Taking the piss

Politicians have long been the subject of ridicule. talks to Steve Bell, The Guardian’s political cartoonist, about the power and influence his pen has held over Thatcher, Major, and the rest of the motley ruling crew

Margaret Thatcher being escorted out of Downing Street in a straitjacket. Credit: Steve Bell

Margaret Thatcher being escorted out of Downing Street in a straitjacket. Credit: Steve Bell

“Alistair Campbell, he is a twat and a liar.” Meet Steve Bell, arguably the most opinionated man in journalism. Yet it is not his brutally honest words he is famous for, though he is not a man afraid to hold back, but instead has made his name as one of our generation’s most cutting and brilliant cartoonists.

A towering presence, and with a beard to rival Rasputin, Bell is an embodiment of the left wing politics that inescapably permeate his work. Yet, in many ways, his carefully crafted and ideologically driven works have come to define our perceptions of modern day politicians. Working at the Guardian for the last thirty years, the mad eye of Thatcher, the over-accentuated teeth and ears of Blair and the lubricated face of Cameron have all stemmed from the unforgiving pen of Bell.

He stresses the strong British tradition of being “extremely offensive about politicians,” dating back to Hogarth, and cartoonists are perfectly poised at the centre. “As a cartoonist, you are incredibly well placed to talk about image and to get underneath the whole business of image driven politics,” he says. “Politics is completely driven by image these days so it’s got that advantage. You can sort of influence people’s perception but you have to be accurate, I have to have an element of truth about what I say. While my characters are in some way a distortion, they are also based on a true element of that person; that victim if you like.”

Victim is certainly a good way to describe the subjects of Bell’s art. Very few politicians have escaped without their images, and reputation, tarnished for good. While he is happy to concede “maybe my attitudes are a bit too entrenched for some people”, he also revels in the knowledge that “I annoy all kinds of people – liberals, Tories and the rest of them. Which I’m quite pleased about really.”

He is a man who has built his life on creating controversy, and the novelty of stirring the political pot has clearly not worn off. Notoriously anti-Thatcher (“I hated Thatcher and wanted her to die”), his career flourished from his cruel observations of her “weird left eye”. “She was a self-created cartoon character in many ways” he adds. “Watching the downfall of Thatcher was like watching a slow death, and it was quite good fun really.”

In the current golden age of political correctness, it comes as a refreshing relief to find someone willing to be brutally honest about their views on the current state of British politics.

Yet is appears that with ConDem rule over Westminster, in his eyes, politics has done little to progress since the days of the Iron Lady. “With the current political situation, with the coalition, I’ve got this sense of history repeating itself” he tells me. “It is Thatcher all over again, but it is a weird rubbery Thatcher called Cameron, who is getting away with murder because of his strange kind of body shield in the form of Clegg, who has signed himself up for this suicidal policy as far as I’m concerned.”

Having observed, through an eye more incisive than most, a political era that has fluctuated from Thatcher to Major to Blair and Cameron, Bell has used his cartoons as a way “for me to express disgust, to show the mess, the shit of politics”.

His disgust with Cameron and Clegg becomes increasingly evident. Having started out relatively reserved, he becomes increasingly animated at the mention of the Downing Street duo.

“The problem with recent politics is there has been a kind of drive, and I remember Thatcher was like this, constant polity, constant innovation, constant bringing in of new initiatives, bringing the axe down on this, that and the other; an attack on all fronts. You just look at Clegg now and he is like a wisp, like a leaf, drifting about and badly damaged. He is, as they say, fucked. ”

He laughs good humouredly. Having originally thought he would provide a simple retrospective on the importance of cartoons, I now found myself the audience of some of the most acerbic political analysis I could ever have hoped for.

‘Condom Cameron’ starring in a cartoon ridiculing NHS reform. Credit: Steve Bell

“Us cartoonists lately are having a great time describing just how fucked Clegg is” he says. “Clegg is like a poor clone of Cameron. There’s nothing really to define him. He is just a 2D cardboard man. I’ve been doing him as a bit of soggy cardboard, Martin Rose has been doing him as a Pinocchio who has been ground up into sawdust; we are all having great fun with it. Cameron is a lucky sod, completely unprincipled. He is essentially a public relations man. He is getting away with murder at the moment.”

Despite making a career out of satire and spoofs, his motives are by no means lightweight. Discussing heatedly the absurdity of our bumbling politicians, he conveys a clear drive, and a despairing sense of injustice at the state of the current political arena.

“People are being buggered across the board by this bunch of idiots. And they are selling it somehow under the banner of fairness, it is beggars belief, and just very frustrating to behold.”

Yet, while he mocks Cameron and Clegg as upper-class toffs, it seems he reserves the overt viciousness of his tongue and of his pen for Thatcher and Bush. Mention the war at your peril.

