Holding politicians to account: The cartoonists perspective
“Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose,” said a 19th century French journalist by the name of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. For those that, like me, did not pass their French 'O' Level, the saying translates as “The more things change, the more they remain the same”. This could not be truer than in the world of modern British politics. Over the years our political leaders, one after another, have promised us a brighter future whilst, in reality, the economy has lurched from one crisis to the next. Politicians are here today and gone tomorrow, but every year has its examples of political ineptitude, corruption, scandal and the proverbial ‘passing of the buck’.
Reflect on Sidney Strube's 'turning'em corner' cartoon published over 74 years ago. With minor alterations to dates and Prime Ministers, this visual metaphor could easily have been drawn today. What would most of us say of it if we saw it in our newspaper? "Oh, what a wonderfully insightful cartoon; nothing changes does it?" In 2002, I curated an exhibition at the Houses of Parliament on Sir David Low, famous for his cartoons in the 1930s and 1940s. The most popular response from visitors to the exhibition was that many of them could have been drawn today because they dealt with the same issues and problems that continue to confront us.
Our political leaders have always promised us better times and a brighter future in their attempts to either obtain or retain office. They always tell us that they will clear up the mess caused by the last lot. On the rare occasion that a Prime Minister miraculously appears to repair the damage caused by his predecessor, there is undoubtedly a price to pay in the long term. For example, the last Labour Government presided over an unprecedented ten years of economic prosperity, but through this period the seeds were sown for the beginning of one of the worst recessions to hit this country since the 1930s. Despite assurances from every Prime Minister that things can only get better, there remains a constant credibility gap between what they say and what they achieve.
Just look at the post-war record of our political leaders' meaningless utterances. In 1945, Labour's first majority government offered a new Jerusalem, but left office six years later with rationing still in place and the economy faltering ? the price of the British Army fighting an overseas war. Does that sound familiar? When the Conservatives returned to office in 1951 on the slogan 'set the people free', they did nothing of the sort. They appeased the Unions and made no attempt to privatise nationalised industries or dismantle the welfare state. When Harold Macmillan told the country in 1958 that it “had never had it so good” the economy was again in decline.
In the 1960s, Harold Wilson said that under a Labour government, a new Britain would be forged by the white heat of technological revolution. It proved nothing more than meaningless hyperbole. John Major came to office in 1990 saying that he wanted a country at ease with itself. The problem was his party was not at ease with itself and this led to its disastrous showing at the 1997 General Election. Gordon Brown told the House of Commons that he had brought an end to Boom and Bust, and finally our present Prime Minister, David Cameron, has continued in this vein of political faux pas, claiming that he and his fellow Etonian Cabinet Ministers, together with the general public, "are all in it together."
Fortunately for us, Britain's finest cartoonists have held these politicians to account over the years for such ludicrous utterances and have ridiculed them for their hubris and uselessness. This country has an unparalleled cartoon heritage going back 300 years to the father of modern political cartooning, James Gillray. From him the torch has been successfully passed onto Tenniel through to Partridge, Carruthers-Gould, Dyson, Poy, Low, Strube, Illingworth, Vicky, Cummings and Trog to today's fine crop of cartoonists. As we can see in this collection, the standard and quality of cartooning in Britain remains as strong and as vibrant as ever. Thanks to the cartoonists we can at least find some humour and understanding of the mess and pain the politicians seem to put us through so regularly.
