Satire is a conflicted bod, really. Cynic and optimist, its function is to see, and expect, and exaggerate the worst; but to do so in order to make space for better.
Basic good practice, then, would suggest that the satire of the past – excluding broad themes; we humans are a consistently flawed bunch after all — should not be the satire of the present.
For example: social inequality might still be ripe for the satirical picking, but Jonathan Swift probably wouldn’t get much cop today for drily suggesting that the Irish poor solve their financial woes by selling their children as tasty snacks for the English aristocracy. In 1729, however, his (carefully anonymised) Modest Proposal was satire with teeth. The difference in reception is a mark of social progress – and we Brits do love to be awfully smug about our social progress and the satirical spirit that fuels it.
And yet. Progress isn’t always so linear, is it? And lately, it would seem — acutely reinforced by the return of our best-loved satirical novelist Jonathan Coe — that today the satire of our past seeps, unsettlingly, into the satire of our present.
So it seems a good time to ask: what exactly is the point of British satire today?
In 1994, Coe observed that ‘there comes a point where the willingness to tolerate greed, and to live alongside it, and even to assist it, becomes a sort of madness too’. Then, his words were the satirical blood-letting of Thatcherite Britain — ruled, in Coe's What A Carve Up!, by the terrible Winshaw family, whose unchecked power polluted every facet of British society.
Read in 2015 as the opening inscription of Number 11, his latest damning diagnosis of modern Britain, and the lines cut fresh: still monstrously, ludicrously sharp in their echoes of a post-recession, post-election UK. This time round, it’s our modern elites — now reaping the thoroughly modern rewards of international war mongering, migrant workers and tax havens — who suffer Coe’s wicked scrutiny; and by extension, the public who voted them there.
The timing of its release, as barbed and inescapable as the novel itself, slings one more sly question our way — beyond the cyclical nature of society’s sins —about the very particular role of satire in our national consciousness and the shape — or not — it gives to our political realities.
Because above everything else — royals, tea, class systems, industry, invention, passive-aggression, queuing, Downton, stiff-lips, cross-dressing — Britishness is defined by political satire. It gives voice, observes Simon Schama, to the uniquely British 'democracy of vision’; our deadliest tool against tyranny, greed and stupidity since the 18th Century.
Today, we show our appreciation by building it into the fabric of our nationhood. We make it our national sport. We enshrine it in our establishments: in the savage wit of Rory Bremner and the plummy self-parody of BBC send-up W1A; in the merciless caricatures of The Times’ Peter Brookes, whose barbed pen dispatches the political elite with torturous efficiency.
But all representation, as Schama observes, is ultimately a ‘three-way game’ between the subject, the artist and the public.
And here lies the rub. Because in a time when these same caricatures hang, framed and polished, on the walls of the very politicians they exist to shame (as enjoyable to all,observes Coe, as ‘community hymn singing’); when satire is no longer the beating heart of democracy, but its window dressing - what game are we playing now?
Look closely, and something is distinctly off.
Today’s ubiquitous, merry, mainstream satire — sending up everything from our politics to our class system to our casual prejudices — seems to lack any expectation of real change.
If, as Carve Up! tells us, ‘the secret of winning any war is to demoralize the enemy’, it would seem that our fondness for a good skewering has rendered satire impotent: its representations too commonplace, too well-evidenced, year on year; worming their way from outrage to inevitability to mere parody.
Where productive anger used to live, now we enjoy the perverse comfort of well-worn bit parts; imbibed like a tonic that blurs the sharp edges of knowing and doing, and, in the end, entirely defeats the point (as Coe asks: "what’s the use of satire if it just confirms audiences in their pre-existing beliefs?”).
Look closer still, and we see another perverse truth in the midst of this abundant lampooning: that for anyone other than our national satirical treasures, installed high in their glass towers, freedom of expression is on the run — hunted by a rabidly politicised twitterati who increasingly erode the tenets of the free-speech they claim to defend with their mass shaming of alternative view-points; by the ongoing attacks on our civil liberties — both from those who would destroy them, and us, and those who must protect us in the face of these assaults.
Seen in this light, our newly de-fanged satire becomes simultaneously more harmless and altogether more dangerous: the performance of Democracy we watch while Democracy, the real one, gets gagged.