Thursday, 17 March 2016

Mr Punch and a Prime Minister

Once upon a time I used to spend hours down on the Barbican in Plymouth happily browsing around that rarest of creatures, an old second-hand bookshop (the kind where books are stacked like firebricks and filed according to some long-forgotten system). One thing I particularly looked out for were old copies of Punch Magazine and I'd try to make sense of political cartoons (using cartoon in the sense of a drawing intended for satire, caricature or humour) which were so far past their sell-by dates that the meanings were obscured by the mists of time. This one from 1889, that I've just come across in a completely unrelated context, featuring William Ewart Gladstone is an excellent example of what occupied my time - and still would, if I had the, um, time. Who says I don't know how to have fun?

In June 1889 Gladstone, a Liberal, was Leader of the Opposition and a tireless political campaigner despite having reached the age of 79. Where others would take long summer holidays, Gladstone would fill his time delivering political speeches in all parts of the country and the cartoon shows Gladstone on a train heading for the West Country and another round of political meetings. At this stage in his life, he was becoming more and more radical in his views, flirting almost with an early version of democratic socialism.

One is tempted to look back across the political years and conclude that little has changed. People were making fun of politicians back then, and many of the events of 1889 - aristocrats involved in sex scandals, people demanding a decent living wage, Wales losing a rugby international - have a degree of familiarity.  Some things have changed, however, and not necessarily for the better. A politician prepared to face the people - without a carefully selected audience and a carefully placed autocue - would today be as rare as an empty railway carriage. A Leader of the Opposition who was entering his eighties and still destined to serve a further term as Prime Minister, would today be as unthinkable as a self-penned speech. And a politician who was getting more radical as he got older would today be as hard to find as a decent second-hand bookshop.

Footnote: Mrs P and I went to the same grammar school and we are of the generation who, when William Ewart Gladstone is mentioned, will have a Pavlovian response and come out with 'GOM/MOG - Grand Old Man/Murderer of Gordon'. A phrase from our History master, Mr Percival, that alludes to Gladstone's falling out of favour when General Gordon was killed at the Battle of Khartoum. Actually it should be 'Gwand Old Man/Murdewer of Gordon' as Mr Percival (nicknamed Pinky because of his fresh complexion and rosy cheeks which, with knowledge gained since, may have been due to his liking for drink) had a pronounced lisp (spelt L I S P but pronounced lisp).

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