Political cartoons of the late 18th century were obscenely vicious until tamed by 'respectability'. Vic Gatrell says political correctness could similarly neuter their modern equivalents.
In 1963, Private Eye published a simple cartoon by Gerald Scarfe that marked the beginning of an era. It depicted the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, corpulent and simpering, perched on an Arne Jacobson chair: what was extraordinary about it was that Macmillan was naked. Parodying the iconic photograph of Christine Keeler similarly perched, its deft equation of the great and the bad - as the Profumo scandal rumbled on - was utterly liberating. If any one cartoon marked the rejuvenation of insult and aggression in graphic satire, Scarfe's was it, since no major figure of state had been ridiculed in his nakedness since the 1790s. Cartooning of this audacity opened the way to others and helped focus a public scepticism about the great and not so good that had long lacked a language. From then on, via the mockeries of Private Eye and of TV shows such as That Was the Week That Was or Spitting Image , it was possible to call the bluff of political hypocrites with increasing bravado.
The best political cartooning since then has fed journalism with a taste for truth-telling. Cartoon and commentary now tend to agree on their premises and reinforce each other. Anger, contempt, incredulity and irony are now so central to our language that scepticism about our rulers' dishonesties has become reflexive. When Steve Bell depicts John Major with his Y-fronts outside his trousers, or George Bush as a pea-brained and power-mad chimpanzee and Tony Blair as Bush's cabbage-eared and wonky-eyed poodle, or when Martin Rowson shows the war-fervent Bush and Blair as bare-buttocked simian grotesques with their anuses plugged by the seals of parliamentary and UN approval ("That's our asses covered! Let's roll!"), the cartoonists' extravagant cynicism exposes the politicians' own.
There is nothing new in this language. Popular ridicule resorted to the imagery of nudity, bum and fart in medieval and early-modern times. As I describe in detail in my book City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London , Georgian satirical prints appropriated this language, too. In the 20,000 or so single-sheet caricatures published between 1770 and 1830, the mocking use of scatology is ubiquitous. In the 1790s, Isaac Cruikshank could ridicule a great aristocrat's Jacobin sympathies by having him defecate into his coronet and urinate on a bishop's mitre while gazing at the portrait of George III with which he intends to wipe his bottom. In William Dent's Public Credit (1791), the Treasury Secretary's vast backside farts defiance at his political opponents. James Gillray's Evacuation of Malta , during the 1803 peace negotiations, has the bare-arsed and terrified Prime Minister Addington defecating territorial concessions to Napoleon into a French officer's cocked hat.
The misdemeanours of princes, dukes and statesmen were exposed without inhibition. Gillray depicted Pitt as drunkard, toadstool, huckster, vulture, sleepwalker, alchemist, glutton and highwayman, or Fox as a bare- bottomed dagger-wielding sans-culotte. The Prince of Wales was a fornicating layabout and voluptuary. From these and like sources we retain a deep memory that still sanctions a healthy irreverence. Not without reason does Bell's Plumb Potty in Danger invoke Gillray's Plumb-Pudding in Danger (1805), or Rowson's comment on Labour's leadership jockeyings have David Miliband kissing Gordon Brown's rhinoceros-shaped backside.
It would be nice to think that this was and is a peculiarly English gift of mockery. Gillray's contemporaries certainly thought so. A German visitor in the 1790s believed that the respect paid to people of rank was much weaker in England than elsewhere: "Everyone seems to know that those who wear a rich or a singular dress are and remain but men." The English were the only people, another added, who could "turn all their political miseries into fun and laughter"; great satire flourished only "in this land of liberty".
And it's true that, while despotism elsewhere imposed censorship, British satire in those days usually escaped it. Satirists got away with any number of seditious prints showing the Regent in bed with his mistresses or farting defiance at petitioners for redress after the Peterloo Massacre. The Prince's many efforts to prosecute failed. Eventually, he had to bribe the satirists into silence at the cost of £2,600 (£100,000 in modern values).
Yet nowadays the fantasy of a peculiarly British liberty rings hollower by the month. To be sure, our sense of parodic irony is more sharply tuned than the Americans'. You'd be hard put to find a US editor allowing the President to be depicted as a bare-bummed chimpanzee. Despite the once- surreal obscenities of underground comix or the subversive ravings of Robert Crumb, US cartooning is generally deferential to political and moneyed power. Neither the corporate marketplace nor a polity and media in thrall to patriotic, evangelical or gendered correctness provides satire with grounds intelligent or secure enough to sustain it. Still, as corporate and managerial governance encases us, the US precedent advises us against vanity. Can our own great louche, mocking tradition survive?
We shouldn't forget how vulnerable it has been in the past. For nearly 150 years after Gillray's death, po-faced vigilantes patrolled satire's boundaries. Not once between 1820 and 1963 was it thinkable for cartooning to feature a royal or statesmanlike buttock, let alone fart. Reverence for "great men" descended in the 1820s, and the bawdy carnivalesque of the old mockeries was replaced by a humour that was domesticated and tamer. When Thackeray reviewed John Leech's prints for Punch in 1854, he lamented that the comic muse had been "washed, combed, clothed and taught good manners". "We have plenty of satire in our literature," a mid-Victorian critic wrote, "but where is our satirist?" "How very singular has been the history of the decline of humour," the writer Andrew Lang lamented - and with reason. The disappearance of bawdy irreverence from Victorian public culture defines a fair part of its tediousness.
