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10 May 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 4:56am

Have today’s politicians killed political satire?

Political comedy could never create as flawless a piece of friendly fire as Ken Livingstone has provided over the past two weeks.

By Nick Hilton

This week Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London. Phew.

He puts to bed the memory of an exhausting succession of clowns who’ve held the post and becomes the first person, since the role was created in 2000, to have a vaguely sensible outlook on the world. His forerunners, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, have turned a serious political role into a platform for maverick idiocy, with City Hall becoming little more than a diorama of antiquated and objectionable opinions.

When Ken Livingstone appeared on Daily Politics in order to defend anti-Semitism (or something along those lines) he delivered one of the most shocking political interviews of the year. Like an out of control car, Livingstone defended Naz Shah against the allegations of anti-Semitism which she had already admitted to, and then decided to dig up his old ‘Hitler was a Zionist’ routine in order to keep playing while the ship sank.

Can political comedy ever create as flawless a piece of friendly fire as Livingstone provided on Daily Politics? There’s a part of me that wants to believe that he’s a deeply embedded performance artist, working on the greatest piece of satire of the 21st Century, but the reality is probably just that he’s not a very good politician.

In some ways, it’s not really his fault (although I would provide the caveat that he is largely to blame for his anti-Semitism). The media have long fetishised any politician who walks and talks a little bit differently. We’ve allowed men like Boris Johnson and Michael Fabricant (and, even more scarily, Donald Trump) to rise in the public consciousness, simply because they have weird hair. Labour’s rebellious Marxist backbenchers, meanwhile, like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, were once mentioned only to scoff derisively at their impassioned ostracism. Now they’re running the third biggest party in Scotland.

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Political satire increasingly seems to come from the mouths of politicians themselves. Whether that’s inadvertent examples like Natalie Bennett’s ‘brain fade’ on LBC or intentional ones like Nicholas Soames finding his true calling as a Twitter comic, satirists are largely sitting on their hands. Trumping (no pun intended) the political antics of 2016 would involve going broader than the Marx Brothers, which, coincidentally, would be a great name for a sitcom involving a Jeremy Corbyn/Owen Jones flat share.

The final season of The Thick of It took aim at coalition government, but, more presciently, it also foresaw a lame duck Labour leader being attacked from all sides, in and out of the party. I’m not sure the BBC would risk their charter renewal on lampooning the current internal struggles within the Conservative party, but it would make for great viewing. After all, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage are all comic creations born out of the British public’s dry wit and inability to draw the line under a joke.

When it comes to my own piece of political satire, Spads, people keep asking me whether it can be any more farcical than the current political climate. The answer is no. Situations that I envisaged as being hilariously surreal or excruciating now look like banal pieces of social realism. I’ve become an Angry Young Man without even meaning to.

For all the hilarity of political antics at the moment, it does feel like we’re living through a famine of political satire. Classics like The Thick of It, Spitting Image and The Day Today have run their course, whilst American imports like House of Cards and Veep veer more towards the ridiculous than the truly cynical. Last year The Atlantic published a feature venerating British satire, seemingly without noticing that none of these programmes were still on the air. The closest we currently have to political satire on terrestrial TV is the occasions when Gogglebox reviews the News at 10, which is like watching a pub (or Twitter) conversation brought to life on the telly. Ordinary folks are flying the flag for political satire, but the mainstream media seems satisfied that reality is hilarity enough.

I’m not an evangelist who believes the role of political satire is to hold the powerful to account or any of that highfalutin guff. I just like good telly, and, frankly, I’m bored of living in a country where a man as boring as James May can successfully pitch a show as boring as him disassembling and reassembling boring objects. Last year the BBC broadcast a two-hour canal boat trip during a prime evening spot. Even more than the car crash politicians, that’s what makes me despair for this country.

Nick Hilton is the creator of new political comedy Spads. You can watch the first episode below. Nick tweets at @nickfthilton

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