Over the past 20 years I have spent much of my spare time desperately trying to get politicians elected and all my working day ridiculing them. For some reason the former generally seemed to do them more damage. During this time I have rather got the impression that many people believe political satire to be a tremendously powerful weapon that has been used throughout history to bring down governments. “If only it were more hard-hitting . . .” the critics have always said. But my years writing political jokes have taught me that satire is approximately as powerful as Margaret Thatcher was witty.
By the time I joined the inner circle of writers on Spitting Image the Iron Lady had been in power for ten years, and a decade of alternative comedy and latex lampoonery had not made the slightest dent in her armour. Obviously comedy was even less effective on a prime minister who had had her sense of humour surgically removed at birth, but the main reason she was so immune was that she was politically so secure.
Satire can be effective only when a politician is already in a weakened position. During the mid-1980s, for example, the Liberal/SDP Alliance found itself in the precarious position of having two leaders. Spitting Image portrayed David Steel as a tiny sycophantic puppet that stared adoringly up at David Owen. The former Liberal leader has since conceded that his public image was definitely affected by this – that Spitting Image had effectively sold the line that Steel was the weaker of the two.
I believe that this was one of the most important factors in the Liberal leader’s decision to assert himself so vigorously after the 1987 general election and to try to force Owen into a merger of the two parties. Owen resisted, and they ended up fighting one another, most notably in the 1989 Richmond by-election. They split the Alliance’s 27,000 votes, letting in the Conservative candidate – a certain William Hague, who was elected with 19,000 votes. Without that split, Hague would have had to wait until the 1992 election to enter the Commons and would never have become a minister quickly enough to be leader after just one parliament. Thus it is my rather bold assertion that without Spitting Image William Hague would not have been leader of the Conservative Party. We may not have been able to damage the Tories in the eighties but we certainly planted a time bomb to scupper their chances of winning anything 15 years later.
In the run-up to the 1992 general election we got the chance to run a definitive test on the power of political comedy. We were given permission to do a Spitting Image election special the night before polling day. We grasped this opportunity with both hands and wrote countless sketches telling the British people why John Major’s government should be thrown out. “There,” we thought, “that will teach them not to unleash the power of satire upon an undecided electorate . . .” In the general election the next day John Major got more votes than any party leader since the war.
Several newspaper articles suggested that, perversely, Spitting Image had helped the Tories achieve their surprise victory. I remain unconvinced that we ever had that much power to change people’s minds either way, but I can understand why some people thought we might have achieved exactly the opposite of what we set out to do.
Because we were going out at such a sensitive time, the Independent Broadcasting Authority insisted that we be completely equal in our treatment of all three political parties. In theory this meant that the jokes about the Tories weren’t allowed to be funnier than the jokes about the Liberals, and the satire on Paddy Ashdown had to be exactly as satirical as the one on Neil Kinnock. The joke police quickly realised that this would be impossible to measure, so they settled on the formula that each of the three political parties had to have exactly the same amount of airtime devoted to it.
So we found ourselves in the ridiculous situation where we were exclaiming: “Oh no, we’re seven seconds under on Labour – quick, someone write a Roy Hattersley quickie!”
We sneakily thought that the way to get round this was to use our time with the Conservatives attacking their terrible record in government and our time with Labour showing them messing around putting up posters, or whatever.
Perhaps the most satire can ever hope to achieve is to help crystallise a feeling about a government policy or individual politician that is already in the ether, such as the way that Spitting Image outed John Major as grey.
Comedy has the potential to bring political issues to a wider audience. Have I Got News for You has gone into great detail about the shady behaviour of Jeffrey Archer, for example – and because it sugars the pill with jokes, millions more will sit up and listen.
But comedy can be used by politicians, as well as against them. Just after the general election Neil and Christine Hamilton appeared on Have I Got News for You, and the way in which they just laughed at all the jokes at their expense did them no harm at all. “I’d far rather tell political jokes than be one,” said Hamilton, to the great approval of the studio audience. Ian Hislop tried to force some answers about some of the outrageous things that Hamilton had done, but the couple just carried on laughing as if this were all part of a good-natured bit of joshing. That can be the trouble with jokes – people always seem to think that you’re joking.
And an MP who is perceived to have a good sense of humour is more attractive to voters. Last year I was working on a political panel show called If I Ruled the World. In one edition the two teams had been running neck and neck until Richard Wilson came out with a joke policy that had we had given him earlier in the day. “We’re going to get rid of television’s bad-language watershed, which, face it, is a fucking waste of time.” It got by far the biggest laugh of the evening, and Clive Anderson called for another vote from the studio audience immediately afterward. Suddenly there was a huge swing toward Richard Wilson’s team – clearly they won because of this particular joke. So it is no wonder that politicians occasionally try to secure the services of professional comics. John Prescott has used jokes supplied by Roy Hudd’s writers (my favourite was: “It’s true I have gone all middle class – now I keep my coal in a bidet.”).
For many years my co-writer Mark Burton and I have written the occasional joke for Gordon Brown. You could argue, probably quite convincingly, that there is a conflict of interest in working too closely with a prominent politician, especially one who is in power. But this ignores the very important consideration of what a thrill it is for tragic political groupies like ourselves to be invited to Downing Street. When we finally got there, Burton stopped in the doorway of 11 Downing Street and announced: “Enough of gag-writing – it’s time to lig.”
Such is the fate of the political satirist in Britain. In Iraq or Indonesia we would be dragged off to a darkened cell to be tortured. Here we are invited to media parties and eventually to the centre of government to hobnob with the establishment that we originally set out to undermine.
I don’t know which is the more effective way of neutering political criticism. “Of course I’ll write you jokes for nothing, Gordon, and yes, Chris Smith – I’d be delighted to come and speak at your constituency party, and yes, of course I’ll come and read from my book at an MPs’ party at the House of Commons, and yes, of course I’ll do a speech at a social event at the Labour Party conference.”
Ten years after I started on Spitting Image things have come full circle. Finally the politicians are taking the piss out of me.
John O’Farrell is the author of the best-selling “Things Can Only Get Better” (Black Swan, £6.99) and has written for “Spitting Image”, “Have I Got News for You” and the Right Hon Gordon Brown MP. This article is an edited transcript of a speech given to the Oxford Union this week