Martin Rowson’s political cartoons for the Guardian, The Mirror and other papers are visually bold and acutely scathing of our MPs’ pitiful attempts to run the country. As we meet around the time of the shaky Scottish independence referendum, he is entertainingly candid about his run-ins with those in power.
Mark R: Looking back over the last four years of cartoons collected in this book, what stands out as the coalition government’s biggest failing?
Martin R: Where do you start? I think it’s all of a piece, although we’re just about to see it all come home – there is a chance Cameron may lose Scotland. I said in the book, which went to press in April, if he loses Scotland he is Lord Northbad, he’s that bad. The thing about Cameron is that he just thought it would be a breeze because he’s a typical upper-class chancer – bluff your way through Oxford, bluff your way into banking or bluff your way into PR in his case, which he clearly thought would be a breeze. He has been consistently complacent and arrogant and lazy as a gap-year prime minister. He’s just idling his way through so he can get a job at Goldman Sachs. But when he presents them with his CV – almost lost Scotland, couldn’t win majorities against Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband – who the fuck’s going to employ him? But my hatred for the coalition isn’t actually all that partisan. If David Davis, who’s a friend of mine, had been leader of the Conservative Party, it might have been different, as he’s a grown-up. But the combination of Cameron and Osborne, who are riddled with a sense of false entitlement, and the abject uselessness of the Liberal Democrats, have come together to produce this genuinely, disgustingly appalling, dismal, useless, incompetent government. And the most breathtaking thing is, where’s the satire? Where is the full-frontal assault on these useless clowns who are dragging the reputation of the country through the mud?
Yes, and Peter Brookes is doing lovely stuff in The Times – of all places. But there’s a sense that nothing exists unless it’s on TV. People think satire wasn’t invented until That Was The Week That Was, it didn’t exist except when Spitting Image was on the telly. Have you ever met any commissioning editors? They’re amongst the most appalling people I’ve met in my life, because they see themselves as kind of thaumaturges, magicians who can get hundreds of thousands or millions of people all to sit still at the same time looking at the same thing. And they have a very, very conservative and limited view of the world. You know: What works, works, so we’ll carry on doing it. So the only thing on television as far as satire is concerned is stand-up comedians sitting on panel shows. Nothing like Up Sunday from the early 1970s, a wonderful little programme, nothing like The Frost Report, nothing like Spitting Image, all too difficult, so not even a glimmer, just Have I Got News for You? Rory Bremner said that since May 2010 the phone hasn’t rung. And this is the weird thing, Cameron is the first prime minister of my lifetime who’s not regularly impersonated on television, so we haven’t got a template for what he sounds like. A caricature, like an impression, creates a new reality. But Rory Bremner wasn’t asked to create a new David Cameron in the initial weeks, which should have happened, and the opportunity was lost.
The great cartoonist David Low said “politicians are merely waxworks, it’s the cartoonists who bring them to life.” And you have to do that because today’s politicians try to be as bland as possible, to be digestible. How Cameron, who was there as the PR man, as the smooth operator, failed to win a majority against Gordon Brown is quite extraordinary, and they should have got rid of him then. But I’m told by journalist friends with their ears to the ground that the coup is gathering momentum, because this useless pink blob has no principles, no vision. He’s just prime minister because he thinks he should be prime minister, and anybody who thinks that way should be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
So that’s the government dealt with. How would you summarise the opposition over the same period?
Again it’s extraordinary. You had what should have been a climacteric in British politics, it should have marked the end of Thatcherism, plates should have shifted. We get this weird thing that nobody wants, the coalition government, and what does the Labour Party do? It spends five months having a leadership election. Five months just staring up its own arse.
And then picked the wrong candidate?
Well I think the idea that the Blairite dauphin should have had it… David Miliband would have been worse, because any clever government strategist – if there are any – would have just picked him to pieces over the fact that he was extraordinarily rendering British subjects to faraway countries to be tortured in dungeons. Everybody knows that, and it would have blown him out of the water, and he might easily have caused a split in the Labour Party as well. But the thing about Ed Miliband is he looks terrible and he sounds terrible, but his heart’s in the right place.
But all he seems to talk about is how terrible he looks and sounds.
