Right on satire

Laughing while the bendy buses burn.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Right on satire

It is often said that while the Left has all the best songs, the Right has the best jokes. Indeed, the best satire is often right wing or just plain reactionary. Consider in recent times Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Ali-G, the character who mercilessly taunted Tony Benn (‘Unemployment benefit is wicked no, coz you get money for doing nothing’); or the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Simple, who for 50 years has been mocking feminists, trendy vicars, sociologists, modern architects and multiculturalists; or go further back to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and its contempt of the efforts by the scientists of Laputa to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, reduce human excrement to its original food and change ice into gunpowder.

One theory for this is that while satire is essentially sneering and dismissive, those of a left wing or ‘progressive’ slant are optimistic and utopian-minded. Satirists are natural conservatives who take a dim view of human nature and progress, and aim their vitriol at those who have a more benign view of humanity.

Of course, left-wing satire is not unknown. Think of That Was the Week That Was, and in recent times the work of Armando Iannucci and Rory Bremner. The problem is that the liberal-left has a tendency to be suffocatingly earnest, which leaves little room for piss-taking. Take Bremner, who has grown quite tiresome of late. His show’s political agenda is becoming more pronounced, and in harking on and on about the Iraq war he has become as preachy as Michael Moore or Mark Thomas – and consequently approaching their levels of unfunniness.

The finest satire in my opinion is Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which is being re-released in the cinema this summer in the USA to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. The film is largely remembered for taking a blasphemous swipe at organised religion, and for mocking mankind’s credulous and superstitious impulses. Ostensibly, the film is progressive, or at least aggressively secularist, but for my money it’s a decidedly reactionary flick and an apologetic imperialism.

It is customary for films about Christ to portray the Romans as cowardly and supercilious empire-builders who have scant regard for the good people of Judea. Nasty Englishmen in togas, basically. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (surprise, surprise) pays homage to this tradition, but the Life of Brian decidedly subverts it.

Here the oppressed Judeans are the dimwits. Their revolutionaries are portrayed as hot-headed nincompoops who are all-too-prone to pointless internecine warfare – between the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front of Judea – while at the same time failing to appreciate the benefits of Roman governance. As John Cleese’s revolutionary character Reg, pathetically asks his comrades: ‘apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’ ‘Brought peace?’ replies a fellow revolutionary.

In our present times, with the Middle East threatening to descend into a new wave of violence, perhaps the Life of Brian will not be so easy to watch. But like all good satire, it does raise some interesting questions.

  • Burning buses

The ‘modernisation’ programme of London’s buses grows more farcical by the week. Having gradually whittled down the number of the ‘ageing’ (but faster) Routemaster buses on our streets, all in the name of social exclusion and risk aversion, Transport for London admitted this week that since being introduced in December, four out of 130 articulated ‘bendy buses’ have inexplicably burst into flames.

One can’t help thinking that this is a case of divine punishment. Of the four fires, three were on the same 436 route from Lewisham to Paddington. There are clearly larger forces at work. And truly righteous, this force is, making known its displeasure towards these overpriced, modern-day dinosaurs (they cost £200,000 each).

Routemasters are being consigned to the scrapheap because Ken Livingstone has deemed them inaccessible to disabled people and unsafe – three people a year apparently kill themselves falling off their open platforms. One might as well argue that because 3000 people a year are killed by vehicles on our roads, we should therefore ban motor cars. Over the same 12-month period in the UK, a thousand people will end up in accident and emergency as a result of trying to put their trousers on. Yes, let’s abolish trousers too.

If people can’t get on and off buses without cracking their skulls open, that is their problem. They should either take their chances or take some responsibility; jump if you feel lucky or wait for the bus to come to a halt before boarding or alighting.
It is also ironic that these replacements for Routemasters are proving no safer. Yes, it is possible to fall off a Routemaster, but at least you don’t run the risk of being roasted alive in one.

  • You don’t need faith to fight

The killings in Madrid and the assassination of Ahmed Yassin have reinforced the notion that religion is a bad thing per se – ie, it causes wars. Yet man has been inspired to go to war for many reasons, not only for tribal, national or secularist ideology, but over trade (see the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century), natural resources (see Angola, Sudan, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, this century alone) or family (see the Spanish and Austrian Wars of Succession).

To deride religion because ‘it causes wars’ – as the militant Dawkinistas have been doing in the letters pages of our newspapers recently – is like saying that commerce or oil or families or a belief in the nation state are inherently ‘bad’ because they have caused people to kill.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today