AS THE clock rapidly winds down to zero hour, when the UK will stop making a financial contribution to the EU budget equivalent to that of the bottom nineteen EU economies combined, it may be time to look at how the UK got here in a lighter fashion better associated with the state-truncated festivities.
One feature of this country’s relationship with an EU dedicated to ‘ever-closer union’ was the absence of public ridicule. As the EU increased its control over domestic policy in the UK, this was broadcast only by stern-faced or -sounding newscasters. It is telling that there was no TV comedy show that poked fun at the unelected Eurocrats on a regular basis.
This may have been the EU’s undoing in this country. It is a plausible argument that the British public will put up with high levels of state-induced indignity so long as they can have a laugh at the inducers’ expense. It helps humanise officialdom and makes its perpetrators more relatable. Indeed it is possible that civil servants and politicians may have been hesitant in the past to introduce some measures as they may have feared becoming a laughing-stock, so this played both ways. Successful ridicule is fatal for a politician wishing to portray rectitude in all his or her words and actions, which partly explains why they prefer talking in vague terms and about distant goals achievable only after they have left office. When they are required to discuss immediate specifics, they become hostages to fortune, and therefore have to be evasive as a career-saving move.
During the era of the greatest peacetime state control after 1945, there were numerous TV and radio comedy shows broadcast by the BBC that made fun of authority, such as The Men From The Ministry, The Navy Lark, and The Army Game. The antics of the Fab Four of comedy, Harry, Peter, Spike and Michael in The Goon Show, were aimed squarely at officialdom, Secombe, Sellers, Milligan, and Bentine all able to draw on their experience of wartime service. Jimmy Perry and David Croft made numerous TV series that lampooned the pomposity of authority figures, notably Dad’s Army. Politicians were not immune either. Mike Yarwood’s impressions of 1970s politicians were a staple of prime-time viewing. Paul Eddington’s portrayal of the hapless Jim Hacker punctured the image of the competent minister as much as Nigel Hawthorne did of the public-spirited and dedicated mandarin in Yes Minister which, considering it made use of programme consultants in the form of Wilson-era special advisers Marcia Falkender and Bernard Donoughue, could also be regarded as a documentary on British governance of the era. Political parties received similar treatment with Rik Mayall’s perverted and corrupt Conservative MP Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, and Penelope Keith playing an inner-city Labour MP in No Job For A Lady. Almost directly after Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide victory at the polls (and here, dear reader, please pause to savour that sweet time, such, such were the days) ITV started Spitting Image, using puppet caricatures of leading political and media figures.
Spitting Image disappeared from our screens too quickly after Tony Blair won his first landslide. The BBC series The Thick Of It was touted as the Yes Minister of the new times; it was instead a foul-mouthed office comedy with a relatively vague political connection. The only professional advice it had was from a swearing consultant.
But the EU was seen as untouchable as a source of mirth by the mainstream broadcast media. The nonsensicality of a refugee camp at Calais for people wanting to migrate to the UK consisting of those fleeing persecution was never explored by any radio or TV channel. The joke that these illegal migrants were all trying to leave a wealthy, peaceful and free EU country to get to another one and claim refugee status was never widely shared by broadcasters. The inverse logic of the EU obliging a reluctant Ireland to charge more tax to Apple was never the basis of a Father Ted-like skit set in the Revenue office. The absurdity that Amazon could rake in millions of pounds of profits in the UK but pay taxes on them only in tiny Luxembourg was only ever a news item and nothing more. We had to endure the pretence that former Luxembourger finance minister and friend of Amazon Jean-Claude Juncker was competent after a long lunch.
British politicians such as George Brown and Charles Kennedy always tried to hide their incapacity, and it was an insult to see it on such display from someone who also made quite disparaging comments about this country. The EU habit of employing confirmed second and third-rater politicians to helm it was never made into a sketch or a series.
The age of deference had come to an end here in the UK in the early 1960s with the satire boom on the back of the Profumo scandal, but deference for the EU seemed to be a quasi-official media policy reminiscent of the pre-war Chamberlain government stating that Chaplin’s The Great Dictator would be banned from exhibition in the UK. Perhaps this deference was a consequence of groupthink amongst the well-travelled but rootless cosmopolitans in the broadcasting industries. Because the EU was implacable in its ambition, it is possible that the ridicule would have had the reverse effect, as public sentiment would never be translated into political outcomes. But that is entirely due to the implacability of EU as it stands, and not the idea of a form of political or economic union in a continent ravaged by two highly destructive wars in the space of three decades.
It is interesting to note that production of Spitting Image resumed only once the UK had left the EU. It is tempting to see causation, that the show could not be made while Westminster surrendered more power to Brussels. However that hides a simpler truth. There did seem to be an embargo on mocking EU ideals, institutions, and personalities in this country on the main terrestrial broadcast channels. The EU is held as an object of mindless veneration by far too many people and certainly too many that hold positions of public influence. Had we been able to have a laugh at its obvious arrogance and pomposity, perhaps British politicians may have been able to sell the EU better than they did. Perhaps because lampoon would have included making fun of foreigners it was taboo. Ridicule of the EU in the media also might have forced a referendum sooner and provided a more decisive result; we shall never know. However, putting making fun of the EU off-limits as happened for more than two decades did nothing to humanise the institution in the eyes of the wider British public who lived outside the crowded but convenience-laden metropolises. Instead it did cause widespread alienation and made the referendum and the leave vote almost inevitable.