I think many politicians should sack their spin doctors and their advisers and their media consultants and just go for it. One of the most successful Labour politicians of the last thirty years, certainly one of the most ruthless, is Ken Livingstone, up to the point where he proved he could be successful by jettisoning the Labour Party because it was holding him back. He’s always been his own spin doctor. He says the most outrageous things, he doesn’t want to be liked, I think he’s probably a psychopath – he’s quite a good friend of mine, but I think he’s probably a psychopath. Apart from the Congestion Charge, he achieved some extraordinary things. For sixty years they couldn’t decide whether or not to pedestrianise the top of Trafalgar Square, and he just did it. And that’s genuine political achievement. Nobody was killed as a consequence, it’s got a lot going for it.
I thought it couldn’t get much lower, yet the coalition has made it worse in many ways. I’m immeasurably proud of my children, who were students in 2010, both voting in their first General Election. All their friends and contemporaries were saying “We’re going to vote Lib Dem, isn’t that great?” And they said, “No, I’m not voting for that arsehole.” For Clegg to talk about a new politics and then completely reverse one of his core policies, he proved that voting means absolutely nothing. On the night they voted through the tripling of tuition fees, children were kettled in front of the Mother of Parliaments and subjected to repeated cavalry charges by the Metropolitan Police (which of course we know is the best police force money can buy). If that wasn’t an indictment of the establishment, I can think of nothing more telling. Alfie Meadows was nearly killed in order to cover up Nick Clegg’s shame. And he can say “Sorry, I shouldn’t have done it in that way”, but he’s never actually had the guts to answer why he allowed the police to almost kill a child to cover up his shame.
What do you suppose the next UK government will look like? Do you think we’ll be stuck with another coalition after the next election?
Well, as things are looking at the moment, we might not have a government. The whole thing might just completely unravel, fall to pieces like a house of cards. Whether Scotland votes Yes or No, all it means is they’ll negotiate. Anything could happen as a consequence. I think the Tories led by Cameron will be in a really difficult position, because he will have shown himself to be so abjectly useless. He’s been buttressed by a slavishly loyal media, led by the BBC, and the last poll was I think Labour on 35, the Tories on 28. I think Labour’s going to get a majority, that’s my hunch. They may not deserve it, but I think they’ll get a majority.
If that looks on the cards, might Cameron cosy up to UKIP to try and force a coalition?
UKIP are going to get three MPs, if that. I don’t think they’ll get any more, they haven’t got the organisational capacity. And they are a bunch of raving loonies. I’m not saying UKIP is like BNP, but they are like the BNP inasmuch as they get all these council seats and have no idea what to do. They are meant to be breaking the mould of politics, but they don’t turn up to meetings, they don’t know how to sit on committees, they either go to prison or they change sides… they’re just a bunch of loonies. And despite all my anarchist principles, you do need, I think, a solid cadre of people who are actually prepared to do the boring stuff and sit in planning committee meetings.
I found my first drawing of Cameron the other day, from before the leadership election. It was 2005 outside the Winter Gardens in Blackpool and all the leadership candidates were queuing up to go in – Liam Fox, David Davis, Ken Clarke – and they were being measured for their coffins. And Cameron, although he’s full-size, and sort of adult-shaped, he’s wearing the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, so obviously I immediately thought of him like that. When I first started drawing him on a regular basis, I used to have a little silver spoon up his nose, for obvious reasons, but it was both libellous and too many people thought it was a bogey, so I got rid of it quite quickly. Osborne, when he was in opposition, I drew wearing a black velvet suit, but then I suddenly thought, actually let’s put him in an Eton collar going up to St Paul’s because he really is this flaccid Flashman character. The way it works is you get a template and then you then suddenly realise you’ve inhabited them. It’s a weird kind of shamanist voodoo, and I got Osborne when I realised his mouth isn’t under his nose, it’s actually to the side of his face and it’s moving further and further and further. The fact that it looks less and less like he does physically means it’s actually more and more like him, which is a weird part of the process of caricature. Again, David Low once drew Einstein, who said, “This looks nothing like me,” and Low replied, “It looks more like you than you do” – and he was right.
Again, this was pure chance. I really couldn’t draw him. Every time I tried I was getting it wrong because I’d never seen him in the flesh, I was just working from photographs. And then I saw him on the first TV debate, and realised he’s got a little thin neck and a sort of noddy head, and then I got him. I realised physically he was a weird combination of Private Pike from Dad’s Army and Pinocchio. So the next day I drew him as just a straight caricature of a man in a suit, but it was his head and it worked. And then I thought, well let’s see what happens. Little wooden boy wants to be a real politician, that seems to work, and everybody got it, everybody liked the joke. (I’ve been told he doesn’t, so that’s even better.) And then as things turn out it’s just absolutely perfect because he lied and he lied and he lied. In the course of the book he’s reduced to ashes and sawdust on several occasions and then rebuilt, and there are bits of him all over the place.
