Broadcasters are becoming bothered by a question that ought to have worried them years ago: why should Daily Mail readers pay the licence fee? If principled people ran the BBC, they would not need to ask it. They would declare that they did not want the tainted money of their enemies. They would say, “We deplore the sexist and racist assumptions of right-wing Conservative and UKIP voters, and want to be free as free to criticise them as anyone else.”
Unfortunately for its reputation for probity, the BBC has been playing the hypocrite for years. On the one hand, it justifies taking a flat-rate tax from every household in the land by pretending that it is fair and balanced. On the other, whenever there is a political slant on drama and comedy it leans to the left (Jeremy Clarkson — the broadcasters’ equivalent of the token black — being the exception to the rule).
In the past few months, the double standards have become too much for the BBC, or perhaps its audience, to bear. Its commissioning editors admit that they have not tried hard enough to find contrary voices. Even Radio 4, whose notion of fairness in comedy once meant balancing the soft Left with the hard Left, is inviting moderate conservatives from the Murdoch press on to The News Quiz.
Both the BBC and its conservative critics miss the point, however, when they fall into the language of left and right. True, broadcasters patronise (in every sense of the word) Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy, who are genuine far-left comedians, even if they are a little too keen on becoming national treasures for my taste. But they ration the appearances of Stewart Lee, the best left-wing comedian. To their evident disapproval, Lee can be genuinely unsettling, and has never shown a desire to be any kind of treasure. Dara Ó Briain, Tim Minchin, Dave Gorman and Robin Ince are allowed on air. Once you might have called their willingness to satirise religion left-wing. But the post-modern Left treats religion with nervous deference — with the exception of Christianity, of course, the token black of white liberal outrage. It devotes its energies to denouncing “militant atheists”, who never kill anyone, rather than religious militants, who murder with abandon.
These exceptions aside, the bulk of comics who appear on Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week or Radio 4’s satirical shows are not left-wing in any recognisable sense. They are happy with wealth, particularly their own wealth, and so sexist they veer towards misogyny. Crucially, they have no instinctive sympathy with the working class, which was once the main object of left-wing concern. The reverse side of the coin that sees them damn Mail readers as provincial bigots is the strong dislike of the urban poor — most evident in David Walliams and Matt Lucas’s Little Britain. Today’s political comedy is the laughter of the privileged scoffing at those beneath them. Racism and homophobia are their only forbidden topics. Anyone who can remember the comedy of the 1970s should be grateful for these small advances. But come on, how can a comedy circuit that finds a place for Jimmy Carr, a tax-dodging hypocrite worthy of the pen of a Dickens or a Molière, be described as left-wing or even centrist?
British political comedy reflects the shifts on the Left, which Alwyn W. Turner captures well in his forthcoming history of the 1990s, A Classless Society (Aurum Press). Left-wing entertainers of the Thatcher era were politically correct, and I mean that as a compliment. They saw themselves in opposition to mainstream materialist culture. They were puritanical, committed and often paranoid — quite unlike their modern contemporaries. Ben Elton once announced that if he saw a woman walking alone at night, he would cross to the other side of the street so she would not think an attacker was stalking her. You could never imagine a comedian on Mock the Week admit to such gentlemanly thoughts. If he wanted a laugh, he’d boast to the audience about how he frightened women into believing he was a rapist.
That world went in the early 1990s. The Left had lost. The Tory victory in the 1992 general election convinced them that the electorate was incurably right-wing. Besides, there was money to be made for both comedians and the broadcasters who commissioned them in “selling out”. Everything became permissible: the pornographic humour of David Baddiel and Frank Skinner; the vulgarity of the New Lads; the money grubbing of comedians from Stephen Fry to Lenny Henry, who fell over their feet in the rush to take advertisers’ money — everything, that is, but overt support for right-wing politics in general and the Conservative party in particular. As with Tony Blair, a pro-forma dislike of conservatism was their sole taboo.
A young satirist setting out today could start by satirising satire. But conservatives should not join in the mockery. “Selling out” is just another way of saying “joining in”. The comedians who sold out were immense successes. They gave Britain a culture that produces very rich and very popular political entertainers, who please their audience by being right-wing in everything except their politics. They may be hypocrites, but their success illustrates the truth of Alwyn Turner’s words, that Margaret Thatcher won the economic argument but lost the moral argument.
When he was younger, David Cameron understood the dangers of cultural defeat. Right-wingers who argued against his attempt to “decontaminate” the Tory brand could not have been more foolish. They should be full of foreboding now that Cameron’s “project” has so clearly failed. The misery of the Britain the coalition presides over, its accumulation of profits, its suppression of wages, its proliferation of food banks and homelessness, its neglect of the aspirations of the young, are confirming all the stereotypes that the Conservatives are a party of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. So much so, that even rich political comedians cannot bring themselves to support it — or not in public at any rate. Unless this changes soon, Britain will revert to what it was before 2010: a conservative country where voters could do anything except elect Conservative governments.