MITCH BENN examines tweets from an organisation that claims to be returning conservatism to the grassroots
A tweet appeared a few days ago from the group Activate UK; this organisation describes its objective in its Twitter ‘bio’ as ‘Creating a united platform for young conservatives and returning power to the grassroots’.
Leaving aside the slightly bizarre assumption that promoting the cause of conservatism would in some way ‘return power to the grassroots’ – the grass where I grew up in Liverpool (or indeed where I came of age in Scotland) didn’t have very conservative ‘roots’ at all, quite the reverse if anything – there’s always something strikes me as slightly forlorn about the whole concept of being a ‘young conservative’, with a big or small ‘c’. What’s the point of being young if you’re going to spend it being ‘conservative’?
One’s youth should be a time for wild experimentation, for music and haircuts that your parents hate; for regrettable fashion choices and reckless romantic entanglements. It’s your only chance to get away with it, when you’re too young to know any better and young enough to sort yourself out in good time. If one passes one’s younger years side-parted, pinstriped, shiny-shoed and respectable, can one really be said to have been ‘young’ at all? There’s plenty of time for all that when you’re an old git like me. I see some fairly cataclysmic mid-life crises looming in these kids’ futures.
In any event, if there’s anything more depressing than the sight of young people being conservative, it’s the sight of young conservatives trying to be funny.
As last week’s cold snap took effect – with, I’d remind you, fatal consequences in some regions – Activate UK tweeted the following ‘joke’: ‘As the cold settles in and the national gas supply is running low we are hearing horrific stories… All across the country, Socialists are being forced to put their hands in their own pockets.’
See what they did there? Their own pockets! Get it? Their OWN pockets! Instead of other people’s! Because socialists!
Leaving aside the fact that this is just a really poorly constructed joke, it flags up one of the eternal questions of comedy: why are all ‘political comedians’ left-wing? Why can’t right wingers be funny?
Well of course, right-wingers can be funny; there are some pretty conservative people making a decent living out of comedy just now, as indeed there always have been. I’ll grant that these comics don’t tend to base much of their material on their political positions, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment, but there’s nothing incompatible about having a sense of humour and being politically conservative.
There are a couple of right-leaning comics who do manage to get some politics into their act, though there’s usually a bit of a twist involved: Simon Evans is consistently hilarious and unapologetically (at least small c) conservative, although he’s also happy to send himself and his attitudes up as part of his ‘schtick’, so it never comes over as (unintentionally) smug or hectoring.
Nor does one get the impression that this is an affectation, or just something Simon’s doing to be ‘different’; a few years ago, another young-ish comedian suddenly started letting rip with some fairly extreme right-wing views on social media, in a quite an obnoxious fashion, and has been garnering column inches ever since, telling interviewers how his conservative politics have led to his being ‘outcast’ and shunned by the all-pervasive liberal orthodoxy which is stifling comic creativity in this country.
Of course that’s not what happened at all; in the course of establishing this new aggressively right-wing persona of his, he said some pretty horrible and personal things about a lot of our fellow comedians, with the result that nobody really wanted to be around him any more. He wasn’t made an ‘outcast’ for being conservative, but for being a jerk about it. Having said that, he’s still done a few television stand-up sets and had his own Radio 4 sitcom since all this went down, so if that’s being an ‘outcast’, feel free to cast me out any time.
But while right-wingers can make good comedians, it does seem to be the case that right-wing politics do not readily translate into good political comedy. Conservatism is, whether it admits it or not, the political wing of the establishment, of the status quo, of the powers-that-be. As such, right-wing humour almost invariably ‘punches down’. It is derisive rather than humorous, bullying rather than cheeky.
Ah, but conservative commentators point out, there’s a new estabishment now, particularly where pop culture is concerned. It’s that aforementioned all-pervasive liberal orthodoxy, crushing dissent and silencing free speech with its rigidly enforced self-righteous political correctness…. Surely these days it’s the conservative thinkers and entertainers who are punching up, against this PC inquisition!
Ok, let’s unpack that idea; given that all ‘political correctness’ means is the conscious moderation of language to avoid unnecessary cruelty to, or disparagement of, the disadvantaged in society (no really; that’s all it is), what these commentators are actually saying is ‘We’re punching UP! Against the bastards who won’t let us punch DOWN any more!’
Perhaps it is possible to do funny right-wing political comedy. Certainly it’s possible to at least try to be even-handed about it; there’s a ten-minute Brexit rant in my current touring show (dates at mitchbenn.com/gigs, folks) in which I share out the scorn and anger equally among the right and left wing politicians who are still charging headlong over that particular cliff. Maybe someone will crack the secret of genuinely funny conservative satire. But not you, Activate UK: you stick to whingeing about your student loans (which were introduced by a Tory government in 1990, incidentally).