The derogatory word ‘populist’ is usually applied to the hard-right, far-right or, in southern Europe and South America, to the Chavist far-left. It’s never a term applied to the liberal, metropolitan left, who would scoff at such an appellation. They would consider themselves too sophisticated and independent-minded to be seduced by crass and conformist populist politics. Yet a report in the Daily Telegraph this week hints otherwise. It exposes the reality that the metropolitan left is just as susceptible to rabblerousing groupthink as any flag-waving UKIP supporter or Trumpista.
In it, the comedians Stewart Lee and Marcus Brigstocke disclose how badly their anti-Brexit routines have been received outside London. Brigstocke has seen people storm out in anger every night on his latest tour. ‘People have been angry; people have walked out of shows and people have booed’, he says. ‘It seems that, for the most part, Brexit is not just the hideous social and political turn we have taken as a country, but is also comedic poison.’
Anyone who watches Mock the Week, Have I Got News for You, or listens to The Now Show, will not be remotely surprised to discover this cultural divergence. These have long been forums in which comedians have derided anyone not in possession of boilerplate, bien pensant, liberal-left viewpoints. For years we’ve been subjected to the likes of Brigstocke, Steve Punt, Russell Howard and Chris Addison repeat to death jokes about ‘readers of the Daily Mail’ and UKIP supporters being thick and poor and racist. Again and again they laugh at people on The Jeremy Kyle Show – code for ‘stupid poor people not from London’.
Time after time on Mock the Week and elsewhere, comics have made jokes at the expense of the regions, ridiculing poor people from the north. Frankie Boyle would observe that northerners leave their doors open because they have nothing to steal. David Mitchell would imagine how perfectly ghastly it would be if everyone from Bolton moved to Oxford. And Andy Parsons would quip that there’s a hideous crash at the end of the A19 ‘and it’s called Doncaster’.
Oh such mirth! Today’s comedians, who would never dream of mocking gays, ethnic minorities or immigrants (who are, conversely, spoken of in saintly terms), think that laughing at poor people is not only acceptable but hilarious, rather than being one of the most despicable acts conceivable.
Hating poor people and Brexiteers is acceptable in the eyes of this new metropolitan comedic clerisy because their victims are deemed and damned as backwards and reactionary. They deserve it. This is why the herd that constitutes the audience approve with such gales of laughter and applause. They are there to demonstrate their corresponding moral worth as outward-looking ‘progressives’. Stand-up comedians and their audience work in symbiosis: each reaffirms their own virtue and moral righteous in opposition to redneck morons.
The rabblerousing, the lofty sanctimony, the spectre of the enemy within, the mob being comforted that they are on the side of destiny and righteousness: these are the classic dynamics of populist politics.