Which politicians are your favourites to draw?
As I mention in the book, cartoonists do get involved in this weird kind of Stockholm syndrome where we fall in love with our victims. In 2004 every single fibre of my being wanted Bush to lose, except my over-active satire gland which just loved drawing his eyebrows like mad chinchillas on his forehead. I love drawing George Osborne – and I despise him more than anybody in politics in the last thirty years. Even more than Michael Heseltine, who I despised because of his bumptiousness. But there’s something about Osborne. He’s no good but he’s also not a serious politician, he’s playing. It’s not about a political career, it’s about personal development, and he’s fucking up my country, and I don’t want him using my country as a playpen any more than I want Boris Johnson to. But there’s something about that head, and his total inability to have a poker face. He cannot disguise his emotions with his face, you can see what he’s thinking, you can see everything that’s going on, and he has the most unfortunate smirk and sneer in the western world. Everything is wrong with his face for a politician, absolutely everything. But also, quite clearly, he has no bones in his head. There are two things about him when you look at him. Firstly, he has no bones in his head, and he is a fat man who is currently thin. His head is this extraordinary thing – I suspect he’s always photographed with a hard hat on at a building site or a factory to stop his head flopping over sideways.
I love drawing George Osborne – and I despise him more than anybody in politics in the last thirty years. Even Heseltine.”
About nine years ago Bell Pottinger, the PR company led by the sinister Tim Bell, got in touch with me asking if I’d like to have an exhibition of my cartoons, because if I did they would have just the person to open it in the form of George Osborne, who’d just become shadow chancellor. I emailed back saying I’m not in the business of providing a fig leaf for vicious Tory MPs, and anyway who is George Osborne? But I’ll do it on the following conditions: I can invite my mates, I can sell my work, and I can make a speech. And they said yeah, absolutely fine, no problem at all. So he duly turned up, as indeed did my friends who started drinking Lord Bell’s drink with a vengeance. And he looked round, greeted Tim Bell, and mounted the stairs up to the mezzanine level and he said, you know, “I think cartoons are terribly good fun, they’re very very jolly. I see there are no pictures of me here this evening, but I’m sure there will be in time. You’re doing terribly well, carry on.” Basically, that’s what he said. So I said, “The reason there are no pictures of you here this evening, George, is because I’ve no idea what you look like. Until a few weeks ago I’d never heard of you. And of course your party’s been absolute rubbish, obsessing about Europe, not doing anything properly to oppose this vile New Labour government. That’s been left to people like me and my good friends Dave Brown and Steve Bell here, who are drinking Lord Bell’s drink. But should you ever manage to scramble to the top of the greasy pole…” – at which point he cried out, “Yes, yes! I wish to serve!” – “just bear in mind that every day of your life we will emphasise that bizarre cleft at the end of your nose, your weak chin, your sallow complexion, your bad skin, your shifty eyes. So I’m just giving you fair warning that you can quit now and go and run a pet shop, because otherwise we are going to portray you wading thigh-deep on a daily basis through an infinitely wide ocean of human blood and shit, eating babies.” At which point, he simpered, and I have several witnesses to this, “If I’d known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have come!”
But of course it was going to be like this. So how does he react today?
You get no response from him. He’s a terrible coward, he runs away. I’ve invited him to things, he never turns up. But it was that realisation: You’re genuinely not up to this. This is a game, but it’s a different kind of game to the one you’re playing. You think, “I’m going to be a statesman, I’m going to be the steward of the economy, the great helmsman.” Actually no, it’s a dirty, vicious game, and people are going to rip the shit out of you on a regular basis. You can stitch up Danny Finkelstein and all the other tame Tory journalists to parrot your press releases, but it’s not going to make you a statesman, it’s going to make you one of the most hated people in the country, which he is. People have a physical aversion to him. He thinks he’s a great statesman, a brilliant strategist and he’s not, he’s a kid playing in a playground.
You mention in the book that sales of your cartoons to UKIP funded a trip to Transylvania. Is that true?
It is. In 2013 we had booked a holiday in Transylvania, for many years my wife had wanted to see the amazing fortified Saxon churches in Transylvania, and we like travelling as independent travellers, so we’d booked the flights, we’d booked into various different hotels, train journeys, and I sold so many cartoons to UKIP, because they were terribly excited about being in the news, that the sales covered the costs of the entire holiday. And I did email them saying, “To say thank you, I should really bring back 8,000 Romanians just for you,” to which they replied, “I think you’ll find they’ll come on their own.”
