© Rupert Besley

Rupert Besley writes:

Occasionally, maybe once a century, I have a twinge of sympathy for politicians for the care they must take in the choice of every word they use.

Cartoonists have it easier perhaps, as they are allowed to joke, scaremonger, exaggerate and tease. It’s what is expected of them and is their job. But, along the way, they can also make important points. Some of the most serious opposition to the manoeuvres of politicians in recent years has come from the pens of cartoonists.

Politicians, however, (with one notable exception, made prominent for entertainment value alone) are there to be taken seriously. All that they say can be taken down and used against them, each word scrutinised for self-contradiction or deviation from the party line. Like Gerald Ratner, those that dare to joke can pay for that a heavy price.

© Rupert Besley

When, in 2010, outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne left his successor in the next government a note saying, ‘I’m afraid there is no money’, it was meant as a light-hearted touch in an old tradition. In 1964 Reggie Maudling told Jim Callaghan, ‘Sorry to leave it in such a mess, old cock.’ Byrne, who had halved the country’s deficit in just four years, was blamed for everything. His joke misfired and was one he regretted ever after.

When, around 1790, Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament declared, ‘I smell a rat; I see him floating in the air… I will nip him in the bud,’ most people appreciated the mix of metaphors and enjoyed the joke. When Owen Paterson said badgers had moved the goalposts, people took him literally and thought him a fool. I’m no Tory or fan of badger extermination, but I thought him hard done by for the scorn heaped on him.

© Rupert Besley

When John Piper chose to highlight Windsor Castle in his painting by the addition of a lowering, dark sky, George VI famously remarked to the artist that it was a shame he had not had better weather. The comment is used as evidence of House of Windsor philistinism. Maybe justified, but I like to allow for the possibility that the words were tongue-in-cheek.

I don’t care for emojis, but they do have a use in the absence of other signals of humour at work. Happily, cartoons make clear their purpose from first glance, and especially so when they come in a neat little box. It was Piper’s sidekick Osbert Lancaster (the two connected on stage design and worked together on the Festival of Britain) who in 1938 introduced to the UK from France the format of the pocket cartoon. He went on to produce 10,000 more over the next 40-odd years.

© Rupert Besley

An Osbert Lancaster original, encased in plastic is the trophy to be awarded next month to the Pocket Cartoonist of the Year at the annual Political Cartoon of the Year Awards. That, along with Pocket Cartoon of the Year, is a new category added to this year’s event in its 18th year. Voting for that is a nice chance to show support for and appreciation of an art-form that brings regular delight.

PS: For illustrations here, I had meant to use some Osbert Lancaster classics, but ran out of time for checking any permissions necessary. Or I could have begged current gems of pocket cartoons from colleagues, but didn’t want to pre-judge nominations and voting soon to come. So, I’ve gone instead with my own stuff (as nothing from me is going to be entered for any award).

Rupert Besley

© Rupert Besley

  • Latest Posts

  • Categories

  • Archives