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19th March 2021

Britain’s love of political satire has birthed the likes of Boris

Clementine Lawrence explores the ways in which political satire has become a double-edged sword
Britain’s love of political satire has birthed the likes of Boris
Collage: Clementine Lawrence

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

This was now prime minister Boris Johnson’s reaction to journalists outside his home in 2018, after his now notorious comments that described Muslim women in burkas as “letter boxes”. I’m sure some of these journalists went in all guns blazing, determined to get some kind of answer as to why Johnson thought this was acceptable – but this fire was soon extinguished, and the tea taken with thanks.

From another politician, this response would be unexpected; but from Johnson, this doesn’t seem quite so out of character. Paired with his ruffled hair and chaotic outfit choice, he continues to play the part he’s been perfecting since he came to national fame on Have I Got News for You in 1998.

The actions that would have destroyed the careers of other public figures have only seemed to propel Johnson further up the political ladder. From knocking over a child in a game of street rugby, through his long record of offensive and controversial comments, to his disastrous endeavours as foreign secretary, Johnson has still managed to secure the most powerful position in politics. In contrast, Ed Miliband’s bid to become Prime Minister was completely derailed by a single sandwich.

John Oliver dissected Johnson’s “bumbling persona” in a segment of Last Week Tonight, pointing out the possibility that his chaotic eccentricities are actually “carefully calibrated”. He had realised the potential playing up to political satire can permit someone in his privileged position.

Humour is no longer standing on the periphery of politics, looking in and laughing. Humour is politics. It has become a powerful tool used by both self-satirising politicians and ordinary people. But the consequences of Britain’s love of political satire is a double-edged sword.

Our love of political cartoons in newspapers grew into a love of topical satirical panel shows, such as Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You. This has now extended to our love of Twitter accounts, Instagram pages, and Facebook groups dedicated to poking fun at politics twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Through these different mediums, the general public have been able to generate a sense of togetherness through their mutual exasperation with politicians.

We’ve watched Boris Johnson stumble his way through the ranks, from disgraced columnist to British prime minister; we’ve witnessed an approach to Brexit that has been reminiscent of a bull in a china shop; and we’ve experienced the haphazard handling of a pandemic which has bought the world to its knees.

When we are rendered powerless against the decisions being made for us, comedy supplies a relief. It allows us to repurpose the feelings of suspicion and cynicism that shroud the political sphere into a more positive form of resistance. We come together as a powerful collective where we laugh at the politicians who don’t seem to live in the real world.

And it is no longer just for cartoonists, journalists, or comedians. Social media has provided us with the ability to exercise our agency by enabling ordinary people to engage with and create their own political commentary. The memes, tweets, posts, and stories that relay our frustrations back to us through political satire let us all in on the joke. But it is this same comedic gold that has provided a springboard for power hungry politicians.

The journalist Emily Nussbaum warned how the increasingly powerful potential of jokes had already spun out of control when Trump was elected in 2016, arguing that “we memed a President into existence”. We could argue the same thing of Boris Johnson. We laughed at ‘Boris’, at his hair, his voice, his unusual mannerisms. People took to his appearance of being more down-to-earth than his seemingly uptight, self-interested political counterparts – except he wasn’t really.

Johnson used comedy to his advantage, constructing an image of being ‘just like us’ by utilising his regular gaffes and flaws to appear authentic. But the sincerity of his bigotry and lies goes way beyond relatability, especially those that are explicitly racist, sexist, and Islamophobic in their nature.

Yet, many of Johnson’s falsehoods have managed to go unchallenged, and even when he’s come under fire, he still somehow slips away from any kind of consequence. Maybe because it’s just ‘Boris’.

It is important for us to laugh and find comedic value in situations that may otherwise feel a bit too depressing, especially in the current climate. But Britain’s love of political satire has played right into the hands of politicians who may not have amounted to very much without it. I think they’ve had the last laugh.

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