A picture a day keeps the tyrants away

From Hogarth and Gillray through Vicky and Jak to Steve Bell, Fluck and Law, cartooning has served a

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The day in 1973 that Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the American satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked, was the "moment that satire died. There was nothing more to say after that." As the New Statesman's gallery of great satirical art shows, he could hardly have been more wrong.

Not only is satire a central part of our artistic tradition and a crucial barometer of political freedom, it has just as much power to amuse, shock, inform and provoke as it did in the days of Hogarth and Gillray. This January, after all, police were forced to rescue the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard - who drew the most hotly criticised of the satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten - from a Somali extremist who had burst into his home. We may shudder at the thought of so brutal an attack on the principle of free speech, yet the episode reminds us of the central position that satire occupies in a healthy democracy.

One reason why British observers were so shocked by the controversy over the Danish cartoons, as well as by the repression of satire in countries such as Iran and China, is that satire is one of the few things we have always been good at. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels may be read now as a fable for children and as the inspiration for a chain of terrible theme parks, but in its day it was not merely a biting satirical portrait of the court of George I and the experiments of the Royal Society, but, in the chapters set in the country of the Houyhnhnms, a blistering depiction of the pretensions and vices of human nature itself.

William Hogarth's Gin Lane and Beer Street might have been torn from a modern tabloid lamenting the rise of binge drinking, although even the Daily Express's late deeply conservative cartoonist Michael Cummings might have shrunk from depicting such a nightmarish world of working-class alcoholism, infanticide and suicide. And to flick through James Gillray's brilliant cartoons is to be reminded that, in some ways, modern politicians have it easy. It is little wonder that one of Gillray's Tory patrons wrote to him in 1798 rejoicing that "the Opposition are as low as we could wish them. You have been of infinite service in lowering them, and making them ridiculous."

Gillray was happy to satirise Whigs and Tories alike; his career is a telling reminder that satire is not necessarily left-wing. In some ways, indeed, satire has always had a markedly cynical conservative streak: many cartoonists are at their happiest mocking the high-minded ambitions of the political herbivore. Gillray's cartoons played an important role in discrediting the French Revolution, its pretensions never more thoroughly eviscerated than in his juxtaposition of "French liberty" with "British slavery". Almost two centuries later, cartoonists such as Cummings or the Evening Standard's Raymond Jackson (better known as Jak) played a critical part in portraying trade union leaders as greedy cavemen and left-wing politicians such as Tony Benn as demented extremists. On one occasion in 1970, a Jak cartoon mocking striking power workers provoked the Standard's printers to walk out - a perfect symbol of the cartoonist's power.

In some ways, the days of the great cartoonists are behind us. This is no reflection on the artists; the likes of Steve Bell, Martin Rowson, Nicholas Garland and Peter Brookes are worthy heirs to the draughtsmen of the past. But with newspaper sales falling and modern voters deafened by a cacophony of comment, it is much harder for cartoonists to command the attention once given to satirists such as David Low and Victor Weisz (Vicky), or to the front cover of the weekly magazine Punch. When Low drew his terrific image Rendezvous in September 1939, puncturing the rhetoric of the Nazi-Soviet pact, it almost certainly had far more impact than a similar image would do today. Even Private Eye, the only lasting legacy of the Sixties satire boom, arguably has much less force now, in a society awash with gossip and rumour, than it did during the early 1970s, when it helped to expose Reginald Maudling and Jeremy Thorpe. Perhaps we suffer from a surfeit of satire, and the really good stuff goes unnoticed.

Naturally, cartoons are not the only vehicle for effective political satire. At some basic level, Peter Fluck and Roger Law's Spitting Image puppets, which often seemed the only proper opposition to Margaret Thatcher's government, were three-dimensional Hogarth sketches. In the past three decades, however, televised satire has become infinitely more sophisticated: just watch an episode of The Thick of It or The Colbert Report. Few political satirists have the eye and edge of Alison Jackson, the photographer and film-maker who uses lookalikes to create oddly haunting images - Tony Blair rehearsing his farewell speech in front of a mirror, Gordon Brown reading a book on anger management - which make you laugh and think at the same time. No doubt the satirists will have plenty of fun with Britain's coalition government, while across the Atlantic, treatment of the Obama administration has been distinctly weak, cartoonists seeming understandably nervous about racial sensitivities.

It is a cliché to say that satire is the life-blood of a democracy. But it is only a cliché because it is true. Satirists in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union lived in fear for their lives; in Iran today, satirists such as Ebrahim Nabavi, who released a video "confessing" to being in the pay of the CIA, to importing green velvet and to having an affair with Scarlett Johansson, have been forced to flee abroad. Even in Britain we should not be complacent: barely a week goes by without somebody or other complaining that a cartoon has caused them religious offence or trampled on their rights. There has always been a strong streak of misanthropy, even hatred, in British satire. But this is one form of hate speech that deserves to thrive.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and a contributing writer for the New Statesman.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy