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Are we set for a resurgence in right-wing comedy?

A new generation of right-wing comics are taking on the left – but can they avoid guilt by association?

Five years ago, writing in the New Statesman’s centenary edition, the comedian Stewart Lee asked: “Where are all the right-wing stand-ups?” His op-ed, penned in response to a former BBC Radio 4 commissioning editor’s admission that she found it hard to book right-leaning acts to balance left-wingers, explored why right-wing material was more difficult to market to mainstream audiences. Comedians with right-wing views, Lee noted, are not that farfetched a concept – see Jim Davidson and Roy “Chubby” Brown – but acts such as theirs are less about politics than they are about political correctness.

Channelling Chris Rock, Lee suggested that the reason for the left’s dominance of the comedy scene was because “stand-up comedy should always be punching upwards. It’s a heroic little struggle. You can’t be a right-wing clown without some character caveat, some vulnerability, some obvious flaw. You’re on the right. You’ve already won. You have no tragedy. You’re punching down.” His fellow progressive comedian Nish Kumar, performing on Live at the Apollo in November 2015, seemed to agree. “This is the best I could come up with for right-wing comedy – hey, don’t you just hate it when you start earning over £100,000 a year and you move up an income tax bracket? See, it doesn’t work.”

And yet, fast-forward to 2018, and the comedy circuit seems to be becoming more of a broad church. While lefties like Lee and Kumar remain hugely popular, the increasingly charged nature of politics has created a situation in which fewer acts, and even fewer audience members, are willing to sit on their hands. This has, in turn, opened up an avenue for a new breed of right-wing comics speaking to audiences willing to listen, even if they don't agree. 

Shows such as Geoff Norcott’s Right Leaning but Well Meaning­ – an attempt to paint the Conservative Party as more compassionate – and Leo Kearse’s I can make you Tory – a numbers-driven defence of capitalism – are two of the flag-bearers of the recent right-wing comedy boom.

Norcott appeared on BBC’s Question Time last year and styles himself as a “prototypical working-class Tory”. He says he made the decision to perform outwardly right-wing material following a conversation with his wife. “I had been enjoying the weekend club gigs, but I wanted to challenge myself and do something different. My wife pointed out that me voting Tory was a bit different so I went with that.”

Norcott grew up with a trade unionist father and a mother who once stood to be a Liberal Democrat councillor. He explains: “At home, I was like a political Billy Elliot, hiding my copy of the Telegraph inside the Socialist Worker. But seriously, we talked politics all the time. The idea that if someone disagrees with you then you should block them out has never made sense to me. It’s never been in my interest to not hear someone else’s point of view and I’ve worked hard not to create my own echo chamber. When it comes to performing right-wing comedy, I’ve got to say that there is nothing better than someone folding their arms at the start of a show before laughing later on. A reluctant laugh is a beautiful thing.”


Geoff Norcott

The political right is often accused of racism, sexism and homophobia, so isn’t it reasonable to expect right-wing comedy to be full of racist, sexist and homophobic punchlines? Norcott retorts: “I think some people on the left are prone to a towering moral pomposity. Many left-wing people assume that people on the left are automatically going to be open-minded and tolerant purely because they are left-wing. It’s a really infantile, pantomime reading of political views. There are plenty of racist, sexist and homophobic left-wing people.”

While right-wing comedy may not have supplanted political acts from the other side of the spectrum, it is being excepted as part of the mix by gig organisers. Pint-sized Geordie comic and resident compere of the Good Ship Comedy club in Camden, Ben Van der Velde, is left-wing but doesn’t disagree with Norcott’s assessment. Norcott, in fact, is one of the acts Van der Velde has booked for the venue. “And that was very interesting,” he says with both eyebrows raised. “As with anything, you’ve got to appreciate a diversity of opinion. Of course comedy follows that. One person’s suffering-in-work poor is another person’s useless layabout.

“Tories are quick to point out that they’re not all sexist, racist or whatever. Is it wrong for the left to associate these things exclusively with the right when plenty of left-wing people are these things as well? I think that on the left we are all too ready to stereotype and pigeon-hole people on the right for their intolerance, because the swing from right-wing with a small ‘r’ to right-wing with a big ‘R’ seems an easy leap.”

Among the most prominent left-wing comics with a big profile is the Scotsman Frankie Boyle, who not only regularly turns his guns on the right, but also writes for the Guardian. But while Scotland itself might have a reputation for leaning left, not all of Boyle's compatriots come at comedy from the same ideological angle.

Leo Kearse is a Scot who won the UK’s Pun Championship in 2015, and has been touring a show called I can make you Tory – a statitstics-led set written to provoke. For Kearse, the decision to perform from a right-wing perspective came from a frustration with what he dubs “super-sanctimony”. He suggests that the steady rise in the popularity of right-wing comics is the result of “a rejection of the hyper-liberal consensus” and adds that “dogmatism” characterises Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

“Basically everyone was so smug and so pious on social media. All these liberal comedians and journalists were perpetuating a culture in which nothing can be criticised. It was getting to me. You weren’t able to point out obvious things like the fact capitalism has delivered a world of immense wealth and efficiency, lifting millions of people out of poverty.”

Kearse’s observation about the supposed sanctimony of the left is not uncontentious, something he is obviously aware of. “You’re looking at me like I’m David Icke or something,” he says of my response to his statement. “I think the left is willing to ignore obvious benefits of capitalism. Look at the Google data observatory. They’ve got World Health Organisation data going back decades and you can see, by country, how living standards and life expectancy and the amount of wealth people have, have improved under capitalism.” 

Whether or not we accept Kaerse's insistence that right-wing comedy is simply a franker form of satire and that its left-wing equivalent is over-senstive, the key questions remain around whether jokes about tax, the benefits of nuclear power, small states or the failings of communism are actually that funny. 

Van der Velde, who insists he always tries to book across the political spectrum at Good Ship Comedy, says it all depends on the individual. “Speaking as a comedian, I think there are certainly right-wing comics you can admire for their performance skill even if you don't agree with their politics. Some, like Chubby Brown, are undeniably good with their rhythm, pace and delivery. When he’s writing jokes that are just daft one-liners – he has a great one about a hedgehog and a toilet brush – rather than focusing on sexual, racial or ethnic stereotypes, they're often really good.

“Some right-wing comics, however, also rely on using disgusting racial and gender shorthand, which isn’t even about punching down. It’s joking with hate and contempt. There are some right-wing comics who don’t want to be liked by the audience as part of their persona, and they use self-deprecation as an interesting technique, and you know there’s a playful creativity and they’ll reflect back on themselves.” Would Van der Velde describe Bernard Manning as a right-wing comedian? “No, I’d describe him as a racist. Manning very rarely self-reflected and didn’t take the piss out of white, working-class northerners.”

Norcott’s Right Leaning but Well Meaning was given a damning one-star review by The List last year, but he was also described as “at the loveable end of the Conservative spectrum” by the Guardian for his other show Conswervative. When he performed on Live at the Apollo, he received loud cheers and no heckles from what he says he assumes “was a mostly liberal crowd”.

The mixed reaction Norcott has experienced with his material, he says, is clear evidence that “every crowd has a mix of opinions and that’s how it should be”. 

He adds: “I think if you’re left-wing but you’ve come to see one of my shows because you’re curious then you’re probably my kind of person. But yeah of course I have had people boo and heckle as well.”

Kearse, meanwhile, received four stars from The List, but Chortle criticised him for hyperbolising the United Kingdom’s centre-left opposition.

It's difficult to talk about political comedy, or indeed anything in the UK at present, without discussing what Van der Velde says is the “elephant in every room” – Brexit. While not a strictly left versus right stand-off, as the Leave-voting Norcott and Remainer Kearse (“for economic reasons”) prove, it does seem fair to say that Euroscepticism edges more towards the right than the left on the whole. It was the Conservative Party, after all, that called the referendum on membership in the first place.

Van der Velde thinks that “the conversation around immigration and race has put Brexit front and centre of many comedy sets now”. Is Brexit a catalyst for more right-wing comedy? Norcott says: “The fascinating thing about Brexit is that the comedy scene is probably institutionally left but Brexit cuts across that axis. Fifty-two per cent of voters opted to leave the EU… I’m sure there would have been plenty of punters unconvinced by the idea that there isn’t a single Brexit-voting comedian. The vote was a fairly even split but on panel shows voting Remain was made out to be orthodoxy. It's like the marmite debate, but suddenly everybody loves marmite and the people who don’t are idiots who just didn’t do enough research on yeast extracts. So I think we can expect more openly pro-Brexit comedians with time, yes.” And what about more openly right-wing comedians? Norcott stresses: “Personally, I’d be careful not to equate the two.”

Ultimately, it seems, what will push forward or stunt the progress of a right-wing comedian in the future will be their ability to temper charges of guilt by association. Whether relating to unsavoury aspects of the Leave movement or the misdemeanours of those they vote for but have no control over, it’ll be this that determines by how much they can loosen the left’s grip on the industry. Norcott says: “Voting Tory isn’t a blanket endorsement for every other person that happens to vote Tory too.” 

It's a separation that Van der Velde advises should be applied to both sides. “It’s very easy for the left to see the absurdity of being anti-immigration and being stuck in a delusion about 19th century glory, but equally the left is in an eating its own tail disarray sometimes. We also need to separate the idea of leftism in terms of social justice and in terms of sanctimonious people who are far too sensitive. We need to separate the idea of people who like the pragmatism and the conserving nature of conservatism from people who are genuinely racist or hateful.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.

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Pale, male but far from stale: what can the economists of history teach us?

In an age of science and statistics, thinkers such as Marx and Adam Smith may hold the answer to capitalism’s crisis.

Is economics a science? It’s an old question – and in my view, not a terribly useful one. Yet there is a reason why it never stops being asked. Physicists have discovered the universal laws governing energy and motion, and as a result can tell us with scarcely credible precision how to land a man on the moon. Economists, by contrast, can’t even agree on why the last financial crisis happened, let alone what we should do to prevent the next one – and that’s despite the fact that we wrote the rules of finance ourselves. Real sciences make progress. Economics, on the other hand, seems to go round and round in circles.

Needless to say, this embarrassing situation irritates economists more than anyone else. As a result, over the past several decades mainstream economics has attempted to assimilate itself ever more closely to the culture and methods of
the natural sciences. These days, self-respecting economists express their theories as mathematical models, rather than in words. Advanced statistical techniques are deployed to test hypotheses and so resolve the answers to empirical questions. If possible, experiments are designed and conducted. A few avant-garde researchers have even gone so far as to rebrand their research groups as “labs”. Whether these developments represent a long-overdue reform of the methodology of economics, or just the symptoms of a chronic inferiority complex, they have certainly dealt a mortal blow to one formerly central area of the economics curriculum: the history of economic thought. If economics is a science, there is as little point in reading the economists of prior ages as there is in engaging with Aristotle on biology or mugging up on the theory of phlogiston.

The publication of Linda Yueh’s The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today is therefore a fascinating event for anyone interested in economics. For this is a book which, as it title suggests, champions the value of studying the leading economic thinkers of the past.

It sounds like swimming against the tide of history. Is it really possible to reclaim a role for the scientifically backward theorising of a canon of Dead White Men (and, to Yueh’s credit, one Dead White Woman)? Well, there can hardly be anyone better qualified to try. As an Oxford don and a professor at London Business School, Yueh undoubtedly knows her stuff; and as a former chief  business correspondent for the BBC and economics editor at Bloomberg TV, she is a well-known and skilful communicator.

The challenge Professor Yueh has set herself is even bigger than it first appears, however. For looming like Muhammad Ali in his pomp over any modern attempt at an overview of history’s great economists is a classic so enduringly popular as to make most challengers throw in the towel before the starting bell: Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers.

I first read this multimillion best-seller, published in 1953, 25 years ago. There can hardly be an economist in the English-speaking world who wasn’t assigned it as the first text on their undergraduate reading list – and for not a few of them, I suspect, it is about the only thing they can remember from their course. And with good reason: for Heilbroner – a student of Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard who later became a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York – was a talented writer in command of his subject matter and with a gift for leavening abstract ideas with earthy biography. Yet the real reason that The Worldly Philosophers has reigned for so long as the heavyweight champion of the genre is that it is organised around a clear and compelling vision of what, historically speaking, economics actually is.

The book’s underlying argument is that economics is nothing more nor less than the project of trying to understand, evaluate, and then control capitalism – the historically unprecedented system of organising society though the operation of markets and money that began to evolve in Europe in the late Middle Ages.

Before the capitalist revolution, there was no need for a discipline devoted to explaining why production, distribution and exchange are structured as they are, because, as Heilbroner says: “[who] would look for abstract laws of supply and demand, or cost, or value, when the explanation lay like an open book in the laws of the manor and the church and the city, along with the customs of a lifetime? Adam Smith might have been a great moral philosopher in that earlier age, but he could never have been a great economist; there would have been nothing for him to do.”

Once capitalism began its relentless rise, however, people felt an imperative to clarify its unwritten rules, to pass judgement on whether they were good or bad, and to strive to rewrite its constitution accordingly. The project that answered that call was economics – an enterprise as value-laden and politically fraught as constitution writing always is. In Heilbroner’s scheme, in other words, economics is unashamedly not a science – and, in striking contrast to the natural sciences, there is no real distinction between the history of economic thought and the history of the economy itself. The former is a reaction to the latter; and as economic thought began to pervade the modern mindset, the latter was just as often a reaction to the former.

Hence the plan of The Worldly Philosophers: a parallel history of the capitalist revolution and of the theories that have been developed to make sense of it. In Heilbroner’s scheme, in order to understand the rules we live by today, we need to understand who invented them, and why. The history of economic thought is therefore one of the keystones of economics – and economics itself is, to an important extent, intellectual history.


On the face of it, Yueh’s book follows the format of The Worldly Philosophers. It too devotes a series of separate chapters to a pantheon of historical economic thinkers (and six of them – Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter – are covered by both books). It, too, aims to extract contemporary guidance from study of their theories. The resemblance is only superficial, however, because the conception of economics that underpins Heilbroner’s work is not one that would be recognised by most economists today.

Heilbroner himself, in an epilogue to the 1999 edition of The Worldly Philosophers entitled “The End of the Worldly Philosophy?”, explained that economics had even then almost completed its transition to a new sense of its essence and purpose. “The new vision,” he wrote, “is Science; the disappearing one, Capitalism.”

The Great Economists reflects this dramatic change in how economics conceives its methods and its aims. For Yueh, as for most contemporary practitioners, economics is not about reconstructing the historical mind-map of capitalism, but
about the discovery of objective economic laws through the scientific study of the social world.

Her rationale for exploring the history of economic thought is accordingly quite different from Heilbroner’s. It is not so much to understand the era in which the great economists lived, still less to grasp any role their theories may have played in shaping the conventions that govern the modern economy. It is rather because each of her  subjects was the first to explain some fundamental economic principle or discover some economic law applicable to our contemporary dilemmas. It is in this direct sense that their ideas can help us today.

One chapter, for example, recruits the 19th century English economist David Ricardo to help answer the timely question “Do trade deficits matter?” Ricardo was the first to formalise the principle of comparative advantage – the idea that all nations gain if each one specialises in producing the things at which it is relatively more efficient and then freely trades its output. The truth of this principle, Yueh explains, is more important than ever as the US seems headed for protectionism.

Another chapter summarises the life and work of Irving Fisher, the greatest American economist of the first half of the 20th century, in order to answer the question “Are we at risk of repeating the 1930s?” Fisher’s most celebrated contribution was his book The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions, which explained how a recession-induced drop in prices can raise the real burden of debt, leading to further deflation and so yet heavier debt, in a vicious circle. That led him to advocate reflationary monetary policy as the correct response to debt crises – a conclusion which, as the past decade has shown, modern central bankers have taken warmly to heart.

Yueh acknowledges that the validity of such principles is not unchallenged today and she is scrupulous in stressing ongoing debates. Nevertheless, the general idea is that they represented major advances in our knowledge of how the economy works, and that these economists are, to paraphrase Newton, giants on whose shoulders modern economists stand.

Hence the plan of The Great Economists reflects a distinct conception of the purpose of studying the history of economic thought, and indeed of economics itself. In this view, the history of economic thought is primarily a pedagogical device – a harmless cosmetic aid, as useful for adding some much-needed colour as, and no less scientific than, teaching physics by referring to Boyle’s Law, or biology by studying Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Economics itself, however, is definitely a science.


As I said, I don’t think the question of whether economics is a science is a very useful one. The inconvenient truth is that in some respects it is, and in others it isn’t. As a result, the different approaches to the history of economic thought taken by Yueh and Heilbroner both have their merits.

 Nevertheless, if I was forced to recommend only one of them to a budding student of economics, I would have to plump for Heilbroner’s classic. In my view, the challenges facing Western economies in the post-2008 era are existential, as well as normal – and over all of them hovers the master question that haunts the writings of every one of Heilbroner’s worldly philosophers, from Smith to Schumpeter: whether or not capitalism is ultimately sustainable as a way of organising society.

The achievements of modern, scientific economics are significant, and the reader who wants a slick and well-curated tour of its current policy recommendations will profit greatly from Yueh’s enjoyable and up-to-date book. But if you want to know whether capitalism can survive its current crisis, and what might replace it if it doesn’t, then Heilbroner’s study of those great thinkers, who explored these questions free from our contemporary prejudices and vested interests, remains the place to start. 

Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Vintage)

The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today
Linda Yeuh
Viking, 368pp, £20

Felix Martin is a macroeconomist, bond trader and the author of Money: the Unauthorised Biography