Laughter of despair

How much political folly can we stomach? asks Christopher Bigsby

March 13, 2014

“Let’s go,” says a character in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “They do not move” instructs a stage direction. That’s the essence of the theatre of the absurd. There are times when the government can rival Beckett. So, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, extols the virtue of accepting overseas students, while Theresa May, the home secretary, creates visa regulations that, to date, have apparently driven 25 per cent of Indian applicants to prefer Australia and the US. “No top-down changes in the health service,” declares the prime minister before initiating the largest top-down change in more than 60 years. Michael Gove, the education secretary, insists that GCSEs will be replaced by the English Baccalaureate Certificate, then asserts that they will not. Ofsted inspectors were to make unannounced visits, then they weren’t, then they were. The School Sport Partnerships were to have their funding removed until they weren’t.

The Liberal Democrats had no sooner declared that they would oppose any increase in tuition fees than they supported the trebling of them in coalition. The party opposed the building of nuclear power plants before advocating them. Having campaigned against a VAT rise, it supported it. The Labour Party, meanwhile, elected the “wrong” brother with the decisive influence of the union vote only for that same brother to propose scrapping the process that elected him. Stephen Twigg, a former shadow education secretary, has managed to oppose and support free schools as his party has both opposed and supported HS2.

Theresa May should recall the lawyer who fell 24 floors to his death after an attempt to show the unbreakable nature of the window glass

You can understand Labour’s ambivalence, however, once you realise that Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, and Chris Bryant, the shadow minister for work and pensions, were once both members of the Oxford University Conservative Association whose members also included Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jeremy Hunt. This was a group that met together over port and counts as a member Courtney Love whose history of substance misuse had not previously extended to Portuguese fortified wine. Some of its members were expelled for Nazi salutes while, according to the New Statesman, it once greeted freshers with the claim to be “the biggest political party since the Hitler Youth”.

Not to be left out of this theatre of the absurd, the Scottish National Party, meanwhile, declares that an independent Scotland will join the euro before announcing it will not, that it will not be in Nato and then that it will. The UK Independence Party, with a straight face, asks us to endorse its policies while disavowing its entire 2010 manifesto.

Rather than taking the piss, I prefer to think of such politicians as having a genuine sense of humour, close kin to Beckett who, after all, won a Nobel prize. Any party that suggests taxing warm food more than cold has to be celebrated as almost Swiftian. As for the “bedroom tax”, what can that be but a comic masterstroke akin to the 1696 window tax, except that that hit the rich and not the poor and the disabled?

Don’t laugh, though. The Greek philosopher Chrysippus died of laughter, as did the 16th-century Italian poet Pietro Aretino, not to mention Danish audiologist Ole Bentzen who died while laughing at the film A Fish Called Wanda.

The great thing about the theatre of the absurd is that it manages to blend the tragic with the comic. After all, it was the great tragedian, Aeschylus, who was killed by a tortoise, dropped by an eagle that mistook his head for a rock; while Sherwood Anderson, the American writer, met his end after swallowing a toothpick. Swallowing the Home Office’s line on students and immigration could have the same terminal effect. May insists that her policy is foolproof and is prepared to demonstrate it.

Perhaps she should recall the Canadian lawyer, who in 1993 fell 24 floors to his death following his attempt to demonstrate the unbreakable nature of the window glass.

By the same token, we are told that the changes in the health service will be good for us, although it rather depends what you mean by good. In the 1970s a man died after drinking too much carrot juice, a gallon a day for 10 days. We are certainly all being asked to swallow a great deal by this government and carrot juice might seem preferable.

Every year the Darwin Awards are presented. They go to those who have died and whose particular qualities are judged to have benefited humanity by being removed from the gene pool. Two bright sparks who lit their cigarettes inside an oil tank did not win because they survived, but got an honourable mention.

I don’t see why we should wait for death, though. I suspect there are those, particularly politicians, who should receive their awards while they are still around, the better to appreciate them. They should be awarded to those responsible for the most self-evidently bizarre, self-defeating, self-contradictory and wilfully damaging proposals. I suspect the competition will be fierce.

Personally, I would nominate those behind the decision to charge some of the highest student fees in the West – more than 40 per cent of student loans will prove irrecoverable (the value of outstanding loans is currently £46 billion) – and place loans in the hands of a private company.

You might prefer Gove’s belief that state schools should be more like public schools. Easily done, of course. All you have to do is allow state schools to model themselves on Eton (currently charging up to £33,0 a year plus a registration fee of £300, an acceptance fee of £1,800 and a school uniform whose tailcoat costs £130; cashmere mix navy overcoat, £225; “Pop” trousers, £70; and bow tie, £14).

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Reader's comments (1)

Thank you for a good read. I can’t help being reminded of Fred Inglis. You seem to agree: “Laughter and contempt are, however, wholly ineffectual.” But then his closing question continues unanswered: “Standing on the edge of the plank at the very end of my career, I can’t see anything to stop the bastards now. Can you?” Action is needed urgently. Again from the same author: “We ignore the monstrosity of managerial vocabulary too easily. It has to be fought, put down, criticised for what it is: a perversion of human exchange, a calculated muffling of the hard, deliberate compulsions of ruthless and authoritarian models of how things must be.” and “Of course, incredulous revulsion and hysterical laughter are useless against the march of the morons, among whose number are the enemies within: the toadying vice-chancellor straining for a knighthood; the administrator "quislings" bravely named as such by Richard Drayton, and the managerialist undead presently dancing on spreadsheets before arranging redundancies for junior staff paid a sixth of their own salaries. These creatures must be our immediate targets.” Therefore, “The amiable passivity of the academic life must be abruptly shaken off… What is needed is a vehement call to scholarship of a more cutting, angry and indomitable style.”

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