London: Truth in Satire

LONDON -- Before the start of taping of the Mark Thomas television show, something of the New Britain is already in evidence here at the Bedford Arms in Balham, South London. A decade ago, this pub sat in the middle of a red light district. The chains on the doors of the large back room were sometimes removed to make way for local Labour Party meetings. Those were days of despair -- with Thatcher in ascendancy, representatives of the prostitutes' union coming to lecture, and infighting over who was more socialist than whom.

Nowadays, Balham's fortunes have risen, and so has the tenor of the Bedford Arms. The wood and plaster are fresh. The customers are young, and, behind their clouds of cigarette smoke, are utterly accustomed to their place in a new nation. For them, the Labour Party is solidly on top, the economy is chugging ahead, and even the Cool Britannia label of a year ago has been shed as insufficient. As for that notable back room, it's also been refurbished -- as a comedy club. On this rainy night, it has been fitted out by Channel Four as a television studio to play host to the last episode of a series by one of the country's most talented political comics.

Mark Thomas is the UK's equivalent of Michael Moore. Young, cheeky, and with a reassuringly English beer belly, he's the quintessential comedian as social critic. He has the garrulous wit of a pub-room organizer and the friendly philanthropic aura of the lad who helps you pull your car out of a ditch. Thomas certainly hasn't forgotten the working man or the promise of an activist government. Those old, unglamorous Labour meetings are the just well on which he wants to draw. But under this government, and in this tony setting, the connection starts to look strained.

One way to know a regime is by its satirists. And Thomas seems like as good a symbol as any of Labour learning to criticize itself. In T-shirt and jeans, perspiring under the lights, he starts his routine for the young audience (and the Channel Four cameras) with a long account of his recent exploits and successes. He solicited a Christmas card from David Shayler, the exiled intelligence agent-turned-whistleblower who was much in the news last year, just to irritate high government censors. He describes his trip to see them. Laughter, applause.

He reports teasing a major Burmese official for the repression of democracy in Burma, not all that subtly. A week later, the same VIP was parroting the comedian's words of criticism ("Democracy is like a plant that must be pruned") as self-congratulation, on the BBC.

Thomas has plenty of one-liners and the right list of targets. But when he switches from highlighting various kinds of idiocy and betrayal to poking fun at the direction of Labour, things become confused. Thomas denounces Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, as a matter of habit. He then turns, for most of the rest of the show, to the Millennium Dome.

The Dome was Britain's huge Y2K hope, intended as a rerun of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It's proving, perhaps, to be more like the not-so-great exhibition of 1951. It's a giant white tent in North Greenwich, constructed to accommodate several tens of thousands of spectators as they tour smaller "zones" about the human body, the environment, transport, religion, and the British past and future. From quite early on in its construction, it was imagined as a kind of summation of the shape of the New Britain -- and, perhaps inevitably, of the effects of New Labour. To Thomas and others, it has therefore become a summation of the ways in which the government is going wrong.

Why is so much at the Dome sponsored by the biggest of businesses if it's supposed to reflect the details of everyone's lives? Rolling the film of a set of pranks he orchestrated earlier in the week, Thomas makes clear where the planners went wrong. He rejects the pavilion full of talking appliances that ask you about your household to record a "time-capsule" of British habits -- as if appliances were what mattered. He dresses up a team of "generals" to tour the display set up by a UK arms manufacturer and praise the killing power of their weapons. He takes union organizers into the Dome's McDonald's restaurants to find out how the employees are treated.

As the escapades accelerate, he leads recovering addicts to erect a mini tent city under the body zone -- they chant "Homes, not domes!" -- and arranges for Dome performers to spell out "800 million for a big tent seems crap" with their T-shirts. Thomas declares the whole enterprise to be empty, compromised, and stupid. His way of phrasing this? "Corporate wank."

Behind those criticisms there seems to be a different kind of objection, though. In part, it boils down to a question of class -- as so many things do in the UK. Thomas takes the perspective of the working class. This has always been the rallying cry of the core of Labour activists. But Thomas's critique doesn't have a lot to do with the rights of workers. The butt of his objections is something called "Middle England." That the Millennium Dome apparently panders to its tastes is the real charge against the exhibition.

Middle England represents the much-talked about petit bourgeois stratum of gardeners and status quo-ers, the unlovable middle classes -- people conservative with a lower-case "c" and immune to good taste in anything. "The buyers of chocolates," Thomas calls them derisively. With its sometimes tepid but hardly blameworthy program of slow amelioration, New Labour is supposed to have sold out to this Middle England, at the expense of all that workers hold dear. Now the party wants to put on a show for them.

It was precisely the wooing of these middle classes that used to be the triumph of New Labour. In the early 1980s, the party was hemorrhaging its membership. It briefly risked becoming not just the loyal opposition to an eternal Tory regime but, in fact, the third-comer among the parties, after the defection of key Labourites to help form the party that became the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair's rise and success depended on the reinvention of Labour as an inclusive and, yes, middlebrow entity. The charge is that Labour lost its soul along the way.

Thomas certainly isn't alone in his criticism. It's just hard to know whether it is genuinely coming from below -- from the ordinary folks and union members who have always been Labour's core constituency -- or from elsewhere. Is it a reflection of the loss of real radical will to corrupt pragmatism? Or is this more of the kind of aesthetic and political elitism that left-of-center politics always has to watch out for and address? We'll know in time.

Tony Blair seems to face more sources of internal opposition each month, as the world-class spin-doctoring of his associates has begun to fall short. In London, where the new position of Mayor was meant to produce a local figure who would help support Blairite initiatives, the insurgent Labour candidacy of Ken Livingstone could create an alternative Labour power base instead. And with the resignation from the Welsh Assembly of Blair's handpicked First Secretary, Alan Michael, 10 Downing Street looks to face further internal criticism from a power base in Wales. These are the political manifestations of the party's growing pains at mid-administration. The currents of dissatisfaction that a figure like Mark Thomas voices, though, reflect the philosophical confusion that lies underneath these challenges.

Thomas leaves the stage in the Bedford Arms to wild cheering from a crowd full of young, hip, and financially untroubled Britons -- cheering Thomas's efforts on behalf of a working class that is not at all in evidence, to be broadcast some days later to a television audience of others like themselves. The comedian goes back to his celebrity, disappearing somewhere with his handlers. A well-known Member of Parliament drifts outside with the exiting crowd. Somewhere in this muddle, probably, lies the future of New Labour.

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