Do you know what's wrong with the world? Do you know what has so degraded our politics? Satire, that's what. Or at least that's what I've been told. Time was, according to the Standard Model of Comedy History, when the population of this country did so much tugging of forelocks at the establishment and the ruling classes that they were practically bald. So much so, indeed, that up to the 1950s everyone had to wear hats. You can well imagine that when Beyond the Fringe came along in August 1960, there was a real sense of shock at its fairly damning portrayal of politicians and Our Betters.
Fifty years on, two generations have grown up with satire as a part of life, and nobody really wears hats any more, except children, jockeys and young bucks who don't realise that trilbies make them look like some Hoxton reimagining of Arthur Daley. There is no forelock tugging, and Peter Cook's take on the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, seems like the kind of gentle ribbing reserved for retirement parties. That we see politicians as self-serving, cynical ne'er-do-wells who are to be neither trusted nor entertained is often blamed on our being so used to seeing them through the cracked and warped lens of satire.
When Alastair Campbell reviewed In the Loop for BBC2's Culture Show, he dismissed the film as boring. (But, it must be said, he did so with the kind of studied attempt at insouciance you might more usually associate with a 14-year-old boy calling a girl who's just rejected him "fat and ugly".) The film critic Mark Kermode disagreed, remarking that he himself had "great sympathy for anything that portrays politics as essentially venal and crass, because I think that, to a great extent, it is".
Campbell's response was interesting: "It upsets me that someone who seems to be quite an intelligent bloke could think that politics was venal and crass, when I can sit down and explain to you how politics has delivered most of the great things in the world and its history." Now, once you've wiped off the coffee you just spluttered all over this page in sheer incredulity at the brass neck of the man feigning to be unable to understand where anybody could possibly have got that impression, it is worth considering that, on this point, Campbell was right and Kermode wrong. But then I'm not at all sure that either In the Loop or The Thick of It, the BBC satire show from which the film was a spin-off, is aiming to imply anything quite so cynical.
There is crassness and venality aplenty both in real-life politics and in the show, but if The Thick of It has a central thesis at all, it is not that all politics is a charnel house and all politicians degraded boobs; it is more that those with a desire to do good are being defeated by the demands of the system in which they are obliged to operate. Hugh Abbot and Nicola Murray, the ministers in the show's fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, went into politics and accepted their posts in the hope of making a difference, but find themselves mired every day in the short-termist pastimes of politicking and PR. Wearied, defeated and depressed by it though they may be, they inevitably take the low road.
But even if The Thick of It were as entirely cynical as is sometimes supposed, even if it kept no light at all in its store of darkness, would it be fair to lay the blame at its feet for the negative way we view politics? It is, after all, a satire and satire's role is to prick the hot-air-filled bubbles above the mouths of politicians. Satire isn't supposed to be the primary way we consume politics; it's something extra, something to balance the serious, high-minded way politicians present themselves, their actions and their policies to us.
Satire today is simply doing what it has always done for the past half-century. The issue is not that satire is becoming harsher; rather, it is that what is sitting on the other end of …