John Pilger on Steve Bell and the cartoonist as true journalist

Steve Bell is a contemporary Hogarth, with a touch of Peter Sellers.

In its attempt to continue lawlessly spying on almost everyone, Britain’s “intelligence” and “security” establishment has launched an assault on the Guardian. Such is the rise of the totalitarian state that the secret police enter a newspaper to witness the smashing of computer hard drives, as happened at the Guardian, and the government, via a poodle MP, can call for the paper’s prosecution for treason. As if to prove its respectability, the Guardian has sought the endorsement of notables, including Nick Clegg, Harold Evans and other specialists in faint praise.

The most effective defender of the paper is not one of these. He has shaggy, dark hair and a beard – or he did when I last saw him. For more than 20 years I have reached for his work as you do for a first cup of coffee. He is outrageous, anarchic, brilliant, sometimes inexplicable and a bit mad (not really). For those who doubt the truth is subversive and often absurd, I point them towards two pages in the Guardian where he resides.

Only Steve Bell exposes consistently, fear lessly, the bullshit of “public life”. Indeed, his characters are often drowning in or waterskiing on the stuff. “Right! That’s it!” says the last governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, to Gordon Brown, then prime minister, and Chancellor Alistair Darling. “Heads down, tea break over!!” They are up to their chins in a tank of turds.

Steve Bell is a cartoonist and a true journalist with few rivals. He is Hogarth and Swift with a touch of Peter Sellers and a sprinkling of Orwell. He is more of an English original than one of his prime targets, Margaret Thatcher, the former petit-bourgeois totem. Often using the wickedly all-seeing star penguin of his strip “If . . .” he rumbled both Thatcher and her protégé Tony Blair early in their criminal ascendancy.

While his Guardian colleagues swooned over Blair as a mystic of the “Third Way”, Steve Bell planted Thatcher’s crazed eye on Blair’s rictus mask. A print of that first appearance of the Thatcher/Blair eye, which he sent me, hangs in pride of place at home, though the gaze is disconcerting. Opening the Guardian news pages recently to find Blair boasting about his ability to absorb “the sense of pain” felt by others was like reading a Steve Bell cartoon.

If there was an authentic free press in Britain, newspapers would do as Steve Bell does; they would tear down the façade of a system in which the political parties have converged and democracy is a propaganda term. Labour is a conservative party whose new shadow minister for work and pensions, Rachel Reeves, formerly of the Bank of England, says an Ed Miliband government will be tougher than the Tories in cutting the benefits of ordinary people. Tristram Hunt, the new shadow education minister, says he “will not prevent” the opening of privatised schools. They are managerial Tories. Steve Bell refuses to play their game, which is designed to confuse and demoralise voters, especially Labour voters.

Unclubbable and unpredictable, he shines a white light on such betrayal and hypocrisy. He depicts all our rulers with the hilarious equanimity of his savagery. David Cameron, the former PR spiv, is perfect pink in his condom; Jack Straw, he who covered up the lies of Iraq and approved incarceration in Guantanamo, is sinister in outsized pebble glasses; Gordon Brown blusters about ending poverty while crawling into the colonic regions of the City’s fattest cats; and Clare Short. Ah, Clare Short. In 1999, having promoted herself as a feminist-of-the-people and Labour dissident, Short became one of Blair’s keenest warmongers in his “crusade” in the Balkans, the harbinger of his bloodbath in Iraq. The Nato bombing that triggered a human stampede and destroyed much of Serbia’s infrastructure launched Steve Bell’s inspired “armchair warriors”.

Flying across Balkan skies, formations of armchairs approach their targets: “We’re coming in, victorious . . . but eschewing triumphalism . . . you’d better believe it, Serb suckers!” In one large armchair sits Short: “I think the time has come,” says she, “for Pilger and his ilk . . . to show a little humility . . . and apologise for being so wrong . . .” Short, the then minister for international development had likened those who challenged the fraud of Blair’s war to Nazi appeasers. Steve Bell honoured her with a strip entitled “Armchair Cleansing for Beginners”.

Steve Bell was one of the first to expose New Labour and to satirise its creator, Peter Mandelson. “What are you doing up the tree, master?” asks the dog. “I am Man-dee, the one-eyed trouser snake . . . I am the keeper of the tree of New Labour knowledge. I know where the bodies are buried . . . I can destroy the Labour Party . . . Unless I am given an important cabinet post with immediate effect!!”

Visiting a comprehensive school, the disapproving education secretary, David Blunkett, demands “value-driven, faith-based targets . . . otherwise the [seeing-eye] dog gets it”. The headmaster, who happens to be the ubiquitous penguin, obeys and launches a new curriculum with this maths test: “Sixteen bishops are travelling to Synod. Six and a quarter per cent of them are arrested for indecent assault. How many bishops go free? You may use tambourines.”

As the Guardian has published Edward Snowden’s revelations and so drawn the ire of the Daily Mail, Steve Bell has welcomed the Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, into the dungeons of his “If . . .” strip. Resembling Sellers as Dr Strangelove, Dacre demands “ein bonfeuer of der red tape und der red everything!”. Even his proprietor, Lord Rothermere, looks alarmed, while the hollow-eyed death mask of Rupert Murdoch yells: “Free priss! Burn the tiny liftist Guardian!”

In the current issue of the Journalist, there is a Steve Bell cartoon that may turn out to be the image of our time – a journalist at work on his computer with a large jackboot bursting through the screen. Reminiscent of E H Shepard’s Punch cartoon “The Goose-Step” (1936), which famously warned of the rise of fascism, it is brilliant and not funny.

If there was an authentic free press in Britain, newspapers woudl do as Steve Bell does. Cartoon: Steve Bell for the Journalist

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Getty
Show Hide image

Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.