Until the early 1960s, it was only the tabloid press that carried political cartoons, because the broadsheets considered them too frivolous an item for a serious newspaper. The exception was the Manchester Guardian, which syndicated David Low's cartoons from the Evening Standard from the 1930s onwards. In fact, Low was the first cartoonist to be employed by a broadsheet when he left the Evening Standard for the Manchester Guardian in 1950. The other broadsheets continued to ignore political cartoons until 1966, when Ken Mahood became The Times's first cartoonist and Nick Garland, The Daily Telegraph's. Today every broadsheet employs a leading political cartoonist and gives them the space for their cartoon only tabloid cartoonists can now dream of. How things have changed. Until the 1990s, just about every tabloid and London evening newspaper employed a political cartoonist of substance. Now the Mirror no longer carries a political cartoon and it is ten years since the only London evening paper left in existence published one. This is despite the Evening Standard having employed such eminent cartoonists as Low, Vicky, JAK and Blower. MAC at the Daily Mail and Paul Thomas at the Daily Express are not what would be described as overtly political. Their cartoons are topical gag-orientated around the news of the day. These are primarily designed to put a smile on the faces of their respective readers. The cartoons on the Sun and Daily Star are similar, but their cartoons are generally more celebrity and sports related than political. Focusing on celebrity can be more challenging, as the Daily Star’s cartoonist Scott Clissold explains:
"The theme of the cartoons the Daily Star wanted from the start has always been more celebrity driven and light hearted to fit the personality of the paper, rather than a more traditional political cartoon based around Westminster news. They're both good to do, but I find the political cartoons have an advantage over the celebrity ones purely from the point of view that most people already recognise the main politicians and are familiar with their personalities, in contrast with some of the less well known celebrities or z-listers. The celebrity cartoons present a challenge though, as they require you to work on the likenesses, gags and jokes a bit more. Also, you can actually be more daft, which sometimes isn't the case with some political cartoons."
It goes without saying that the tabloid newspapers have a completely different readership to that of the more serious broadsheets. Although they enjoy a much larger audience than the broadsheets, tabloid readers expect a simpler, more sensationalist and gossip-like approach to the news. The primary purpose of a tabloid cartoon is to amuse the readers rather than challenge them on the politics of the day, as Andy Davey of the Sun explains further:
“Readers of tabloids are a disparate bunch, ranging from inhabitants of social sectors A to E who come from anywhere between Lands End and John O’Groats and who fill a zillion jobs from acrobat to zoo-keeper. But they are probably all time-strapped and somewhat uninterested in the arcane doings of Westminster and other seats of power. They probably bought the paper for a quick light-hearted pick-me-up involving sports stars or celebs.”
The working practices of both the tabloid and the broadsheet cartoonist are also very different. Those working at the broadsheets tend to be given a completely free hand and problems that arise with editors are invariably over questions of taste rather than content. Both Martin Rowson and Steve Bell of the Guardian like to work from home. They feel that doing so lessens the chance of any editorial interference. Rowson admits that he and Bell are lucky at the Guardian because, in his words, "We get a free hand, basically. Steve is more hardline than I am, he won’t consult the editors, just delivers his stuff. I tend to outline my intentions in case there is an obvious clash with the column below. Generally, we operate on a kind of internal self?censoring basis, bearing in mind what our readers will be able to stomach."
In comparison, Peter Brookes prefers to work directly from The Times's offices, as does Christian Adams at the Daily Telegraph. Here they not only enjoy the buzz of the newsroom, but also find attending the daily editorial news conferences helpful for choosing the subject matter for their cartoons. Brookes admits to being given a completely free rein to ridicule whoever he wants, as well as the independence even to ignore his own paper’s political stance. He feels his job is to hold all politicians to account regardless of their political standpoint: “You’re in permanent opposition; to my mind there’s no real such thing as sort of cartoons in praise of, or cartoons congratulating. It goes against my nature to want to bolster anyone. You cringe from that sort of thing. So it’s always critical.”
Tabloid cartoonists do not have nearly as much latitude to express themselves. In contrast, they are expected to conform to varying degrees of daily editorial input and control. According to Andy Davey: "Unlike the brave cartoonist-knights of the broadsheets, speaking truth to power with their trusty, unyielding Pens of Satire, the tabloid cartoonist must cut his cartoon to suit his guvnor. He is not allowed the indulgence of adopting the mantle of the Principled Artist, as in the broadsheets. He is a hack and must learn that pretty quick."
