In this year’s general election here in the UK many eyes will be on the fortunes of the United Kingdom Independence Party. With their Little England mentality and some unsavoury populist rhetoric on subjects like immigration playing depressingly well with a certain demographic, Ukip have shaken up the political scene in the provinces – and hope to extend that to Westminster, too, in May.
Ukip boast a number of darkly comical candidates and the occasionally sinister clown-in-chief who leads the party is the ale-swigging, so-called voice of the common man, Nigel Farage. The party’s success is attributed in part to its role as political spoiler, as an antidote to the established parties; in short a protest vote. But when it comes to protestations there are other comics getting involved. And I mean real ones, rather than inadvertent comedians like Farage & Co.
Among the ranks of the funny men sticking their oar in is sub-prime revolutionary and novice political theorist Russell Brand. The limitations of his writing and his bizarre model mean most politicians are not unduly troubled; but it’s indicative of the left’s current lack of teeth that Brand gets so much press.
More interesting, however, is the intervention of the comic Al Murray, better known here through his Pub Landlord character, in the race for the very seat that Farage is bidding to win for Ukip. The Pub Landlord’s persona has attracted plenty of criticism in its long life on the comedy circuit; that Murray plays to a lowest common denominator and encourages people to laugh at xenophobia or racism rather than their proponents. Nevertheless, the prospect now presents itself of Farage, the ringmaster of Britain’s new right populism, being kept in check – or even tripped up - by a parody.
The Pub Landlord might have stumbled on a recipe for dealing with Ukip that has seemed elusive to the British political mainstream: to out-Ukip Ukip with satire. Murray’s manifesto (pints of beer for one pence, bricking up the Channel Tunnel, the pound revalued at £1.10) certainly delivers a healthy satirical blow.
But perhaps there is a cautionary note to strike here; it’s not too long since another actual comedian, Beppe Grillo, founded a political movement in Italy that became the largest single party in the chamber of deputies. There are many who feel that Grillo has unsuccessfully walked the line between political activism and satire – and suggested that in fact these two disciplines are incompatible.
It would be ironic if Ukip’s quest to secure the protest vote and deliver more MPs to Westminster were to be undermined by a parody, if Farage’s pint-of-ale-and-a-cigarette camaraderie were thwarted by votes lost to a comic advocate of the very same.
What it says about the current state of British politics though is altogether more troubling. In this particular comedy of errors maybe the last laugh belongs to those who say the system is irretrievably broken down. And there’s really nothing funny about that.
Tom Edwards is Monocle’s executive radio producer.