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Demons or Wimps: General Election Cartoons

by Alan Mumford

General Elections as Culminations

General Elections provide the high water-mark – or low water mark depending on your point of view – for the potential impact of political cartoons. Research suggests that most General Election results are determined over a longer period of time than the specific campaign. The campaign nowadays is seen as the culmination of a usually prolonged period through which cartoonists have developed their views of those policies – and even more sharply of the personalities involved. Cartoonists highlight the sharpest disagreements about policy, the strongest and weakest features of the political personalities involved.

Point of View about Cartoons and Cartoonists

William Hogarth our first major political caricaturist produced his Election series in the mid-eighteenth Century. It was described in the Gentleman’s Magazine "The very many disgusting if not depraved exhibitions of human nature in the paintings." For modern viewers, who have seen the cartoons of Scarfe, Steadman, Rowson and Bell, Hogarth’s cartoons would be seen as relatively mild – and indeed Gillray took things further only thirty years later. There then followed a period of prudish withdrawal from the "excesses" of Gillray and his contemporaries, until savagery reappeared with Will Dyson in the Daily Herald before the First World War.

My own detailed study of General Election cartoons starts in 1945. When people suggest that cartoons nowadays (and they are usually thinking particularly about Rowson and Bell) are much more savage than they used to be, it is instructive to look back at what was being produced in 1945. One of the most famous was Zec’s "Here you are! Don’t lose it again!" This cartoon had first been presented in the Daily Mirror when peace was declared on 8 May 1945. It was repeated on 4 July for the Election. It is perhaps understandable that it presented a generalised figure, rather than operating through a specific political figure. Clement Attlee would probably not then have been seen to carry the necessary punch.

If we turn to David Low in "Dreamland" 7 June, we see a style that operated by ridicule (Churchill had asserted that Labour would have to introduce "some kind of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance"). It was not Low’s style to exaggerate the figures he drew at all. Whilst Low, like many cartoonists at the time, was "left of centre", Michael Cummings was very much to the right of British politics. Cummings, the vitriolic cartoonist for the Daily and Sunday Express, started life extraordinarily on the left-wing Tribune. Two of his editors had contrasting views of him: Derek Jameson said "He reserves most of his venom for Labour leaders. Every day he submits five or six rough outlines and I select the one which seems least cruel". In contrast John Junor said "He made people laugh out loud with his comic genius but there was never either malice nor cruelty in anything he drew."

While Cummings certainly did produce cartoons which sometimes made the reader smile or even laugh, others were by any definition too savage to cause a smile. You might approve of the point politically but it is difficult to believe anyone smiled at, for example, his cartoon in the Daily Express of 17 May 1983. While Cumming’s portrayal of Foot’s wild hair is within the realms of normal cartoonist exaggeration, the placing of a CND emblem over what was in fact Foot’s blind eye is offensive.

Illingworth who drew for Punch and the Daily Mail was much admired by his contemporaries for his draughtsmanship. While his style was unchanged between these two journals, the actual content was much more vividly partisan in the Daily Mail. Bevan and later Tony Benn were demonised by cartoonists – in Illingworth’s case literally in the cartoon. Cartoonists like props to help identify figures – Churchill’s cigars. Wilson’s Gannex raincoat and Margaret Thatcher’s handbag. Benn was identified through a different kind of association – the staring eyes of a fanatic. Cummings’s portrayal of him on 13 April 1979 contrasts with a remarkably sweet Margaret Thatcher.

Cartoonists chose to represent Neil Kinnock as someone in the pocket of the Unions or the Hard Left. Worse still, for some Conservatives, it was believed his wife Glenys had some influence over him.

Conservatives and some cartoonists made an early mistake with the advent of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party. He was first portrayed as a relatively harmless ‘Bambi’. When it became clear that far from being a harmless fawn he was a major danger to the Conservative Government, the focus was turned onto his teeth. Attempts through an advertising campaign to portray him with Demon Eyes was a counter productive flop. It was of course part of Blair’s success in transforming the Labour Party that it was impossible to believe that he was subordinate to the Trade Unions or to the hard left – and therefore impossible to demonise him. Riddell’s cartoon of 6April 1997 does however convey a satirical view of him, which may well have been predictive of later events – his trustworthiness was his defence in the Bernie Eccleston affair later.

The Pinnacle of Achievement

The Guardian publishes very few letters of protest about Rowson or Bell, despite the savagery and exaggeration of their cartoons. Neither grotesque cartoons of the last Conservative Government, and of figures within it, nor their prolonged assaults on New Labour have apparently produced reactions of the kind experience by Vicky in the Evening Standard. Low with Colonel Blimp and the TUC carthorse created major representational figures. Vicky with Supermac created a vision of Harold Macmillan quite different from the one he intended – but one that has lasted. Bell skewered John Major by portraying him as a grey figure with his underpants worn over his trousers. Major’s demise was drawn by Bell on 2 May 1997.

What do they achieve?

Particularly during General Elections cartoons can provide us with an image which lasts. They capture a view, normally one with which a reader of a particular paper is likely to be sympathetic, which helps to fix an elector’s determination to vote in a particular way. The political correspondent, John Sergeant, said that cartoons can capture in one space what journalists have spent days researching and ages talking about. Perhaps we smile at the cartoon or only register it with grudging approval, but we are unlikely to stop halfway through as we might do with a much more substantial article.