Charting the Evolution of British Political Satire
By Millie Grainger
Political satire, a time-honoured tradition of humour and critique, has been an indispensable force in British arts and culture. Defined by its ability to employ wit, ridicule, and artistic expression to skewer the powerful and question the status quo, political satire is not only an art form but a vital aspect of social commentary. Through the lens of satire, British society has been able to laugh at, reflect on, and confront the complexities of its ever-changing political landscape. In this exploration of the evolution of visual political commentary, we delve into the rich tapestry of comedic dissent that has not only entertained but also provoked thought and discussion throughout history.
When attempting to grasp the multifaceted history of British political satire, there is no better place to begin than with the work of William Hogarth. Described by iconic illustrator David Low (in a 1943 letter to his predecessor James Gillray) as the ‘grandfather of the modern cartoon,’ Hogarth refined and re-defined the medium of visual political commentary, paving the way for the journalistic tradition of the satirical cartoon that we know today. His perceptively witty etchings express a theatrical vision of eighteenth-century urban life, focusing on political and moral corruption across the streets of London. Gin Lane, 1751, is the first example of artistic satire that I would like to bring to this article. The focal point of the image is a haggard looking woman, whose sullied clothes, tousled hair, and wide, gormless grin evidence her drunken state. From the sluggish grasp of her right arm slips an infant child, captured moments before what the viewer can only presume is a fatal collision with the ground below. Hogarth’s intentions behind the etching are clear; he is representing the moral consequences of alcohol consumption in a darkly comical manner. The hyperbolic chaos of the scene surrounding her—consisting of starving bodies, fighting crowds, suicide, and madness—mock the havoc and disorder that Hogarth felt represented eighteenth-century London.
William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751. Etching and Engraving on Paper.
My reason for choosing Gin Lane as an introduction to British satire is because of its real-world connection to news and politics of the era. The image is inspired by a news story circulating at the time of a woman who murdered her infant daughter, selling the dead child’s clothes to purchase gin. Amidst a specifically gin-based crisis of public alcoholism and criminal activity, Hogarth created the etching to support the Gin Act of 1751, which was consequently passed, arguably by virtue of propagandistic imagery such as this. Here, we see the beginnings of dark humour in cartoon-style artwork to represent current events and influence political judgement. Such concepts are not too dissimilar to the tabloid news and satirical interpretations that we recognise in Britain today.
Moving forward by nearly a century, the mid-1800s saw a huge rise in periodical literature such as the newspaper and magazine, thanks to the lowering of paper taxes and development of printing technology. This was a hugely important moment for the British public, who were now able to easily access current media, informing them on both local and national news and politics. With this came Punch: a weekly magazine consisting of humour and satire established in 1841. Punch was incomparably impactful on the genre of visual political satire, coining the modern understanding of the term ‘cartoon’ to define a humorous illustration. R.J. Hamerton’s Capital and Labour, published in an August 1843 volume of Punch,exemplifies this. It contrasts the lives of the rich (capital) and poor (labour) within Victorian England, commenting on the ways in which the wealthy upper class unjustly benefit from the gruelling labour of the poor. The figures are caricatured to fit their respective setting—the capital above lounge lazily in formal dress as they gorge on food and drink served by butlers, whereas the labourers below appear crippled, starved, and entirely despondent. Hamerton’s sketch is heavily suffused with symbolic imagery, from the woman and cherub, a representation of hope, barricaded from the poor, to the large, grumpy man sitting atop a stack of gold-filled sacks, hoarding the wealth from the labourers surrounding him. Capital and Labour, along with similar sketches published by Punch, demonstrates a new era for the British media. The public were able to receive cheap and readily available media that criticised the government and state of affairs, in a medium that was easily digested by those of a lower class or education. Working class Britain were finally getting representation in a manner that portrayed them as the victims of an exploitative and greedy capital.