It wasn't censorship that achieved this great taming in and after the 1820s. It was self-censorship that did it. Call this force "political correctness" if you will. In the 19th century it was called "respectability" - though it predated that era. In a dynamic economy, upwardly mobile tradesmen, shopkeepers, clerks and professionals had long been distancing themselves from the crudities of their forebears by affirming their own moral superiority. Evangelical Christians joined them. As early as 1803 the Christian Observer advised that satire was "neither sprung from Christian love nor compatible with it". Lacking "the divine affection of love", it sought only "opportunities of private recrimination and revenge", and could never be "hallowed" - whatever that meant. The cultural clout of increasingly ladylike women also helped dilute the old virulence. In Sense and Sensibility (1811), Jane Austen's Lady Middleton disliked Elinor and Marianne Dashwood for being "satirical" - "a censure in common use, and easily given".
Caricaturists had to watch the changing market. So great was the shift in acceptable attitudes that they had to tone down their work in order to sell it. George Cruikshank, the sharpest thorn in the Regent's side, abjured satire altogether in the 1820s and turned to book illustration and comic punning instead; once a cheerful Regency drunk, in the 1840s he even became a teetotal reformer. Thereafter most came to internalise respectable values. Practice delicacy long enough and it becomes reflexive. We inherit the consequences of this great movement. Fastidiousness about aggression, desire and the body still helps define our moral civility.
The emasculation of the English muse so weakened anti-establishment cartooning for the century and more thereafter that it was French and German caricature, not English, that came to harness the old language best - in Jean Veber's L'Assiette au Beurre (1901), for example (Edward VII's face inscribed on the bared buttocks of a laughing Britannia), or in the grotesque expressionism of George Grosz. Britain could still boast inventive cartoonists such as Will Dyson and David Low; Low's anti-Nazi cartoons were chilling and inspired. Even so, by the standards of the great tradition, Low was weakened by his own geniality and deferential insipidity. You'd not find Gillray or Steve Bell celebrating Pitt's or Blair's or Brown's birthdays with a cartoon as craven as the one that Low signed, "To Winston, with affectionate birthday greetings from his old castigator, David Low." (This shows the 80-year-old Churchill being toasted by younger versions of himself.)
So if recent centuries have witnessed great swings in the understanding and tolerance of satire, it's not unreasonable to worry that another is now on its way. Certainly the "public" can't be relied on to defend the satirical tradition. As in the early 19th century, "correctness" is growing fast, now amplified by a deepening squeamishness about offending other cultures, religions and genders. And such satire as survives on television is damaged by its protagonists' overexposure and celebrity.
Rows have been recurrent ever since the Oz prosecution in 1970 sent its editors inside for corrupting public morals with their sexually explicit cartoon strip of Rupert Bear. A television episode of South Park is pulled because it might offend Scientologists. Dave Brown's cartoon parody of Goya showing Ariel Sharon eating an Arab baby provokes a chorus of protesters who see only anti-Semitism (ignoring innumerable comparably vicious charges against Bush and Blair). No British newspaper dares publish the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Does all this matter? Do we really need satire? It is often doubted whether it has ever improved human motivation. To a Private Eye editor in late 1963, "it seemed almost incredible that Harold Macmillan should still be Prime Minister. We had done everything short of assassinating him. We had called him mad, senile, mangy and buck-toothed - we had accused him of lying, of megalomania, of treason. And none of it seemed to have had the slightest effect. The old fellow continued on his way as bland and unflappable as ever." Blair, Brown, Cameron et al. appear to pass by Steve Bell's and others' gibes with similar disdain, assuming they permit themselves to see them.
Despite this, the continuing vigour of satire matters hugely. For a start, its targets' indifference is never as deep as they pretend. There's plenty of evidence that 18th-century caricature hurt its victims much more than they admitted. Add to this the fact that only the cartoonist can express what can't be said in words without risking a libel prosecution. Nobody is better placed to give heart to the powerless. If satire afflicts the comfortable, it comforts the afflicted, as H. L. Mencken said. Laughter, mockery and contempt are among the few powers left to otherwise submissive citizens and subjects. At his best, the cartoonist can remind us that we aren't alone in our anger, contempt and frustration, and life is all the more bearable for it.
No matter that his satire be cruel or tasteless: these are satire's very conditions. How else to assail the time-servers, the hypocrites, the corrupt, the liars and the arrogant? "While gravity and imposture not only exist, but reign triumphant," William Hazlitt snorted in 1829, "oh! ... to break the torpid spell, and reduce the bloated mass to its native insignificance!" Maybe nowadays that's the best we can hope and fight for.
Vic Gatrell is a fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, and professor of history at Essex University. City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (Atlantic, £19.99) won this year's Wolfson Prize for History and the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History.