Mark Perryman shows how Steve Bell's visual dissent targets the entire establishment. All cartoons are courtesy of the man himself
Politics can be an ugly business. There is a nasty habit of refusing to listen to those we disagree with, a failure to recognise that through difference we can learn from each other. Such inbuilt attitudes are common across left, right, in-between and green. Nor are sections of social movements immune either. So where lies the political cartoonist's right to offend?
Steve Bell is without much doubt the pre-eminent political cartoonist of his generation, or in other words from Thatcher to Sunak. He mercilessly caricatures the lot of them, not a physical, or political feature is spared. This is The Political Establishment and they deserve everything they get, but Steve's work is never hateful. It’s sharply critical certainly but almost warmly appreciative of the make-believe characters he crafts out of their reality.
This year marked the fortieth anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War. With Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out Out! Out! plumbing the depths of unpopularity the Argentine invasion of these faraway and half-forgotten island with considerably more sheep than human occupants the opportunity to wrap herself in what Stuart Hall described as:
A rampant and virulent patriotism. Once unleashed, it is an apparently unstoppable, populist mobiliser - in part, because it feeds off the disappointed hopes of the present and the deep and unrequited traces of the past, imperial splendour penetrated into the bone and marrow of the national culture.
Steve draws in outright opposition to such ideas but with a humour almost entirely lacking in conventional so-called activism. His militancy represented by his penguins, reducing Thatcher's militarism to the sheer stupidity of the idea that the Empire was back, the 'Great' put back into Great Britain and you can stuff that up yer Argies.
The necessity for such dissent couldn't have been more obvious at the time with Labour led by Michael Foot, once a key figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in hot pursuit of the Tories' march to war. Stuart Hall, again:
More scandalous than the sight of Mrs Thatcher's best hopes going out with the navy has been the demeaning spectacle of the Labour front-bench leadership rowing its dinghy as rapidly as it can in hot pursuit. Only of course - here the voice of moderation - 'Not so far! Slow down! Not so fast!'
Penguins, John Major with his underpants on the outside, Tony Blair as the manic moderniser, a condom-headed David Cameron accompanied by an S&M clad George Osborne, Bumface Boris Johnson and most recently Sir Cardboard Starmer. This is the political establishment, but as we're used to knowing it.
And then there's the British monarchy. Sainted, any critique beyond the pale. What better target for Steve's visual dissent? But why should the monarchist majority have all the fun of the royal family merch and tat? Philosophy Football first worked with Steve on the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, his Damian Hirst-inspired 'Diamond Liz' mug perfect for raising a disloyal toast. Since then we've 'celebrated' a Royal Wedding, birth, another Jubilee, and of course next year for many the first royal coronation of our lifetime. With each and every subvertised Royal Crest he creates for these occasions as always with Steve the opposition is sharply obvious, the human warmth of his caricature conjuring humour out of dissent.
When the Guardian made the ludicrous decision to axe Steve's If... cartoon strip he marked his final week with those much-loved penguins. Anti-establishment to the last, a quiet rebellion in the face of all that's wrong in politics, an exposure of the limits of a commonsense discourse that is anything but commonsensical, by penguins! Nothing could represent Steve Bell's artistic genius of visual dissent better, and whatever 2023 holds, King Chuck the Third with the crown on his head, Sir Cardboard Starmer knocking on the door of Number Ten, we'll need plenty more of that.