No hopes for them as laughs:
Boris, Byron and the 2019 election.
The British are inclined to feel rather proud of their sense of humour, especially when they compare themselves with those continentals whom they are likely to be seeing much less of in the near future. There was a striking manifestation of how it operates in the House of Commons towards the very end of 2016. This was at the start of that frequently tedious ritual known as Prime Minister’s Question Time which often begins with a member from the government benches saying something like, `Does the Prime Minister not think that the latest unemployment figures illustrate how right the government has been to stick to its economic guide lines?’ But on this occasion the first question came from the Opposition and followed reports in the newspapers of some indiscreet remarks the newly appointed foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had been making about other countries and their leaders. In the light of the foreign secretary’s recent display of chronic foot in mouth disease, the questioner began, `does the Prime Minister now feel that, when deciding on recent cabinet positions, the FO she pencilled against his name should have been an instruction and not a job offer?’. After a short, stunned silence, the Chamber exploded into laughter. What it was being suggested the new foreign secretary should do is of course no more than vulgar abuse and not in itself funny; but the context, the neatness of the phrasing and above all the unexpectedness (that surprise element so important in many jokes) made it so. Seemingly disconcerted, Mrs. May, who was Prime Minister at the time, could only manage a wintry smile although that was perhaps more than the only other woman ever to have held her post would have accorded such unseemly behaviour. It was a moment when a continental observer might well have felt that the British were living up to that reputation as humourists which they like to give themselves.
With instant world-wide communications, and the disposition of current world leaders to conduct their own diplomacy, the British Foreign Office seems to have become, in recent times, a convenient siding into which dangerous rivals can be shunted. But with his reputation for gaffes, Johnson was nonetheless a strange choice for foreign secretary and his career as such was short. Before long however, Mrs May had been forced to resign and he was competing for the leadership of his party against a man who, despite years of presiding over a National Health Service driven into decline by insufficient funding, gave every impression in his dress, manner and measured language of being the archetypal `safe pair of hands’. It was never much of a contest and, as Johnson swept to victory, voluble, amusing and unkempt, one of his boasts was that he would be the man to wipe the floor with Jeremy Corbyn. Not all the promises he made during his leadership campaign were kept, and not all his predictions came true, but his last one did. When the general election came along his victory over Corbyn was more comprehensive than most of the commentators ever expected, and the defeat of the Labour Party correspondingly more catastrophic.
Now the inquest into the Labour defeat is underway, the main reason most frequently cited is of course Brexit. Yet time after time Labour candidates have testified that, `on the doorstep’ (in their favourite phrase), the chief problem was not so much the relationship with Europe as the personality of their leader. It appeared that, when push came to shove, people who had voted Labour all their lives much preferred Boris Johnson to Corbyn. This may have been because they felt the promises Labour was making were unrealistic and unlikely to be fulfilled; or that they were Jewish; or that they believed the country would not be safe from foreign aggression in his hands. Yet it nevertheless seems strange that so many of them could prefer to Corbyn a man whose personal ambition was there for all to see, who was even willing to suspend Parliament in order to get his own way, and whose inclination to tell lies had been publicly exposed on several occasions. Someone who had often been shown to be lazy and incompetent, so much so that one of the cartoonists’ favourite depiction of him was as a circus clown.
Labour’s shattering election defeat was clearly what is somewhat pompously called `over-determined’; but if the voters liked Johnson much more than they did Corbyn, it is probably because he often was, is and can be funny. Should a comedy-club find itself suddenly short of a stand-up, there is no doubt which of the two men it would send for. Watching Corbyn trying to tell a joke that has almost certainly been written for him is a painful business, whereas Johnson overflows naturally into colourful phraseology and a comic view of the world. If this obvious difference was indeed a factor in the election result, then there may be a couple of important conclusions to draw for those who think of themselves as broadly on the left or in the centre. One of the worst things that can be said about another person in Britain is that he or she has no sense of humour. Alan Bennett has protested in one of his diary entries against what he feels is the habit of regarding the absence of this sense as a minor disability, like being colour blind or short-sighted, when in fact the consequence is, in his view, a `seriously flawed human being’. The person he had in mind when he made his remarks was Mrs Thatcher, whom he referred to as a `mirthless bully’. The first thought they suggest is that Mrs Thatcher is someone who did pretty well when elections came along so that being able to make people laugh is obviously not an infallible route to electoral success. But the second is that there is a strong tendency to think of comedy as always left-leaning. This is a belief which would be buttressed by an examination of the material of a vast majority of the stand-ups in Britain and America and, on a theoretical level, by the assumption drawn chiefly from Freud’s book on jokes that all comedy is subversive, an image of the `levelling of hierarchy’ and the triumph `of unofficial values over official ones’, as the great anthropologist Mary Douglas once put it. Yet the obvious truth is that that neither jokes, nor other comic devices, nor the laughter with which they are greeted, are in themselves inherently liberal or reactionary but merely tools in the hands of whoever chooses to employ them.
But the second and more worrying conclusion to be drawn in addition to this obvious one is that, as a nation, we may well prefer being amused now to an uncertain prospect of having the conditions of our lives improved in the future. Although his progress was via Harrow and Cambridge rather than Eton and Oxford, Byron was a more genuine toff than Johnson and begin his brief political career in the Lords. Another major difference is that his maiden speech protesting against a reactionary Tory government’s introduction of the death penalty for machine breakers in his own county of Nottinghamshire was vehement enough to qualify him as being what, in the politics of his day, was a member of the extreme Left. But he soon grew tired of politics and fell back on his writing, which Johnson may also do one day. Although it took him a long time to integrate it fully into his poetry, Byron’s talent for comedy was considerable. His letters are a triumph and littered with quotations and stories which particularly amused him. Perhaps the moment he turns to most frequently is the fat and elderly Falstaff leading the attack on the travellers in the first part of Henry IV and shouting `They hate us youth!’; but he also liked to remember the story of the Methodist preacher who, spotting a `profane grin’ on a face in his congregation, thundered out `No hopes for them as laughs’. It is clear from the number of times Byron repeats this anecdote that the amusement he derived from it went well beyond upper-class mockery of the preacher’s bad grammar. In our own day, the picture it evokes is still a funny one but perhaps the election result ought to make us wonder whether there may not be something to be said for this preacher after all. There were some in his own day who thought that Byron’s tendency to see weighty matters in a comic light was always a weakness rather than a strength, and a sign of his `flippancy’. This was certainly the opinion of Lady Byron who warned his half-sister Augusta against her brother’s `levity & nonsense which he likes for the worst reason, because it prevents him from reflecting seriously’. As the conflict between her and her husband played out in the court of public opinion, she was at a disadvantage since he could always portray her (as he does in the first canto of Don Juan) as humourless as well as puritanical, and there has often also perhaps been in the British public a weakness for the scapegrace with a privileged background who can make us laugh. But if that is so, and comedy did play some part in the recent election result, it may not be too long before we discover that the national sense of humour is not such an asset after all and the joke is (as they say) on us.