There’s a grand tradition of satire and mocking the great, the good and the very ordinary in Britain. From Swift’s Modest Proposal to Not the Nine O’Clock News, and from TV’s stunning Spitting Image to the magnificent everyday newspaper cartoons by masters such as Martin Rowson and The Independent’s own Dave Brown.
So as a nation that has grown up on a diet of cartoons and caricatures seen over our morning boiled eggs why should we worry about Banksy taking artistic aim at the current debate on immigration, and poking fun at it in a mural on a seaside town’s walls? Well we shouldn’t, of course, because we have grown up on that very same diet of mocking and magnifying debates using caustic comedy, and Banksy’s murals are just modern manifestations of that.
In his mural are some grey pigeons, carrying placards, and down there we have a colourful exotic bird, clearly one that has migrated here, possibly for the summer, and the grey ones are not keen. One of the grey birds holds a sign saying: “Go back to Africa” and another holds “Keep off our worms”.
Here, in the mural, are some of things people say about immigration on the streets of Clacton, and on the streets of other towns or cities. And what this mural is showing are some of those ordinary views. To me what it is suggesting is: “What next? Are we going to stop birds migrating here for the summer?” Anyway, whether you think it is funny or not, you surely can’t deny that it is magnifying some of the debates we are having about immigration in these past few months, and no doubt in the next six as we approach the general election, and locally in Clacton-on-Sea, in its upcoming by-election.
Swift suggested the Irish should eat their babies; Spitting Image had members of the cabinet spitting out vegetables. This is taking an idea or discussion that is in the public arena and magnifying it, sometime to outrageous proportions, to poke fun and to stir up debate over the cornflakes, and to make people think a bit harder.
Caricature has historically been able to point fingers, and make fun and spike discussion in ways that editorials in newspapers don’t reach; a sort of Heineken effect.
Tendring District Council has explained that it has a rapid reaction force on seafront graffiti, and when just one person complained and found the language racist, its anti-grafitti team was dispatched, agreed with that the language could be seen that way, and acted within “their remit” to get rid of it. Their spokesman said the team did not have to consult and no one knew this was a Banksy. Apparently it would be fine if Banksy wanted to come back and do something else though.
Sadly, all it takes one person to think something is racist, and we paint over a great bit of current commentary on intolerance, even though as lawyer Tamsin Allen outlines “political speech is given higher protection by the European court during an election period than at other times”. The British have a long and glorious history of satire and humour. And we should never feel the need to paint over things that challenge our views. Challenge and debate make us stronger, and we should grasp that freedom to debate as hard as we possibly can.
A version of this article was originally posted on 2 October on Independent Voices