“Bush and Blair engendered a nasty, spectacularly vicious, dirty war in Afghanistan” he says bluntly. “A pointless war of vengeance.” Yet again focusing on the rhetoric of politics, he expresses particular disgust at Bush’s speech before the invasion of Iraq ‘my fellow Americans I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, shock and awe’.

Bell's signature cartoon strip ‘If...’, that launched his Guardian career. Credit: Steve Bell

“That is one of the most sickening phrases I’ve heard in contemporary politics,” he says. “What does shock and awe mean? It means terrorising, bombing the fuck out of a city. It’s a kind of marketing strategy for war, and it is sick and we accept it. This argument for a humanitarian war is nonsense, it has always been nonsense; just a recycled gag from the first gulf war. And I’m driven to fight back at this crap.”

Interestingly, for a cartoonist, rather than picking apart the policies of our leaders, he revels more in picking apart the way that they express themselves. With a keen ear for rhetoric, it is the politicians speeches that seem to help him flesh out his caricatures: “If nothing else, politics is about language, and the way you use language and you give your word. The way politicians are always interviewed in radio and TV they are always incredibly careful about the way they use language. But when Clegg comes along and junks his entire integrity saying one thing and immediately doing the precise opposite, once you’re in office – you can’t get away with it, and especially not in the timescale he has tried to do it. You can’t pledge to get rid of tuition fees and then increase them, it is just stupid.”

Perhaps this is why one such political figure does not even seem to be worth Bell’s anger. On the topic of Tony Blair he describes him, in a tone of sheer condescending mockery, as “the only man I’ve ever seen move themselves to tears on the flood of their rhetoric.” Bell really isn’t one to be fooled by these staged monumental facades, and this anecdote just serves to illustrate how he is one of the few who can look beyond the performances so integrated into modern day politics.

His recent illustrations of Cameron ‘the condom’ have proved particularly popular, and I am keen to find out the thought process behind such an idea. He laughs again at the mention of this, and is evidently proud of this particular caricature:

Edwina Currie a “a crap superman”, i.e.: John Major. Credit: Steve Bell

“What particularly interested me about Cameron was his skin. It was uncommonly smooth, like a baby’s bum. I just think Cameron is just an angry bladder. He is rubber, like a balloon who bounces up. You look at the pictures of him, he is bursting and he is pink. That is where the condom comes from. Though it obviously has other rude connotations…” he trails off, still smiling.

While he is keen to stress he gets almost completely free reign with his cartoons, he admits the ‘Condom Cameron’ proved less than easy for The Guardian to swallow: “I originally got into terrible trouble with the editor who thought it was too rude”, he says. “Mercifully he eventually came round, which was nothing really to do with me. I just got an email one night from him saying, ‘I’m at a dinner being trashed for the condom ban. The condom ban is hereby revoked.’

Courting controversy at every turn, Bell has few qualms over the less-than benevolent nature of his cartoons. For him they act as a kind of justice.

“It’s not very nice to people really but then you are doing them of politicians who aren’t very nice to us, so I get my own back.”

7 comments

  1. Shame Nouse chose to cobble together quotes from his public lecture than getting an actual interview. At least this lacks the print byline ‘talks to’.

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  2. @Anomnom

    Hannah interviewed Steve before he did the public lecture.

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  3. 5 Jun ’11 at 7:11 pm

    Hannah Ellis-Petersen

    @Anomnom

    I interviewed Steve Bell half an hour before his talk, as both he and Neil Lunt, the James College provost will attest. As he was talking mostly off the cuff in his lecture, he unsurprisingly repeated some of the anecdotes he had told me just before and voiced similar opinions. The fact that I interviewed him face to face was also the reason we have been given permission to publish his cartoons, as he personally emailed them to me the day after the interview.

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  4. 5 Jun ’11 at 8:25 pm

    Jake Farrell

    This is mental. Not only have you had a go at someone for a perfectly good article that informs and entertains but you were entirely unfounded in your criticism. Fair enough if the article wasn’t to your taste, constructive criticism is what the comments are for. But to get stuck into a writer on the basis of a complete lie is bonkers.

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  5. Sorry Hannah, I stand corrected. Because of the format of the article and the repetition of his lecture comments I jumped to conclusions.
    @Jake Farrell, please calm down.

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  6. 6 Jun ’11 at 4:43 pm

    Jake Farrell

    I think asking me to calm down would be valid, if not still “unbearably smug” and patronising, if this was the first time you took your scatter gun approach to slagging everyone under a variety of alias’ and never your own name. I think you need to ease off the angry comments, people are just trying their best to provide content, if you don’t like it express it in a constructive way and stop being so needlessly angry.

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