R. J. Hammerton, Capital and Labour, 1843. Print.
Advancing further into the evolution of British media, we reach the twentieth century. This era brought with it a wave of technological changes that reshaped the way in which the public consumed information, perhaps the most significant development being the introduction of the household television. It was against this backdrop of rapid media advancement that ITV’s pioneering programme Spitting Image came to UK screens, first airing in February of 1984. The provocative puppet show satirised current British culture, poking fun at government officials, the royal family, and popular celebrities of its time. Broadcasting in the heart of Margret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister, Spitting Image is best recognised for its absurd and unforgiving portrayal of Thatcher and her cabinet. The Iron Lady was depicted as a despotic, abusive, and hysterical tyrant. Her character was addressed as ‘sir’ throughout the show and was even the brunt of a running joke that presented her in close correspondence with an elderly Hitler, disguised as her downing street neighbour Herr Jeremy Von Wilcox. These caricatured puppets took satire to its extreme; building off the hyperbolised cartoons of Hogarth and Punch, Spitting Image utilised the medium of television to mock the British government through an entirely unprecedented approach. The programme’s creators—Peter Fluck, Roger Law and, Martin Lambie-Nairn—each had their respective backgrounds in caricature art, Fluck and Law meeting at Cambridge Art School and working as satirical cartoonists throughout the 50s and 60s. The influence of their satirical predecessors is evident within the show’s edgy-humour, hyperbolised characters, and daring political critique. However, Spitting Image demonstrates an evolution from this past. It reflects the transformative nature of media consumption in the ever-changing technological epoch of the twentieth century, becoming a successful example of adapting art forms in a modernising Britain and the growing accessibility of political content.
Peter Fluck, Roger Law, Spitting Image (Margret Thatcher Puppet), 1984-1996.
The extraordinary popularity of Spitting Image, attracting 15 million viewers during its peak, can also offer us a crucial insight into the mood of Britain at the time. Margret Thatcher was a polarising figure throughout her tenure. Her attacks on Trade Unions, privatisation of public services, and dismantling of the mining industry made her a reviled leader, especially for the working class. Spitting Image capitalised on this antagonism. It was during the mining strikes of 1984-85 (when over 26 million miners protested the conservative government’s colliery closures) that the show debuted, and its ruthless attack on Thatcher’s character would’ve resonated with many viewers watching from home. Here, we see the way in which political satire can be used as a tool to gage prevailing public opinion. This is not unique to Spitting Image: for a satirical cartoon or programme to attract popularity, it must reflect the opinions of the wider public. Thus, political satire can be useful in understanding the public judgement of its government, from eighteenth-century public reform to contemporary political disillusionment.
However, it is also important to acknowledge the drawbacks in using such media as historical documentation. For instance, many of the depictions of Thatcher throughout Spitting Image have been criticised for their gender-based punchlines. As touched on previously, her character was represented as a crossdresser—using urinals, wearing suits, and taking on he/him pronouns. In addition to this, Thatcher and other female figureheads were often stereotyped as overemotional and catty. A modern viewer, such as ourselves, can understand this as a reflection of the times during which a female prime minister was a brand-new development and thus explaining her masculine/hysterical characterisation as a result of being a woman in power. This is not to say that Thatcher’s portrayal was not based in truth, and also I acknowledge that caricatures are meant to be hyperbolised, but it is important to recognise the potential for discriminatory or chauvinistic undertones within political satire.
Throughout our brief journey across centuries of British history, we have witnessed the evolution of the political cartoon. Each example builds upon the last, modernising its medium and becoming more and more accessible to the wider British public. While only providing a glimpse into a long and complex narrative, I hope that my three chosen archetypes of satire convey the historic importance of this art form. From Hogarth’s ability to influence legislative action, to Punch’s astute observation of the class division, and ending with a puppet-based critique of government—we have seen the enduring power of visual political commentary in shaping, reflecting, and entertaining the nation. As technology advances, satire will inevitably grow with it. This is perhaps already in motion with the rise of meme culture, ridiculing the government and political figures on apps like Instagram and TikTok. These emerging media formats propose an even more convenient means of engaging with and creating political satire, bringing with it both hope for the future and potential for trouble.