Me and my vote: Martin Rowson

The Guardian cartoonist on Tony Blair: 'I think he is sincere, and that's just another thing that makes him so ghastly.'

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘Blair’s always reminded me of one of those ghastly public school Christian prefects who barges into the common room going, “Hi guys! Let’s not all be apathetic now, let’s all join in…”. And everyone else is slouching around, having a fag and a pretty good time, thinking, “Oh fuck off and leave us alone”.’

Martin Rowson likes his job. As cartoonist for the Guardian, Time Out, and, in fact, the whole of London (he was appointed ‘cartoonist laureate’ by mayor Ken Livingstone in March 2001), Rowson gets to ‘draw politicians in a disgraceful and appalling light’ for a living. ‘I do enjoy it’, he says. ‘We cartoonists can get away with much more than print journalists.’

So how will the cartoonist whose balding, toothy Blair is known to millions across the UK vote on 7 June? ‘I might vote Joan Ruddock [New Labour candidate for Lewisham in London], but I might not’, says Rowson. ‘I have the feeling that it’s the kind of thing I’m probably going to decide in the polling booth, in the hope that there will be some last-minute inspiration.’

The problem for Rowson is that he likes his local candidate, but not the party that she represents. ‘I think Joan Ruddock is a good thing, but I think Tony Blair is a bad thing.

‘He’s a bad thing in as much as this election is so dull – because apart from the fripperies, New Labour and the Tories are both Galdstonian free-market parties, and I don’t like Galdstonian free-market parties. What I consider to be important political issues – globalisation and how to deal with a rogue United States – are not even being addressed. New Labour will just stick their tongue up Bush’s arse and tug their forelocks when the corporations come around.’

As for whether Blair is sincere about New Labour’s new politics or is just adding a touch of gloss to Old Labour, Rowson has no doubts: ‘I think he is sincere, and that’s just another thing that makes him so ghastly. The only time I met Blair was at the Labour Party conference in 1996, and he had this look of somebody whose entire head had been encased in concrete forever – he actually had a look of slight terror, as if, Oh my God, what have I done? I’ve sold my soul to become prime minister. Shit.’

After that encounter, it didn’t take Rowson long to work out ‘Blair the cartoon’: ‘I realised it was the eyes, the ears and the teeth – but mostly the teeth. So I used the teeth as a visual metaphor. When things are going well the teeth are gleaming, when things are going badly they start to rot and fall out – or they can even turn into missiles, particularly during wars.’

So what can we expect from Blair’s teeth in the run-up to 7 June? ‘I dare say there’ll be some rotting along the way’, says Rowson, ‘but they will be gleaming by the end. Let’s face it, New Labour are going to win. The election is just like marking time in a way, waiting for the inevitable.’

But if the election is so dull, so inevitable, doesn’t that leave cartoonists with a problem? Isn’t there a danger that they will run out of things to ‘cartoonise’ when the politics of Whitehall and Westminster has become so empty? Rowson doesn’t think so: ‘The naffness of it all becomes part of the joke. Even when something’s boring, you can turn the fact that it’s boring into a joke. I think it’s very healthy that people have contempt for their politicians. It’s like a pact – we elect you, and in return we have the right to laugh at you. And cartoonists facilitate that.’

But Rowson is not one of those who bangs on about the ‘power of the cartoon’ and its potential impact on political life. ‘The fact that I do horrible drawings of politicians doesn’t disempower them in any way at all – and what I can do is nothing compared to what they can do, because they have power over my destiny.’ And he is well aware that some politicians are more than happy when their ugly mugs make it into cartoon legend:

‘I’ve even had politicians phoning up and begging me to put them in a cartoon. It’s the fact that they get noticed. There is nothing worse than a politician who never appears in a cartoon. Take Alan Milburn [New Labour health secretary] – I have never drawn him, mostly because I don’t know what he looks like, but also because I doubt very much whether my readers know what he looks like, and who knows if he knows what he looks like. So he hasn’t made a large enough impression as a politician to make it into a cartoon, and he can’t be happy about that. So politicians like it – but they also hate it. The one occasion I ever talked to Gordon Brown [New Labour chancellor], I was saying something about his economic policy and he just said, “Why do you always draw me so fat?”.’

According to Rowson, cartoonists can ‘say’ through their drawings much more than print journalists can say in writing. And he reckons this could be one reason why he and fellow cartoonist Steve Bell, not known for their love of New Labour, have managed to survive at the New Labour-friendly Guardian.

‘Steve and I are both far left to the editorial stance of the Guardian, as indeed are most Guardian readers’, says Rowson. ‘But it doesn’t cause any problems, in as much as we’re never told by editorial what to do. Whether that’s down to editorial incompetence I don’t know – sometimes, it’s a wonder to me that the Guardian manages to come out every day…. The strange thing about the Guardian is that it’s a curious broad church – I know they’ve just got rid of Jeremy Hardy who was representing the Socialist Alliance, but they would probably argue that he was employed in the first place to be funny and he wasn’t using his column to write jokes – so they got the bloody awful John O’Farrell instead. But maybe Steve and I get away with more at the Guardian because we draw it, rather than say it.’

So what does he hope to ‘get away’ with during the election? ‘Well, just more of the appalling and disgraceful things that I use my cartoons to say about politicians. As for how the election’s progressing, you’ll have to watch out for Blair’s teeth.’

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

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