British Conservative MP Nicholas Fairbairn in one of his trademark Edwardian outfits, 4th November 1975. Picture Credit: William H. Alden/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Beyond the floppy fringe

It’s no laughing matter that our grotesque, contemptible political class is so out of touch


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Who needs comedians when you’ve got 650 here-today- gone-tomorrow white collar bullshitters, a greedy civil service whirling through a 1000rpm revolving door, and a force of rozzers taking gardening leave till early retirement beckons? All of them people whose speciality is an extreme form of dramatic irony.

A lamentable tradition of blimpish boorishness

They stitch themselves up with every utterance, every lie, every boast, every greasing, every act of morally squalid deceit. They are deaf to their words, blind to their actions, moronically unaware of their effects. And they simply don’t know it, for they are denied all self-knowledge. This is the single field in which they excel, which they have mastered with aplomb, yet they fail to acknowledge how practised and proficient they are.

Indeed, the less they understand the chasm between vacuous aspiration and duff achievement, the more comically grotesque they become. The emphasis there is, of course, on grotesque.

Leading the pack in the last half century are Nicholas Fairbairn’s quadruple-breasted tartan boasts, cuddly uncle Cyril Smith, Norman St John-Stevas and his splendid droorling varls, Leo Abse, Gerald Nabarro — oh those moustaches! oh that number-plate! What characters eh! They don’t make them like that anymore. Don’t they?

We are bound to wonder if the former Hill’s Angel, Nadine Dorries, is anything more than an imbecilic slapper trying to draw attention to herself by vandalising all that is not to her base taste. The voluble champion of human wrongs, Edward Leigh, and his Cardinal Red rosacea belong to a lamentable tradition of blimpish boorishness.

The truth of Robin Day’s incontestable “Here today, gone tomorrow” observation to John Nott is proven by Nott’s being remembered for little else: indeed Nott made it the title of his autobiography.

What great offices of state did he hold? Secretary of State for Defence during the Falklands war, famously won by Prince Andrew and Max Hastings.

I have no idea what constituency he represented. This is an instance where Google has rendered Mnemosyne redundant. You can stand alone on Mont Blanc and check out, say, the career of John Morrison (later the first Lord Margadale) who represented Salisbury from 1942 until 1965 and asked questions on deer hunting, more deer hunting, lost ration books, supplementary petrol coupons, one-man hay-balers and WRAC uniforms: “the new ones are much more becoming.”

Should some anorak be daft enough to cobble together a thin book entitled Forgotten Heroes of Westminster, Morrison might just make the cut as a quintessential shires Tory with 11,000 acres and a sense of noblesse oblige. Who would want such a thing? Given the utter contempt in which British politicians are justly held, would anyone buy it other than to stick pins in it?

What is funny north of that line seems more and more unfunny the closer it approaches the Channel

Forgotten Heroes of Comedy is a different matter. It actually exists, a comforting doorstop. The anorak is Robert Ross and the mood is buoyant. It is a remedy for the injurious cloud of moroseness inflicted by the 650 bullshitters. During the National Outpouring when Barry Cryer died a few weeks ago Jonathan Coe wrote, “every single thing he did was in the name of laughter, and lifting our spirits. That’s what I call a life well lived.”

An encomium might equally be applied to many of Ross’s subjects, who are not, perhaps, as forgotten as he claims. There are essentially two schools of comedian represented. First: those who started out on the halls or embraced their ethos and took it into northern working class clubs and popular telly. Second: Those who came from varsity reviews and were denigrated by Ken Dodd as doing “student humour”.

There is a gulf in both social class and location. I proposed many years ago that there exists a cultural barrier called the Irony Curtain which divides England and runs, approximately, from the Potteries to the Wash. What is funny north of that line seems more and more unfunny the closer it approaches the Channel. And vice versa.

Both schools include some detectable as comedians only because they laugh before they tell a gag. Both include artists who exploit their freakish appearance, their disabilities, their race. Comedy is catholic. Do Chris Morris and Roy “Chubby” Brown really ply the same trade? They do. But only in the way that Ken Clarke and The People’s Pariah are both politicians.

The frivolity of politics and the earnestness of comedy are explicable by the two trades’ relationship with their public. Comedians tend to understand the society and mores they ridicule. The gap between stand-up and public is slight. The gap between placemen and women on the payroll and the patronisingly called “ordinary people” has never been greater. This is at least partly due to the place that people come from.

Hitler and Kaltenbrunner were “of Austrian heritage”; Darré was “of Argentinian and Wimbeldonian heritage”; Rosenberg was “of Estonian heritage”; von Schirach was “of American heritage”; Hess was “of Egyptian heritage”. They were not steeped in the culture of the nation they seized. They didn’t appreciate its depth and magnificence. It was something to be trashed whilst they imposed their own deadly philistinism.

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