The tabloid cartoonist is expected to present his editor with a number of roughs from which to choose. Occasionally, the editor will make a suggestion if he does not like any of those proposed. Sometimes, the editor's decision is not made until later in the day, which has ramifications for the cartoonist. As Andy Davey further explains: "The practical way around all this is for me to send half-a-dozen-plus ideas a day in to the editors for them to choose the one which offends neither them nor their ideal reader. They do this with grace, albeit a tad slower than I’d like. They seem to enjoy the macho brinkmanship of the late decision, just bringing the ship round in time. It makes for frayed nerves, but it may add some energy* to my drawing. [* For this, read “bits missing, not joined up, blots of ink, etc.] Not for the tabloid cartoonist the luxury of the day-long draw, dwelling and luxuriating in the curve of a chin or a dappled sunlit background – that is the reserve of the broadsheet scribbler."
Each new generation of political leaders throws up interesting challenges and opportunities for cartoonists to capture, what David Low called, their “inner essence”. Our political leaders appear to be getting younger and younger, which makes caricature harder, as prominent features tend to develop as people age. Nonetheless, cartoonists are having great fun with the likes of Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Osborne . The main focus of their attention is, of course, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, whose smooth and shiny pinkish face is to Christian Adams, his most prominent feature:
"The first thing I see when I look at Cameron is his skin. It's so shiny and rosy and posh. His forehead is so waxy there's a permanent starburst off it. And his forehead is huge; really bulbous and not helped by a very high hairline. He has permanently flushed cheeks. He has goggly frogeyes with bags under them and crow's feet to the sides, a little pointy nose and a tiny lipless mouth. I think he's probably heavier in real life than he looks, so I give him chubby jowls."
Like Adams, Bell has concentrated on Cameron’s smooth and shiny skin, but his depiction has been contentious, as he continually draws the Prime Minister with a condom over his head. Bell says he got the idea after noticing how remarkably smooth and even taut Cameron's skin was, as if his head had been encased in tight rubber. There was some initial opposition from Bell's editor at the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, who forbade him to depict him in this way. However, Rusbridger gave Bell the green light when he found that the papers' advertisers did not have a problem with it. Cameron has certainly been irked by Bell's depiction of him, as he recently told the cartoonist in person that "You can only push the condom so far!"
Martin Rowson and Peter Brookes have both focused more on Cameron's upper class background. Rowson has had great success by depicting him as Little Lord Fauntleroy, whilst Brookes constantly associates him with his Public school education at Eton and at Oxford. As Cameron tries his very best to play down his class, such depictions of him are not appreciated,as Brookes explains:
"Cameron is very touchy about that aspect of things. He doesn’t like the idea of the Bullingdon sort of thing being brought up again. I know I get a lot of complaints, which makes me want to do it more.”
To their credit, the cartoonists have been equally cruel with their depiction of the Leader of the Opposition. Ed Miliband's geekiness, dark set eyes and nasal utterances are a gift to the them. Because of his eyes, both Christian Adams and Steve Bell have drawn him at times as a panda bear. Bell, in particular, has focused all his energies on Miliband's eyes: "I've drawn Ed a few times and he has crazy, staring eyeballs. His brother David has similar eyes but nowhere near as dramatic. I once had Gordon Brown tell Ed: ‘Since Tony left, this government has had a mad eye deficiency, and you've not one but two.’"
Peter Brookes draws Ed Miliband as the cartoon character Wallace from Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit. Miliband has even admitted that he does physically resemble Wallace: "If spin doctors could design a politician,” said Milliband “I suspect he wouldn’t look like me." Brookes believes that the comparison with Wallace has damaged Miliband's chances of ever becoming Prime Minister. This is because, like Wallace, Miliband also appears hapless, making the public's perception of him unsuitable Prime Ministerial material.
