THESE are bleakly comic times for Europe.
In Cyprus, the scenes outside banks resemble the January sales, except the customers in this case are trying to save their money. In Italy, political parties have been courting a former comedian, Beppe Grillo, in a bid to rescue the country from another fraught election. Germany, meanwhile, stands accused of having a sense of humour failure over economies not as robust as its own.
What luxury, then, to count among one's chief concerns the lack of political comedy in Scotland. This was Rory Bremner's worry, anyway, as he announced a new, one-off show. The man of a fair few voices asked: "Why is there so little political comedy in Scotland outside the Parliament? Time to make sense, and nonsense, of it all."
Loading article content
It is a good point, even if it does conjure up a vision of Bremner wearing a pith helmet and a puzzled expression when he made his "No political comedy, I presume?" inquiry. At least he had the grace to acknowledge that, having spent most of his career elsewhere, he knew little about contemporary politics in the country of his birth. That explains the lack of Scottish satire from him. What excuse does every other Scot have? Here we are, approaching what is constantly billed as the biggest political decision any of us will make in our lifetimes, and the only television fare that comes close to taking the temperature of the times is Bob Servant Independent, and that's about a Broughty Ferry entrepreneur standing in a Westminster by-election. We can always rely on the blessed Steven Camley, our cartoonist, but even he has to have a day off some time.
It may be that the changing times are considered too serious for comedy. Perhaps the stages leading up to a referendum on independence are meant to resemble those of the grief cycle. First comes denial (everything is fine); then anger (the Tory years); followed by bargaining (devolution); depression (another year and a half of this?); with acceptance as the final stage (we hope).
Seriousness does indeed befit the matter at hand. This, after all, is about jobs, money, education, pensions and a nation's future, no less. As the calendar flips onwards to September 18, 2014, there are many ways the debate could shift. The poll numbers might stay roughly as they are, with the level of undecideds forming a heat seal between the yes and no camps. Or the gap could narrow as more voters realise what is at stake. Either way, humour would not go amiss.
Of greater concern in this long, very long, run up to the vote is that vast numbers will begin to switch off entirely. A way has to be found to make the matter more engaging. Otherwise, the referendum runs the risk of becoming a dry, minority interest, something for the political elite to dabble in while everyone else looks on, bored or bewildered. This is where satire can lend a hand.
Scotland should be a natural home for political comedy. The world and his commissioning editor troop to Edinburgh each summer toting promises of Channel 4 series. Billy Connolly is the comedian's comedian. The Thick of It is thick with Scots. Humour is our third national drink. One wonders why, then, there is such a silence when it comes to what is happening in our own political backyard.
But then humour is a funny old thing, hard to define, easy to get wrong. It is, however, one of the more revealing human traits. As an indicator of confidence, self- awareness, resilience, and well-being, humour says a lot about a country in ways that cold, hard statistics fail to measure. If one accepts that, then it is not just Rory Bremner who should be concerned at the lack of political comedy in Scotland.
Scotland does do political comedy; it is just not political comedy as we have come to know it, Jim. The greatest comedy divide in the UK is not between Scotland and England but between north and south, between the well to do and the not so well off. Southern satire is born in public schools, nourished in the Footlights, preserved in subscriptions to Private Eye and box sets of Yes Minister. Northern humour is born in adversity, brought up in penury and forever looking back in anger.
For all the pleasure northern humour has given, it shows its age and irrelevance when it comes to contemporary politics. It will approach the subject, but only from far away, as if scared to give too much offence. Take Rab C Nesbitt, the last vaguely political comedy character to come out of Scotland. Some might have viewed the string-vested citizen of Govan as a street philosopher detailing the poor man's lot; to others he was just another Scottish stereotype. Rab C was the class clown, not a class warrior to take seriously. Might as well have Sir Harry Lauder represent the nation as Rab C.
Satire requires engaging with reality, the here and now. Scottish humour has traditionally steered clear of reality for the very good reason that it was often, particularly in the west of Scotland, too much to bear. Industrial and social collapse do not My Family-style chuckles make. Nor did Scottish politics of old lend itself to Yes Minister or Spitting Image-type satire. Politics meant Westminster and Whitehall, quips about bureaucracy, reshuffles and budgets. We didn't have any of that. But now we do, and still there is no hefty Scottish satire to be had. We have the man to start the ball rolling in Frankie Boyle, even if he is to subtlety what lions are to vegetarianism.
The arrival of the Scottish Parliament has given Scotland the confidence and means to do many things, including holding a referendum on independence, but it hasn't done much for our ability to laugh at our politicians. The public is ready, it is willing, but there is not a lot out there to tempt us towards mirth. We hope the Scottish cringe is a thing of the past, yet when it comes to our politicians deference still rules OK. While it is fine to have an annual, Hogmanay laugh at football in Only An Excuse, heaven forbid we should do the same with politics.
Scotland has never been a deferential country, but Scottish politics has for too long been given a pass. As the referendum approaches, there has to be Scottish satire out there that is up to the job of holding politicians to account by other means. Otherwise, the joke will be on us.