Drawn and quartered, Britain’s political cartoonists
‘You are fake nooze!’ says the new President of the United States, extending an unusually small finger in the direction of a senior reporter from an established news organisation. Meanwhile, in Britain, Brexit negotiations and a snap election are combining to create a perfect storm of complexity, uncertainty and speculation.
Yes, these are strange times for most traditional media outlets. But one old-fashioned craft has been quietly flourishing. ‘It’s always a good time to be a cartoonist,’ says Gerald Scarfe, whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times, Private Eye and The New Yorker. His career has spanned Winston Churchill’s last day in Parliament and Donald Trump’s first weeks in office, with collaborations with Pink Floyd and work for Disney along the way. ‘Foolish politicians are always making stupid decisions and giving us good material. But it is particularly rich at the moment with Trump, May and the whole lot of them.’
Peter Brookes, a 25-year veteran of The Times, agrees. ‘After the Scottish independence referendum, the general election and the EU referendum, you thought things couldn’t get any more interesting or exciting. Then, of course, you got Trump and everything that followed. And it’s still going on.’
It was Brookes’ cartoon depicting Michael Gove’s betrayal of Boris Johnson that won him Political Cartoon of the Year. ‘That was one of those mornings when you couldn’t make it up,’ he says. ‘It was symbolic of the madness of that particular period.’
The thing about Brexit, says Matt Pritchett of The Daily Telegraph (better known simply as ‘Matt’), is that ‘it’s going to affect us all, but we’re not sure how. That’s the perfect starting point for a joke, really’.
However, the other big topic of the day doesn’t always lend itself to comedy. ‘Trump hasn’t been a fantastic source of jokes for me,’ says Matt, although he notes that some of Paul Noth’s cartoons in The New Yorker have skewered the 45th president nicely. ‘People have been so angry about it, which makes it very difficult to have a light touch. What I long for is a good health scare, like the horse meat scandal – something new to get your teeth into, so to speak.’
‘I do like drawing him,’ says Brookes of Trump. ‘But the difficulty is that it becomes impossible to do a joke about a joke.’
‘The rules of common decency, and of politics, don’t appear to apply to him,’ says The New Yorker contributor Barry Blitt. ‘Someone once compared arguing with Sarah Palin to playing chess with a pigeon; you can’t win. It reminds me of that. Cartoonists have the same problem as the written press with regards to Trump. You can pin him down all you want, but it doesn’t matter. Not to his followers, anyway.’
But others do believe in the power of satirical cartoons. Peter Brookes thinks of them as ‘the permanent opposition’, while Gerald Scarfe says they are still capable of damaging those who deserve it. ‘They can sum things up very succinctly if they’re done well. They can leave images in the mind that can be quite destructive to those who need to be destroyed.’
But what about the way cartoons publicly savage some politicians? They’re human beings, after all. ‘Most of them are people in power and it’s the misuse of their power I object to,’ says Scarfe. ‘I would argue that they are pretty thick-skinned and used to the game. And it is a kind of a game. The other side of that coin is that politicians actually gain from cartoons.’
Famously, it has become de rigueur for politicians to subtly show off cartoons of themselves – often by hanging them in the downstairs loo in one of their homes. Former cabinet minister Norman Tebbit has admitted as much, while Jeffrey Archer claims he ‘adored’ the cartoonish Spitting Image puppet of himself and would like to buy it. Michael Gove’s household is said to have made enquiries about buying a Peter Brookes original of himself, but his wife, Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, told me that she’d prefer not to comment.
‘You should always flatter cartoonists,’ advises Tim Benson, owner of The Political Cartoon Gallery and Café in Putney. ‘They get disappointed.’ But recent residents of Number 10 haven’t been able to help themselves. ‘John Major didn’t appreciate it and Blair was incredibly vain. Gordon Brown complained about being drawn too fat and David Cameron made remarks to Steve Bell [of The Guardian] about being drawn with a condom on his head. That’s the jackpot, I would have thought – getting under someone’s skin.’
Benson and I speak at the launch of an exhibition of cartoons about Theresa May, Margaret Thatcher and other female politicians. Within a few feet of a couple of unflattering pieces that show her reluctantly fighting for the Prime Minister’s grammar school policy, I ask the Education Secretary, Justine Greening, whether she’d consider hanging either of them in her own home. ‘I don’t even have a downstairs loo,’ she says, laughing. ‘But we live in very healthy democracy and I think this is an important part of it. Generally, a dose of humour and irreverence in politics is no bad thing at all.’
The minister is wise not to complain, according to Benson. ‘Winston Churchill used to say that politicians shouldn’t worry about appearing in cartoons. It means you’ve arrived, you’re of some importance. When you stop appearing in them, you’re not.’
But Benson takes issue with the idea that satirical cartoons are in rude health. ‘Politically, it’s a great time, but it’s a dying industry.’ There’s a marked contrast, he says, between now, when many established newspapers are struggling to turn a profit, and 70 years ago, when Daily Express cartoonist Sidney Strube had an audience of three million a day, and a waxwork of him (and two other cartoonists) stood in Madame Tussauds.
For the lucky few, there is still money to be made. In April, a Sotheby’s sale of Gerald Scarfe originals raised £450,000, but Benson says he knows of one cartoonist who is on benefits. ‘Newspapers will all end up online,’ he adds. ‘That’s the way it’s going and then there won’t be the revenues to pay the best artists, so they will go elsewhere.’
It’s also difficult for new blood to come through. ‘It’s easier to get a job in the cabinet than it is to earn a living from political cartooning,’ says Benson. ‘You have to be at a genius level – and to be lucky. It’s a ridiculous profession to even try to get into. There’s very little new talent.’
But there is some. Ben Jennings made his breakthrough at The Guardian during one of Steve Bell’s summer holidays while Jennings was still a student. Now 26, he contributes to various newspapers and magazines. ‘It’s always been a niche career,’ he says, acknowledging tightening budgets at newspapers. ‘But I think new avenues will crop up as it transitions online. The initial gag or comment also comes from [memes and gifs], but cartoons have a particular aesthetic. That’s what drew me to it in the first place. People will still want that.’
‘I hope to God there always will be caricaturists and cartoonists,’ says Gerald Scarfe, who is still prolific, albeit at the opposite end of his career. ‘They are a healthy part of society. They’re there, like a court jester, to say to the king or the Prime Minister, “You may be wrong, you idiot.”’
Right now, we need that more than ever.