For the past 60 years and a dozen prime ministers, Private Eye magazine has been famous for ridiculing politicians and public figures. And yet, as we celebrate our diamond anniversary, it still seems to come as a surprise to some readers to find us ridiculing a politician or public figure they admire. Out comes the traditional subscription cancellation letter. “I have been reading Private Eye for 20/30/40 years…” And you think – how can you have only just noticed?
Many of us seem to have retreated into a childish need to render the world in the simplest terms
We have always aimed to be equal-opportunity offenders. But the last decade in particular has seen not just a polarisation of political views, but a corresponding babyfication. As social media and 24/7 online news bombard us with more information than ever, and the world is revealed to be a more complicated and compromised place than we ever suspected, many of us seem to have retreated into a childish need to render it in the simplest terms possible and divide everyone into goodies and baddies. And, as brilliantly depicted in the classic Mitchell and Webb sketch about the Nazi officers suddenly noticing the death’s heads on their caps, it is rare for anyone to cast themselves as the baddies – whichever side they might be on.
It’s not just the fault of social media. The defiantly old-school Private Eye letters page – in its own way as self-selecting and unrepresentative as any Twitter bubble – started to show this around the time of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, when any ambiguity, difference of opinion or alternative interpretation of statistics was dismissed in favour of blind, partisan denial and accusations of bias. The cover the Eye printed in September that year depicting the future of Scotland as seen by the alternative campaigns – a Caribbean paradise according to Yes; an apocalyptic vision of hell for No – was, like the best satire, the merest exaggeration of what was actually being put forward.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader saw a similar all-or-nothing attitude: to question a single one of his views or his ability to actually implement them rendered you instantly right-wing, whatever your actual affiliation, and the questions themselves “smears”. It never seemed to occur to his most fervent supporters that aggressively inviting anyone with any doubts to “F- off and vote Tory” might not be the vote-winning tactic they thought. At least up until the night of the general election in December 2019.
The Brexit referendum two years later magnified all this a thousandfold. Whatever your views on leaving the EU, it is the most significant event in the country’s politics in decades, and you don’t need to be a sausage importer in Northern Ireland to be able to tell its ramifications will be felt for years to come. Huge swathes of the UK’s future, from our immigration policy to the future of agriculture and even the survival of a United Kingdom, are yet to be settled, but any discussion of what is actually happening as a result of Boris Johnson’s bungled negotiations – the ones his own Brexit negotiator now declares were not fit for purpose – results in complaints that we are “still whingeing about Brexit”. Once again, it would be quite weird for a magazine that is largely devoted to politics to, er, ignore pretty much everything that’s currently going on in politics. After all, there’s only so many jokes you can wring out of a global pandemic.
But six decades also gives you the perspective to realise this isn’t entirely new. When Harold Wilson was elected as Labour prime minister in 1964, replacing the clapped-out, hidebound administrations headed by 19th century relics Harold Macmillan and the 14th Earl of Home, the three-year-old Private Eye’s circulation dropped off a cliff. The groovy 1960s readers who had been so delighted by the “satire boom” were shocked to discover it was applicable to the side they had voted for too. This will seem utterly unbelievable to younger readers, but there was once a moment when Tony Blair was incredibly popular, and no one wanted to read anything nasty about him, and Private Eye suffered correspondingly low sales figures then too. Don’t worry – it was in 1997 and it didn’t last long. People quite swiftly caught up with our position that he too, like absolutely everyone else, had feet of clay.
The moment I realised Blair had lost touch entirely with reality was when he declared, apropos of those non-existent WMDs over which he took us to war with Iraq, that “I only know what I believe”. Too many people of late have adopted that same messianic fervour, that need to “believe” the people and causes they favour, rather than to question, to maintain a healthy scepticism, and perhaps most importantly to laugh at them. Ridicule is one of the most important aspects of our democracy. It helps keep in check the blind anger that does no good to anyone.
Adam Macqueen is the editor of Private Eye: The 60 Yearbook, celebrating 60 years of Britain’s most successful satirical magazine. He has been a journalist on Private Eye since 1997