The first time I read Roger McGough’s poem, ‘The Leader’, many years ago, I grinned, called him a smart-arse and moved on. It was just a bit of fun. An exaggeration to make the point that so many politicians over the years have been motivated by an ambition to be The Leader rather than by a need to lead people to a particular place. It was scouser satire – tart, smart and snarky – a bit of a laugh.
It never occurred to me to read the poem as prophecy.
I’m not laughing anymore. Reality has called satire’s bluff. Life has imitated snark. We now have as Prime Minister a venal, vainglorious, habitually mendacious man whose ambition so far exceeds his ability that his incompetence defies belief.
Why is he there?
Because his amoral, dogma-free, sociopathy serves the purposes of those who put him in power.
McGough’s poem could almost be the script of Johnson’s conversations with the 1922 Committee, Bannon, Murdoch and Putin. He displayed his vast vacuous ambition and when he closed with ‘OK. what shall we do?’, and was told, ‘Get Brexit done’ his only question was ‘How quickly?’
I still struggle with the fact that the Great British Public chose to elect an adulterous man who’d been fired twice for lying and who the Security Services identified as a risk to national security. We knew who and what he was and we elected him anyway.
There are days when I think that the biggest blow Boris Johnson’s sponsors struck against democracy in Britain wasn’t crippling the courts, or bypassing Parliament, or making protest illegal or taking away human rights or making citizenship discretionary. It was showing us that our citizens can, in England at least, be convinced to elect Boris Johnson as their leader.
Perhaps the worse thing about McGough’s poem moving from harsh satire to a wry acknowledgment of the new normal without a single change to the text is that there are no consequences beyond a shrug. My ‘Smart-arse’ comment has been replaced with a ‘So what?’ or an ‘And your point is?’. We have in our hearts started to accept Donal Trump’s level of political analysis: ‘It is what it is’.
It seems likely that Johnson’s usefulness to his sponsors is coming to an end and that, as I write this, a new leader is being selected. In my mind’s eye, I see the hopefuls repeating McGough’s poem by way of demonstrating their worthiness.
What worries me is what the sponsors will reply when the wannabe leader says, ‘Ok what shall we do?’
I’m sure it won’t be anything that will make us a kinder, less poverty-stricken, less anger-driven, more inclusive society. It will be another step to making the UK into a billionaire’s paradise and a hell for the poor, the sick, the different and the old. And, provided the leader selected has the right media image, it will be a step the Great British Public will vote for.
One thought on “When reality calls satire’s bluff. Some thoughts on ‘The Leader’ by Roger McGough”
Beautifully written, Mike! I think we could take most of it and transfer right to Trump and it would still fit.
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