Is that the most surprising request you’ve had to buy one of your drawings?
I’ve sold to some pretty weird people. When I was working on Today newspaper 25 years ago, doing pocket cartoons on the City page, somebody wanted to buy one I’d done about a private path lab, with cartoon laboratory animals talking about their half-yearly results. I went to pick up the picture from the paper and I was told, “They’re suing us over your cartoon because they don’t use laboratory animals and it’s deemed to be libellous.” Then the lawyer came along and said they’re trying to buy evidence. Yum, yum, yum! Not only did we get the case thrown out, but their solicitor also got disbarred. So it was a result. That was the weirdest one I’ve ever sold, I think.
You often channel Hogarth and other artists. Should Hogarth’s work be seen as satire, social commentary, or just great art?
All three. He would definitely think of himself as a satirist. I’m a huge fan of Hogarth. Although it’s interesting that he only ever did about three what we would call political satires, one of which, The Times, led to his total destruction. Everybody who supported the government of the time turned on him, and drove him to an early grave – perhaps not early, but they certainly hounded him to his death.
He lived in a time of transition when what he did, which was journalism as well, because it was produced to be reproduced, was seen as art. I am unfortunate, along with my fellow cartoonists, in that we are not deemed to be art, we are deemed to be journalists, but that’s fine by me, because we tend to get paid more than artists anyway.
I discovered Bairnsfather when I was about eight in my grandmother’s house where she had some albums of his cartoons, which were enormously popular with the troops. Bairnsfather was serving in the trenches when he produced ‘Fragments of France’ for the Bystander. Mine was a cartoon about Gove saying you couldn’t interpret or come to an understanding of the First World War through Blackadder and Oh! What A Lovely War, which is completely and utterly wrong. My knowledge of the First World War originated in cartoons. A better ’ole is one of those cartoons which cartoonists use over and over again because it’s such a great image.
If Thatcher hadn’t presided over the rush to what you identify as kleptocratic free-market capitalism, would it have happened anyway?
I think Thatcher is seen as a more purposeful juggernaut that she really was, I think she was making it up as she went along. We got into this mess because she was driven by her reading of Hayek, and Hayek, quite simply, was wrong when he wrote in 1944 that democratic socialism is impossible. But she was driven by that hatred of socialism. Most of what she did, the really big stuff – having a deliberate recession and the destruction of the unions – was simply short-term political tactics to outmanouevre the Labour Party: We’ll destroy their political base, we’ll destroy their electoral base, we’ll just undermine them. And once you’ve weakened the unions, you have no check on the turbo-capitalism that comes in.
Do you feel that today’s student generation is as angry as back then? And do they have any reason not to be?
Well, I did some stuff for a couple of the student occupations over tuition fees, and they were really quite wonderfully angry. They have every right to be utterly furious because they have been betrayed comprehensively by the political elite – by the Labour Party who commissioned Lord Browne in the first place, and then by the coalition who implemented Lord Browne’s mad ideas. This is the man, remember, who fucked the Gulf of Mexico through his cost-cutting at BP, he’s now fucking the entire country with his fracking at Cuadrilla, and he fucks university education as well. So these people are being sold into debt peonage. Tomorrow I’m receiving an honorary fellowship at Goldsmiths and I’ve got to make the keynote address to graduates, and I’m thinking of advising them how to avoid having to pay back their tuition fees, which is just never to earn enough money. So they’ll become the most intelligent street-sweepers the world has ever known. This may not make them leave feeling all that happy…
Your cartoons for The Morning Star are particularly vituperative. Do others who commission you ever ask you to tone down the drawings you submit? And if so, what’s your response?
I’ve been doing this for so long I know how to self-censor. If there are problems with the Guardian stuff, I will talk it through with the Comments editor. My friend and colleague Steve Bell just sends in stuff and usually finds it being spiked at 8 o’clock in the evening. Morning Star don’t pay me, but they’re a kind of useful place to put stuff that would never be published by anyone else, because they can’t say no.
So is that somewhere that you can really vent?
Yeah, for instance the Olympic shitting pig picture, nobody else would publish that. I got in touch with the editor and said, “I’m doing this deliberately, to see what happens, to see if the International Olympic Committee sues me, because I’m clearly breaching their copyright and their set of rules. Are you up for that? Because it could bankrupt the paper.” And he said, “Well we haven’t got any money so that’s fine, let’s go for it. Maybe we’ll become a cause celèbre and put a few more sales on.” And of course, sadly, they totally ignored us.
