Political cartoons: Britain's revolutionaries

By Kayte Rath
Political reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
John Major's underpants became a fundamental part of his political caricature

They appear daily in our newspapers and have lampooned prime ministers for generations, but have political cartoons helped Britain avoid some of the political tumult of its European neighbours?

For nearly 400 years, Britain has avoided violent struggles and political revolution.

In 1789, while France was busy overthrowing its royal rulers and unceremoniously chopping off the heads of its aristocrats, Britain shunned their revolutionary zeal, preferring a more sedate pace of change.

And where France led, others followed. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries virtually every other state in Europe has experienced at least one forcible overthrow of government.

Historians may have their theories as to why, but so does former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Baker, and it's a rather novel one: Political cartoons.

The peer, who served under Margaret Thatcher as home secretary and chaired the party in her final days as prime minister, has long had an interest in collecting and writing about cartoons and is vice-chairman of the Cartoon Museum in London.

For him, this unique British contribution to the world of art - which Lord Baker credits Britain with "inventing" - has helped stem the frustrations of the British people since it first started nearly 300 years ago.

"I believe that if you can laugh at your rulers, you don't cut off their heads," he says. "Laughter is an escape for those kinds of pent up feelings. It helps make society calmer."

'Defecating, urinating, fornicating'

And because of Britain's lack of censorship laws in the 18th century - the "golden age" of political caricatures according to Lord Baker - this "graphic satire" was able to flourish.

"In Europe, all the other countries had censorship.

"If you criticised the king or queen of France you were sent to the Bastille - in fact if you criticised Louis XIV you got torn about by four horses, which did rather discourage people.

"But there wasn't any censorship here: we laughed at our kings and queens and we laughed at our prime ministers."

Not only has the culture of cartooning helped Britain remain a stable country, it was also the beginning of public engagement in politics, making a connection between prime ministers and the people for the first time.

Image caption,
This anonymous cartoon from 1740 satirises Prime Minister Robert Walpole's love of patronage

"Before cameras, radio and TV, it was the only way in which people got to see their politicians," Lord Baker says.

"They would get stuck up in shop windows for everyone to see. It was the first time people actually saw royalty, judges, MPs, aristocracy and the celebrities of the day.

"The cartoons were bought by the middle class as they were the only ones who could afford them, but it was the beginning of real public interest from people in their politicians."

With different attitudes to physical appearances and bodily functions, the early cartoons could be extremely rude.

"In the 18th century they didn't have the same physical hang-ups that we do now - you had people farting, defecating, urinating, vomiting, fornicating - everything. No one escaped.

"George III was shown manuring his own field."

Robert Walpole, generally regarded as the first man to hold the post of prime minister from the 1720s to 1742, was represented by his exposed rear end.

"The first cartoon of Walpole was of his big bare bottom straddling the Treasury.

"You couldn't see his face, but everyone knew who it was because they knew you had to kiss Walpole's bottom if you were to get anywhere. He ran the state by patronage, handing out positions and everybody knew it."

Other politicians have had their own distinctive caricatures, with cartoonists picking one easily identifiable "tab" to let the audience know who is being made fun of.

These can often capture a politician's character better than official portraits do, Lord Baker says.

"Caricatures can say in a flash what it takes 20 column inches or three minutes of TV to say.

"The cartoon has an immediate impact. They are snapshots of a given moment and can characterise people forever."

William Pitt the Younger was shown as a drunkard, Disraeli had "curly Jewish locks", Churchill was easily identified by his fat cigar and for Margaret Thatcher it was her handbag.

More recently, Lord Baker says, John Major was depicted with "naff Marks and Spencer's underpants", after once allegedly being spotted with his pants tucked over his shirt - after this "the pants became everything".

Tony Blair was all about "the teeth and the ears" and Gordon Brown was shown as "being grossly fat".

In the current crop of leaders, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have proved more difficult to capture because "they have similar types of looks".

"They haven't got very lived in faces yet. You need to have someone with distinctive features," he says.

However, this has not been a problem for the Labour's fresh-faced, younger leader Ed Miliband: "He was Wallace and Gromit straight away."

'Cheshire cat'

But should politicians mind that they get cruelly ridiculed in full glare of the electorate and does it have any negative impacts on how the public view politicians, especially in age when trust in politics seems to be at an all time low?

Image caption,
Margaret Thatcher as the Iron Lady. This cartoon wasn't published by the Daily Telegraph because the editor thought readers wouldn't like seeing "Margaret's knickers round her ankles"

"I don't really think there is a negative impact. All politicians like to be cartooned. They pine to be caricatured," Lord Baker says.

"Most members of Parliament of the present House of Commons will never be cartooned. They are quite obscure, unknown figures representing seats you've never heard of. Once you've been cartooned you've arrived.

"You do like to be cartooned in a favourable way but that is not what it's all about. You've got to have a very, very thick skin."

And cartoons don't create the negative impressions, rather they reflect and reinforce ones that already exist the peer says, with most of the "victims" deserving their caricature.

During his political career Lord Baker himself has not been immune, being drawn on numerous occasions by some of the cartoonists he most admires.

When Margaret Thatcher was ousted as party chair Lord Baker pledged to "stay faithful to the end", leading to renowned cartoonist Gerald Scarfe drawing him going down with her in the party's sinking ship.

In the good times he was shown as a lion and an eagle "but that didn't last very long".

"Then I was a snake and a lizard," he adds. "And then a Cheshire cat, because I smiled so much."

"I was a snail and a slug. I was everything you could imagine, but I didn't mind."

The trick, he says, is never to let these funny, sometimes crude and often cruel cartoons get to you.

They're are an integral part of British history, art and public life and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Lord Baker spoke at the Cartoon Museum about the history of political caricature as part of Parliament Week.

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