With British Parliament on summer holidays, historian, comedian and author Jem Roberts examines the strange days of the Arguably United Kingdom. It seems a fair enough question to ask – who’s actually in charge these days? Can we just play arcade games until somebody is? And has the country finally turned a corner?
It’s all so quiet. With Parliament all paddling on their holidays, we can take a moment to survey just how bizarre UK politics currently is. There’s a famous comedy trope known as ‘The Bicycle Gag’, or any number of other titles, such as Peter Baynham’s ‘You Start Monday!’ The lazy comedy gist is that a character will reel off any number of reasons why there is no way a certain event will ever occur – they will get on a bike, or get a job – and in the next scene, we cut to that exact event happening – ‘You’re useless, you’re lazy… you start Monday!’ – to the hilarity of nobody.
British politics has seemed like one long Bicycle Gag for eons now, with whatever the PM promises ‘will never happen’ always just around the corner, and no matter what insane behaviour the government has paraded in front of the public, they have remained the government, with at least half the media portals happily ignoring, or simply lying about, every misstep.
But have we finally turned a corner? These are strange days indeed in the Arguably United Kingdom. As the country either sizzles in a series of hopelessly mistimed heatwaves or drowns in the more predictable monsoons, it seems a fair enough question to ask – who’s actually in charge these days? And can we just play arcade games until somebody is?
There are no doubt a few die-hard ostriches who would insist that Theresa May and the Tories aren’t currently the political equivalent of Wile E Coyote yards over the cliff edge with nothing beneath him, but then it is undeniably tough to get your head around the concept of change after several years of galloping austerity, where even witnessing the Eton-educated architects of Britain’s collapse hooting with glee about the suffering they’re causing on national TV provokes barely a flicker of meaningful reproach. Unless you perhaps count Nick ‘Career’ Clegg’s brave admission, the best part of a decade on, that he wasn’t all that keen on the people he allowed to get away with all that social vandalism.
The delusional clingers-on, who insist that May is still the right person to steer through a Brexit the majority never wanted, are like small children reassuring themselves that Mummy and Daddy aren’t going to divorce, while Daddy’s boyfriend fixes them breakfast, and Mummy gives them a wave on TV from the set of Love Island.
For the rest of us, we have never experienced anything quite like this dazed and confused administration, as our barely-elected representatives amble in to Brexit talks like students taking their final exams in a subject they never studied, having been up three nights straight revising The Big Bang Theory boxsets. Our secret weapon in these talks is David Davis – a Tory MP who thinks nudge-nudge slogans written over a couple of interns’ breasts are a sound political move (not, sadly Dave Davies of The Kinks, who could at least be relied upon to preserve our village greens).
Perhaps the most confusing thing about the current mess is that those of us who have never experienced anything but a right-wing government, growing up in the 1980s and 90s, weren’t aware that the Conservative Party were capable of being quite so utterly inept. We know that the party exists solely to protect the interests of those least in need of protection, and jolly good they have always been at it. But from her bizarre paranoid method of fake campaigning to the guaranteed vote-losing announcement of her deep hatred of foxes, Theresa May’s behaviour could not be more suggestive of a contender who’s agreed to take a dive if she got up in the Commons and started a chorus of ‘Oh-oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ to the tune of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.
Perhaps the strangest phenomenon in the recent world-beatingly strange election was the regular beginning of sentences with ‘At least Thatcher…’ coming from both sides of the political divide, with even the most hardened lefties admitting that they may have waited 20 years for Margaret to die, but at least she was extremely competent at clawing the heart out of British society, and she was feared more than she was ever ridiculed. The tawdry Tory dregs we are left with, from Honey Monster Johnson to NHS salesman Jeremy Huckface, are the Keane to the balls-out Oasis swagger of Tebbit and Heseltine – and almost as bad for society.
Similarly, Theresa May’s take on Thatcher would not get past the first round of auditions for Stars In Their Eyes, and for all that her political death will also be at the hands of her grinning colleagues, for May it will have taken less than one year, rather than eleven. And so she flits around the country, hiding from the general public who have nothing but abuse for her, running from back door to government car like a one-woman Beatles with all the joyful hysteria replaced with anger and disdain. So calamitous has this year been for the PM, some people have even confessed to feeling a certain degree of sympathy for the doomed figurehead, which, given the F- she received in her ‘Act Like a Human’ classes, has an ironic ring to it. Perhaps the greatest regret is that we never got to see Thatcher or Blair given the same disgusted treatment by the general public.
