Why politics needs comedy in a time of crisis

When the Covid crisis escalated in the UK and it became clear that we needed to lockdown and fast, we all turned to the government and, in particular, Boris Johnson for direction. We were prepared to put aside months and years of Brexit-fuelled political turmoil, if he could provide leadership, instruction and reassurance at a frankly scary time.

A few months down the line, things look different. We’ve arrived, via some of the highest death rates in the world, confusing and contradictory messaging, and a host of U-turns (not to mention that little bank-holiday busting Cummings-special) at a point where public trust in the government has steadily eroded and Labour under Kier Starmer have come within touching distance of leading the polls, just months after a government landslide.

We’ve gone through three months of hard times, and goodness knows what is yet to come. But people are inherently resourceful and there are small rays of sunshine that have helped us through the relentless bad news. Two TikTok stars have come to the fore during the darkest days of lockdown. The States have Sarah Cooper, lip-syncing perfectly to Donald Trump, somehow managing to capture his absurdities in the dart of her eyes and making us chuckle at his most alarming pronouncements. On this side of the Atlantic, there’s Meggie Foster with her on-the-nose, sideways re-enactments of the latest political contretemps (see here for her portrayal of Rosina Allen-Khan and Matt Hancock at couples counselling). This hilarious satirist, who made appearances this week in Vogue and on Lorraine, has risen from obscurity in a matter of months. Her ability to appeal to everyone from the casual news consumer to the obsessive political geek has made her the breakout star of this political lockdown.

There is something about political satire that helps us endure times when we feel helpless and frustrated by the apparent irrationality of the people whom we have to trust to lead us. We’ve just had an election and it’s unlikely that the current administration is going anywhere soon. But being able to laugh at them gives us a feeling of control, it helps us navigate our feelings of anger and doubt, and it allows us to bond (virtually of course) with others who feel the same.

Political satire grew big in the 18th Century, as the nascent middle class became increasingly politically engaged. People became more aware of inequalities between the rich and the poor, were frustrated by the outrageous extravagances of the Prince Regent, and the weakness of the nation in losing the American war of independence. (The military were too interested in getting their uniforms looking good to go out and fight – and Instagram didn’t even exist at that point).

It was in this context that political cartoons lampooning politicians and royalty were pioneered by William Hogarth and taken to unrivalled levels of both the sublime and the ridiculous by James Gillray. These cheaply produced prints surged in popularity and were knocked out in their thousands from a little shop in St James’ to reflect the latest goings on in Parliament, world events and the internal power struggles of the Georgian royal household. These cartoons were entertainment, but they also played a vital role in political education and helped that new political class come together. This ultimately led to the evolution of British politics into the locally-resourced party system we know today.

We have seen a similar political evolution taking place in the last ten years, with the rise of online campaigning. Lockdown has only served to make this virtual world more pronounced. It is fitting that Cooper and Foster, as today’s Gillray and Hogarth, come to us in TikTok form. They may use a 21st Century platform but they are similarly hilarious, instantly digestible and incisive in the commentary they make. Like the original political satirists, they have a universal appeal that unites people in relief and a renewed vigour to change politics for a better place.

The Whitehouse Consultancy is an award-winning issues-led communications agency with decades of experience in public affairs, press and media relations, stakeholder engagement, crisis communications and training. The Whitehouse team are experts in the impact of global crises, providing crisis communications, risk management and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients in the United Kingdom and across the member states of the European Union. Please click here to view our crisis communications service in more detail.