would presumably have been caned at Eton for less.

Then there was his gag at Angela Eagle’s expense, telling her to “calm down, dear” during shouty exchanges in the Commons. When there is cultural caché to be had in quoting Michael Winnerisms, our civilisation has truly run aground. Like “edgy” DJ (and Anglican bishop’s son), Tim Westwood, Cameron’s various attempts at aping what he takes to be the behaviour of we mere proles is, well, a tad abasing.

But can we really blame him? There are no proper rules of engagement in this battle between the formal and informal. No guidelines pointing out the boundary between public acceptability and unacceptability. These shifting sands mean this is a battle our poor, leery politicians can never win.

Moreover, the public is fickle and two-faced. For all those who chuckle appreciatively at a political leader pushing the envelope, there are plenty of others who do not get the joke or, if they do, do not appreciate it pouring forth from people they expect to behave in a more restrained manner.

A generation of boundary-pushing alternative comedy has inured a surprisingly large number from its sly and ironic charms. Those who do not want their walls of perception to shake and crack around them with politicians telling fruity jokes. They want tradition and familiar hierarchies and their post-modernism dial turned right down.

How else do you explain why Peter Kay and John Bishop sell so many dvds?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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2 Responses to “Why our politicians’ cracks need careful probing”

  1. swatantra says:

    All MPs have a warped sense of humour. They’ll laugh at anything except themselves.

  2. AmberStar says:

    If David Cameron never tweets again, he’ll still be a tw*t.

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