Throughout my life, I have always made an effort to visualise a just society, but over the last few years it’s become increasingly like trying to get turned on by a dead mouse. Yes, the Leave victory, the Tories’ electoral stranglehold and the very existence of the Daily Mail are injustices which have continued to plague us all because of the aged Brits who prop up the system, and that generation is dying out – but with this Keystone Cop government somehow managing to right itself for so long after every blow, the temptation to freeze my head and ask to be revived when the baby boomers are all dead has been strong.
For all that Corbyn is hardly playing all the right notes in the right order right now, we have inarguably seen that a new generation, all too awake to the vandalism of austerity, has shown an unprecedented interest in helping to change things. If that holds true, we might be on the brink of an entirely new political era, and I can stay out of the freezer for now.
Even as Brexit talks painfully shuffle forward, to an unavoidable gale of guffaws, it feels rather like the people of Britain have done their bit, and registered their total exhaustion with the Establishment. And this time, in what feels like a first, it may actually have counted – we just need to see what Corbyn’s opposition will do with the gift they have been given. Everyone who lived through the decades of privatisation, the hobbling of all the UK’s public services and removal of social safety nets, can see that Theresa May’s current clawing at power has given us an arcade penny fountain for a government, heaving with coins teetering way over the edge as it judders back and forth, surely, finally, ready to pay out and reward generations of patience?
Or should we give it one more nudge? After all, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s watching.
How do you spend your days?
I'm a full-time author and freelance journalist – right now I'm working on @TalesofBritain, a major collection of British stories for the 21st century, so my days are largely spent retelling fairytales.
Why is being an author important to you?
Until Tales of Britain, my books have all been comedy non-fiction – I'm Douglas Adams' official biographer, and written official books on Blackadder, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, and Fry & Laurie. Comedy is the highest artform, and should be celebrated to the maximum – while great comedians are still around to share their anecdotes and theories. So I'm here to preserve and promote cultural history, both comedic and folkloric.
What drove you to focus on journalism & writing? Was there a particular moment you can remember that led you to this field?
No, I first earned money as a writer at the age of 14 (25 years ago!), reviewing NES games, and it's always been my primary occupation.
What drives you professionally?
See above! Preserving the views of our greatest comedians, and currently promoting British folklore, because if I didn't, a UKIP-type might.
In your opinion what are the three biggest problems facing the developed and developing world?
Our democracy has been flawed from the very start, and it no longer seems to give any option for social justice. This is mainly the fault of New Labour, by dragging the opposition into the centre, all chances of providing a real alternative to the relentlessly elitist and exploitative right-wing government have been desiccated, ground down, devalued. We haven't had a compassionate government in my lifetime.
If you hadn’t become a journalist what would you have done?
I also perform comedy, sketches and songs, solo and with my band The Unrelated Family.
What led us to this moment in history?
Er, lots of 'see above' in this Q&A...
What are the lessons we failed to learn during and since the 2008 crisis?
How about the fact that the top 5% are hiding the wherewithal to food, shelter and clothe those at the very bottom of our society, to pay nurses, doctors and teachers and generally make our country function properly? And they are continually protected by those in power? That's a pretty big fail.
Can you list some ‘Baby Steps’ out of the current economic mess?
Never vote Tory.
If you were a global President what would your first three pieces of policy be?
1) Ban all political parties – only Independents can be elected to serve their region in Parliament, then a second election decides on a cabinet.
2) Illegalise profit. Every individual, every company and corporation should have a profit cap (and I would set the limit far lower than Corbyn's £80k p.a. per person), and every penny above that goes directly to fund public services, and help those who need it.
3) Establish parliaments in Wales and Cornwall to devolve responsibility to Britain's four lands, and a new joint Parliament of all four will meet regularly in a new British Parliament away from London, perhaps Birmingham. Northern Ireland has no place within the UK.
Tell us something you have been wrong about?
I went to bed on the evening of EU referendum without any doubt that nothing would have changed in the morning.
You are stuck in a ski lift for twenty four hours - you can have one person (living or dead) with you who will it be?
If it was a few hours, probably John Lennon, but 24 is pushing it. So I'll go with the woman I'm dating right now, we may as well get some pleasure out of the situation.
Name the book that changed you…
Probably 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens, the greatest story ever told.
What would you do differently if you were to start all over again?
Never touch cigarettes.
Give our readers, members and subscribers a piece of advice that has served you well…
Don't EVER vote Tory.
Anything you would like to plug? Now is your chance.
My new book, Soupy Twists: The official story of Fry & Laurie is released by Unbound this year, it'll be in shops. While Tales of Britain will start crowdfunding this summer, also on Unbound.
Latest posts by Jem Roberts (see all)
- Who’s Really In Charge Of The Barely United Kingdom Right Now? - August 1, 2017
- Reality bias - June 7, 2017