Ken Livingstone made you London’s Cartoonist Laureate. What did that entail? And are you technically still appointed to the role?
That was a sort of stupid joke originally. He and I are both involved in London Zoo, and at a truly weird event in 1999 to celebrate the opening of the new invertebrate house, they invited Margaret Thatcher along to a grand banquet. Ken was then Vice-President of the Zoological Society, and so she at one end of the banqueting suite stood up and made this speech which sounded as though human was a foreign language – she was pretty far gone at that stage – and then he stood up at the other end. I was sitting at the same table and I’d watched him neck about three bottles of white wine, and he stood up and made the most brilliant extemporised speech about conservation I’d ever heard. Then he raised his glass with a, wonderful phrase, “Baroness, I salute you.” I said to him afterwards, “If ever you become mayor, can I become your cartoonist laureate so I can follow you around like a slave in Ancient Rome, whispering in your ear, ‘Stop looking so fucking smug’.” And he said, “Yeah, all right, be a bit of a laugh.” And then he became mayor, and I reminded him, and he said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And it became quite a big news story, because at that stage nothing had happened since he’d become mayor. He was meant to pay me a pint of London Pride a year. He paid me two or three, then he never got round to paying me any more, so he was five or six in arrears when he ceased to be mayor. I then wrote to Boris to say I have a contract in the bowels of City Hall, and he said, yes you are still officially the mayor’s cartoonist laureate, but get the previous incumbent to pay the balance (which he didn’t). I haven’t done anything for Boris, but what I wanted to do, had he immediately reappointed me, was a picture of him being fucked up the arse by Veronica Wadley wearing a strap-on dildo, just to make sure that he sacked me. I’ve mentioned this to several people including Ken, who said, “You’ve got to draw it, you’ve got to draw it.” 1
Are you working on any other book projects?
I have an idea for a sort of portmanteau book, a series of graphic short stories, but I want them all to be without words. I rather like the idea of silent comics where just the pictures tell the story. I’ve already done some of these, but I have in my head the graphic plot of somebody waking up and going to an archaeological dig and finding a weird thing and nobody knows what it is, and it’s clear that this person lives in a post- or pre- or non-literate society. So people are talking all the time but there are no words, and through some mistake, from some different dimension, they find something written on a plaque – “Keep off the grass”, or something like that – and they don’t know how to deal with it, and they start astral planing, going to different dimensions to try and see what it means. I just think it would be an interesting exploration of literacy. And I’ve got a great title: The Pen is Mightier Than the Word.
You have of course written a book with only one word in it, so perhaps this is a natural progression.
I’m often asked why I put so many words in my cartoons, and I do find myself using fewer and fewer. Certainly, one thing I thank the coalition for, when they came along I changed my style, I started making the cartoons much more crowded, much more stuff going on in them because it was a coalition and there were more people involved. I deliberately thought, I’m going to make this like the Giles family meets Gillray, so there are these children and puppets, and it’s mayhem. Previously I’d been creating more obviously political cartoons about a specific strategy or policy or whatever. It’s meant in a way to be a kind of disjointed cartoon strip where you don’t know how it’s going to end because you don’t know what the events are going to be. So there is a narrative running through it, and thankfully most of the people who regularly see my stuff do get the recurring characters. Some have said, for instance, “What is that huge furry cup doing there?” “It’s a fur cup.” “Sorry?” “A furc-up.” “Oh, I see!” But it doesn’t matter if they don’t get it, there’s other stuff going on as well.
The whole point of political cartoons is they’re meant to be stupid, they’re meant to be puerile. People say, “Why can’t you be more serious?” I’m not meant to be serious! Or “It’s just schoolboy humour.” What’s wrong with schoolboys? Leave them alone! 2
1 Wadley, as editor of the Evening Standard was Ken’s arch-critic while he was in office, and subsequently appointed by Boris as a mayoral adviser.
2 Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
Martin Rowson is a multi-award winning cartoonist and writer, a trustee of the British Humanist Association and an honorary associate of the National Secular Society. His work has appeared regularly over the past thirty years in the Guardian, The Times, The Mirror, the Independent on Sunday, The Irish Times, and many other newspapers and periodicals. His books include graphic novelisations of The Wasteland, Tristram Shandy and Gulliver’s Travels, and the memoir Stuff, about clearing out his late parents’ house, which was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. The Coalition Book is published by SelfMadeHero. Read more.
Author portrait © davidxgreen.com
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.