The Joke’s On Iannucci OBE

Nothing Armando Iannucci has written has been as funny as his acceptance of the Order of the British Empire. Iannucci had seemed so radical when he showed our politicians as sleazy, unprincipled cowards, so concerned with protecting their valueless careers they allowed a foul-mouthed spin-doctor to control them. His language in The Thick of It was violent; his caricatures merciless. Now this fearless debunker, this Swift of our age, has embraced the establishment he derided. And for what? For the most laughable bauble the Conservative-led coalition could dangle in front of him: the Order of a British Empire that no longer exists. As so often, the joke is not that men sell out but how little it costs to buy them.

Loud rang the mockery, but today’s criticism of Iannucci misses the point as wildly as yesterday’s praise. Whatever his comic talents, Iannucci displayed no originality in The Thick of It. Contempt for British politics is modern television’s orthodoxy, as Steven Fielding of Nottingham University will discuss in his forthcoming study of how dramatists showed politics from Oscar Wilde on. (I am indebted to Professor Fielding for allowing me to quote from his unpublished manuscript.) Man is a storytelling mammal, Fielding argues. If you want to understand why the British despise politics, you must look at the stories the British hear. They are invariably scornful. Fielding surveyed political TV drama made in the New Labour years. Spin and the abuse of power dominated nearly every one. Far from being daring, Iannucci was merely mooing with the herd.

Suspicion of politicians is hardly a modern phenomenon. Democracy is a system of organised suspicion, after all. But in today’s political drama there is no Trollope to balance Dickens. Politicians are always spineless, untrustworthy and mendacious. Such is the broadcasters’ creed. I am just about old enough to remember when British television had more than one act in the repertoire. Like the makers of Borgen or The West Wing in our time, the writers of The Challengers, The Nearly Man, Bill Brand and other dramas from the 1970s showed politicians trying in however flawed a manner to put their ideas into practice. This is not always the soft or flattering option. If you want to understand why a government policy infuriates you, “following the money” is often the stupidest course to follow. An examination of a politician’s sincerely held ideology is more likely to provide you with an explanation than corruption. Only one recent British drama — the BBC’s Party Animals — came close, however, to presenting a realistic picture of why men and women go into politics. The Corporation cancelled it as quickly as it could.

The scornful strain in British television appears left-wing. Certainly, many television dramatists speak as if they are men of the Left. Peter Flannery, the author of Our Friends in the North, said he believed “we live in an ongoing culture of corruption. Friends in the North is the story of people who tried to do something about it, and failed.” Michael Wearing, his producer, said he wanted the series to convey “disillusionment with politics and everything politicians say they can offer”. Leigh Jackson, who wrote The Project, an account of the Blair/Brown conflict, declared that he was consumed by “the growing realisation that after 18 years we might have voted in another ‘Tory’ government, only this one was more efficient and twice as ruthless”. Paul Abbott, the writer of State of Play, suggested the oil industry had a tight grip on New Labour policymaking, and added that he wanted to “capitalise on the audience’s natural paranoia”. Alistair Beaton said his TV dramas, such as The Trial of Tony Blair, aimed to show New Labour as “an authoritarian and right-wing administration”.

On and on the protestations of left-wing virtue go, but I doubt their sincerity. Although they are fond of accusing others of money worship, our dramatists remain too fond of a fee themselves. Commissioning editors will not pay them unless they write to a format, and agree with British television’s working assumption that everyday politics is “boring”. Neil McKay, the author of a biopic of Mo Mowlam, was the most honest when he described the struggle he had to make Channel 4 even consider dramatising the life of one of the most interesting politicians of the last 30 years. He struggled because in the minds of his paymasters even bringing peace to Ireland was a bore. “It is striking the extent to which the ‘connection’ most commissioning editors believed would appeal to their presumed audience was one that emphasised ‘sleaze’,” says Fielding. “So far as these influential gatekeepers were concerned, if politics was not to be ‘boring’ it had to be ‘sleazy’.” To put it another way, dramatists have been following television’s money with the eagerness of truffle hounds.

The second reason for doubting dramatists’ words match their deeds is that they imagine a democracy where change is impossible because the British are a race of sheep. They must paint us as fools because if you believe that contemptible politicians live in fear of Iannucci’s spin-doctors, you must also believe that the voters who believe the spin are more contemptible still.

Characteristically, the only two members of the public depicted in Beaton’s drama about David Blunkett’s unhappy love life, A Very Social Secretary, were described in the cast list as a “Fat Woman” and “Drunk”. The fat woman was a self-pitying scrounger who claimed to be disabled when all she needed to do to restore her health was to stop eating kebabs in bed. The drunk was a racist who admired Blunkett’s hard line on asylum-seekers. The politicians are crooks and the public are bigots. The elite is corrupt and the masses are stupid. Representative democracy fails on all counts because there is no possibility of renewal from below.

In Europe in the early 20th century, such hatred of democracy heralded the age of the dictators. Today it heralds a version of conservatism — not traditional conservatism, which venerates institutions and demands that you respect the office if not the man, but libertarian conservatism. The democratic state is useless, and beyond hope of reform. The only hope is to strip it down, sell it off, and stop rent-seekers pocketing public money. Small wonder then that a Conservative-led coalition should want to honour Iannucci. The best of the joke is that Iannucci still does not understand why.    

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