It’s hard to estimate quickly or accurately the impact of a TV series on a political culture. But given how comment is free these days, I’d like to take a moment to argue that “The Thick of It” perhaps laid the cultural ground for a grassroots labour/left movement to take power back from the New Labour idiocrats. In its first run, Iannucci’s series marvelously described the Alastair Campbell method of government to much critical acclaim and, I think, to some popular enthusiasm. After all, it was brought back three more times in the coming years to address the ever-more cynical turns in the Brown years and of course, the Con-Dem coalition. What was the style of government that the series so effectively satirized and thus inadvertently inspired the Corbyn campaign this summer?
The Alastair Campbell recipe for good, “communitarian” government: try to say and do what you think the press wants you to say or do, and if they disagree, quickly change what it is you said and did and bully, cajole, confuse them into agreeing with you shortly – or at least, not disagreeing. As a politician in The Thick of It (TTOI), and in Blair’s cabinet, you have to be on top of the “narrative” – a chant of ephemeral truisms by the paid commentariat which seems reasonable enough insofar as it generates the impression of a thousand heads nodding at once. Viewers of The Thick of It and attentive followers of British politics soon realise that these heads are all nodding off.
The narrative. As Ian Martin (writer and swearing consultant for the show) argues in his recent op-ed, for Blair’s cabinet, ruling meant hewing as closely to the opinion polls in every policy, using statistically significant focus groups to ensure that any new policy would go “down well”, and fundamentally, saying whatever you need to say to stay in power. Of course all politicians have done this throughout history, Corbyn is doing it now too, insofar as he thinks he knows what to say to get people to vote for him. I don’t think he does, people just want someone, anyone, who isn’t a second-rate telemarketer to be their leader. What enraged Martin and Iannucci, to the point that they created this masterpiece – was simply how empty, sad, and nihilistically destructive Campbell’s approach was to the British public sphere. Campbell, Blair, and the Fleet Street editors had apparently decided that the big questions in politics were over, history had ended and so had politics – what was left was spectacle: scandal, “effectiveness”, making a statement, looking presidential.
It’s hard to describe Campbell and Blair’s impact on the public debate without going into a vicious fury at the needless damage done, perhaps as Iannucci and Martin did in writing the glorious curses in the show, but one could start by hazarding a contrast with the great British political satire of the 1980s: Yes Minister. The civil servant and the minister in the show share many agreeable conversations over glasses of port in fine mahogany-panelled rooms as they try to negotiate the demands of their party, their consciences, and the rules. The tone is always congenial, and the insights of the civil servant (the unforgettable Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne) approach but never quite reach the quality of universal truths of the human condition. Their conversations and repartee, their failures and successes, describe a polity that is understandable and debatable – a political establishment that knows its faults, preserves them, works around them, and sometimes, despite itself, even addresses them.
TTOI by contrast presents a maelstrom of contradictory orders within 3-member departmental teams, botched press announcements, threats, anger, violence, and shining mediocrity (pl. the Westminster class) that is rather proud of what it is capable of. Their conversations, obsessed with whether a policy follows a party line and whether that party line reflects well on the party in the press, present a political world for which society is unknowable and unchangeable. The best we can do is get the opinion polls and try to announce a brand new policy that makes everyone happy and costs nothing. Most government plans are half-baked and rescinded once the news of their ineptitude has quickly spread – the writers are at pains to make clear that the press, Westminster, and perhaps Whitehall have little understanding of the issues that affect modern Britain, the days of the wise and wry Sir Humphrey Appleby are, alas, long gone.
It has been about ten years since the first season of TTOI. If at least some of the Corbyn-maniacs haven’t seen the show and been convinced of the need for a revolution in how Britain does politics then I, like Alastair Campbell before me, will eat my kilt. For instance, many on social media quickly leapt upon Ed Miliband’s sagacious move to set his promises in stone thus giving the world a half-memorable tombstone for a rather forgettable candidacy, as an incident straight out of TTOI: hopeless leader, ravenous press and all. News this week that the Department of Work and Pensions fabricated success stories in its leaflet on sanctions for benefit claimants could very well be a plot point from Iannucci’s show too. What Iannucci and his team of writers intuitively understood, and what the reasonable center of Labour don’t understand right now, is that this kind of petulant, showy disregard for the concerns of the people and for the patent truth is unsustainable. I think The Thick of It made the argument that this method of government – and this kind of journalism – is not only unsustainable, but fundamentally illegitimate. As it permeated the public consciousness through the notorious “left-wing” BBC – whose political creativity is bound to be circumscribed by future governments – the media and political class laughed uproariously at themselves (much as they have laughed at Corbyn’s leadership bid all summer), not realising that they too might soon find themselves in, well, the thick of it.
*This post was an attempt at a kind of humour. Its serious point, whatever it was – was developed, or perhaps repeated, from this insightful post by Timothy Burke on Sanders,Trump, and Corbyn.