Politics kicks farce
YOU need, at a certain age, to exercise your mind. Some people play bridge, others learn a language and then there are those of us who are addicted to cryptic crosswords. To be a successful cryptic crossworder, you need to get into the mind of the compiler, men, as a rule of thumb, who use only their initials or an alias because they are well aware they could come to a sticky end at the hands of a frustrated solver.
I listen to Radio National as a matter of habit because this station does its bit for my brain, especially in the mornings, although I’ve probably forgotten most of it by the time I get to the train station. Recently I was tuned in and someone was interviewing a cryptic compiler. I felt a flush of murderous rage because it was DA, the master torturer of crosswords, whose mind remains untapped, although cartoonist Bill Leak and one or two other geniuses seem to have edged their way in. Bleak, as we fondly call him, didn’t get away without paying; he broke a toe running to find a thesaurus to look up a word. As far as I’m concerned DA may as well be speaking double Dutch.
Talking of foreign languages, I used to be pretty good at Latin. In fact I did honours in Latin at school, so it was with a great shout of joy that I received a book in the mail called Homework for Grown-ups: Everything You Learned at School and Promptly Forgot . There are 10 chapters, each covering a school subject: English, maths, home economics, history, science, religious education, geography, classics, physical education and art.
Authors E. Foley and B. Coates are in danger of taking over from DA in terms of showing up how little grey matter you have left. In fact, it was an eye-opener. I am an airhead or, as they would say in Latin, a caput vacans . I am a self-confessed Luddite, but I’d forgotten that the Luddites were a group of craftsmen who, between 1811 and 1816, carried out night raids to destroy the textile machinery they believed was robbing them of their livelihoods. They have my unending sympathy: to my utter chagrin I was told the other day that my two-year-old grandson can do his own DVD-ing. Admittedly, he put the discs in the toaster a few times before he got the hang of it.
Did you remember that in the patron saint department, St Nicholas of Myra was the one to pray to if you were a brewer, murderer, pawnbroker or shoeshiner? You’ve probably forgotten how to climb a rope at the gym, what comprises the geological timescale, how many sides an icosagon has and the way to play grandmother’s footsteps.
And while you’re at it, writing to Santa that is, you could impress him by mentioning his reindeer by their Latin names: Fulgens, Cometes, Cupido, Saltator, Provolans, Tonitrus, Exsultans, Vulpes et Rudolphus Naso Rubro. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.
fraserj@ theaustralian. com. au
SURVEYS of public trust put journalists between car salesmen and war criminals, but there is one group that rates even lower on the respect scale: political advisers. The premise of The Hollowmen, screened on the ABC earlier this year and available on DVD, is that people in political offices have attention spans as limited as their ambition is boundless, and their idea of the long term is the next news cycle. And the ABC has just run the first series of The Thick of It, a show set in a British minister’s office, in which the jokes are fewer but the cynicism is thicker.
The hard-edged humour of both series makes them much tougher than the show that spawned the genre a generation ago, Yes, Minister . Revisit this series when it next turns up on the cultural archeology dig that is pay television. Its spectacular cynicism clearly established the conventions of the way the political process is presented in popular culture.
The executive summary of the series was that nobody was in charge and the best we could hope for was that government would muddle through despite, rather than because of, the people supposed to be running the show.
And that success in politics consisted staying out of strife.
Even pinstriped powerbroker Sir Humphrey Appleby was much more interested in hanging on to what he had than expanding his empire, let alone improving anything. It was a series that suited a Britain in decline. But it established themes that continued into a world of activist governments where we assume the state can and should change things, and that the only thing that stops reform is the tyranny of the timid.
Certainly some things have changed from the days when Sir Humphrey spent all his time conspiring to stop his minister doing anything. The bureaucrats in The Hollowmen are dull but decent, actually believing that policy matters. In contrast, just about the only ethical character in The Thick of It is the civil servant seconded to the minister’s office, whose commitment to process infuriates the political staff.
Now the Metternichs are the ministerial minders, a class of people that did not appear to exist when Jim Hacker ran his portfolio with the help of a couple of civil servants. ( The minister’s electoral adviser, Frank Weisel, was seen off by Sir Humphrey in an early episode.)
This change says a great deal about the way politics has altered since the early 1980s. In the years when ministers drove economic reform, the idea took hold among advocates of a bigspending state that it was only the apolitical public service that defended process and dispassionate policy against ministers in thrall to the market and their staff who believed in nothing other than their own ambition.
And so the original idea of Yes, Minister , that politics is a struggle between politicians and bureaucrats, has been superseded by programs that poke fun at political professionals who do the partisan tasks the officials will not.
There is no denying that The Hollowmen is amusing; in fact it is very funny. The episodes involving Mawson’s Hut and welfare crackdown are clever caricatures of the sorts of stunts that are now standard operating procedure in public life. And The Thick of It is cringe-makingly cruel in the way it captures the character of political types, from the prime ministerial enforcer who has never seen a face he does not want to kick to the idiot adviser who thinks he gets politics but is completely clueless. In the first episode, the way the minister and his advisers convince themselves they have spun their way out of a humiliating backdown would be sad if the characters were not so appalling.
Both programs are so well done it is easy to watch them as dramatised documentaries: it’s easy to forget their casts of dills and desperadoes, patronage appointments and party players are caricatures of the people who work in the political process.
As such they undoubtedly upset all manner of minders. This doesn’t matter all that much; politics is a robust trade, even for people who operate under the radar. But both shows do democracy a small disservice in the way they reduce the political process to a farce acted by ambitious incompetents. In reality the issues the hollow men blunder through are incredibly complex, and the pace and problems the people in The Thick of It deal with will always overwhelm anybody who does not understand how the policy process, public opinion and the press all operate.
The Americans appear to understand this better than we do. Certainly they have made their share of political comedies that present most of the participants as hopeless, notably Spin City and the not especially memorable demolition job on the Voldemort of Pennsylvania Avenue, That’s My Bush! But for a beacon bathing the craft of the ministerial minder in the most golden of lights it is impossible to go past The West Wing . Granted, it was not a comedy but, like The Thick of It, this series tried to communicate the endlessly exhausting chaos of a political office.
Nor did The West Wing idealise where the other shows demonise. In reality the core characters would not have got on as well for so long as they did in The West Wing , but the credibility of the series is confirmed by last month’s election. In the series, Hispanic congressman Matt Santos emerges from obscurity to become president, rather like Barack Obama. And Santos’s chief of staff Josh Lyman was based in part on Bill Clinton staff member and incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
There is a lesson in The West Wing missed by other shows that assume politics is a cruel farce and look for laughs on that basis. Democracy is about deals and compromises, about inevitably imperfect plans that, in solving some problems, create new ones. The art of governing is a continuous process, not dealing with discrete issues that exist in isolation.
And staff who behave like the hollow men one day will perform like the brilliant idealists of The West Wing the next.
The danger in The Hollowmen and The Thick of It is that people mistake them for portrayals of the real thing. Obviously all aspects of politics are fair game, but thinking that presenting the incompetence of the political class is all it takes to satirise government is like assuming that anybody who watches TV can write a hit series. Politics, like comedy, is harder than it looks.
review@ theaustralian. com. au