The cartoonists portray the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, as a sinister figure, along with his prominent 'bum' nose. Martin Rowson believes that Osborne's persona is that of a “public school bully with a permanent cocky sneer”. Christian Adams sees Osborne as: "…the pantomime villain straight from central casting. That grey bloodless skin. Those dark eyes (I even add some blue to the flesh colour), that sneering sideways mouth, his dark hair, which I make jet black and greasy, and best of all, his wonderful nose. I got a letter from a reader outraged that I give him a "penile, testicular nose" and I thought, good! I've seen him in real life and he's actually very unremarkable, so thank goodness he photographs like this."
Steve Bell 's genius both for the surreal and pushing the boundaries of taste to its limit constantly show Osborne in a gimp mask and bondage gear. This, I imagine, is a reference to Osborne's earlier friendship with Natalie Rowe, a dominatrix who called herself Miss Whiplash. According to Rowe, Osborne was fascinated by her world of whips, chains and rubber bondage equipment. When interviewed, Bell states that his depiction of Osborne is more to do with the Chancellor's determination to cut the National Debt. According to Bell, "The whole point about George's stance is its about restraint, restraint, restraint, cuts, cuts, whips, whips, straps, straps, chains, chains."
The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has proved somewhat more difficult to caricature, mainly because of his blandness and lack of prominent features. Christian Adams believes this is because "he does actually look like a cardigan catalogue male model." Steve Bell concurs that Clegg also lacks substance:
"Clegg is so blank, which is always going to be a problem for a young politician. There are no salient features you can grab and hang on to. There's a look about him – not vacant, but distant. Nothing much you could put your finger on, but you make that into a feature. He's got a very high forehead and a very pronounced bum chin. Beyond that, it's hard to get a handle on him."
As a consequence, Bell invariably draws him as a cardboard cutout, metaphorically similar to Rowson's depiction of Clegg as Pinocchio. Despite being Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, the perception is that he has no power or authority and is a prisoner of the Tories. This is the way Peter Brookes depicts him, in the guise of Cameron's Etonian fag and lackey 'Cleggers'. According to Brookes:
"Clegg is very much the junior partner, while Cameron has that air of entitlement about him. So the idea of Cameron as a prefect and Clegg as his fag seemed a theme that is infinitely playable. I've called him 'Cleggers' because it's a public-school way of addressing somebody. The Lib Dems are a party to the left of Labour and they are doing the Tories' bidding – they are fig leaves, being used to justify Tory policy.
“At Prime Ministers Question time, you can see Clegg immediately behind Cameron. You can tell he's uncomfortable, as you would be if you were having all this stuff heaped upon you by the Tories. The whole thing is riddled with these wonderful, strange anomalies that will never be resolved, which is why the Coalition is so good for cartoonists."
Like Brookes, Chris Riddell of the Observer does not find Clegg's blandness a drawback. According to Riddell: "The reason Clegg is such a gift to draw is certainly not to do with his physical appearance; he's a pretty ordinary-looking bloke. He doesn't have glasses, doesn't have a beard, he's not balding... But his political position makes him an absolute gift, because of his status in this Coalition. So week after week, we do Clegg as a lapdog, a ventriloquist's dummy. A few weeks ago, I did him as Little Clegg Riding Hood, with the Tory wolf waiting in the woods. I think I might be pursuing that a little bit more. Metaphorically, he's much smaller than Cameron, so we'll have him sitting on his knee and being a little person. We did the same with Hague; made him a very small figure, even though he's quite tall."
So in 2013 we have had Tory backbenchers rebelling over Europe, a Prime Minister kow-towing to an American President, MPs and Lords accepting cash for questions, British troops fighting and dying abroad, a Prime Minister wanting to meddle in the Middle East, scandals at the BBC and in the Health Service, the British economy struggling to recover from the recession, while both the Government and the Opposition blame each other for the mess. And, to top it all, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne popped up and informed us that we have 'turned the corner' as depicted in Steve Bell's cartoon. You could not make it up!
I wonder if someone picking up this book in ten years time, when we will have a new generation of politicians in charge, will think, "Not much has changed has it?"