Few people can have enjoyed the past few years of political tumult quite as much as Britain’s cartoonists. Drawing under pressure for daily newspaper pages and websites, they’ve been producing witty, shrewd and sometimes venomous responses to the ongoing Brexit drama, and now they’re feeding with glee off the general election campaign.
The 2019 edition of Britain’s Best Political Cartoons is just out, and what a year it has been. A cartoon by Morten Morland in the Times shows Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell regretting the fact that Labour MP Luciana Berger had survived a no-confidence vote in her constituency (she left the party two weeks later); a cartoon by Andy Davey in the Daily Telegraph depicts Theresa May, who was clinging to office despite criticism from Tory MPs, as an Extinction Rebellion protester glued to No 10; and one by Peter Schrank in the Sunday Business Post shows Boris Johnson, who was trying to prorogue parliament, as Westminster’s demolition man.
The book is edited by Dr Tim Benson, owner of the Political Cartoon Gallery in Putney, who says the current chaos in British politics is superb for cartoonists: “It inspires them to go on and do great things.”
Benson first became interested in political cartoons as a boy when he read the books of Vicky cartoons his parents kept in the loo. Vicky (Victor Weisz), born in Berlin in 1913 to Hungarian-Jewish parents, had come to Britain in 1935 and by the time war took hold had become a leading left-wing cartoonist, working for the News Chronicle, the Evening Standard and the Mirror, where he drew alongside the renowned Londoner Philip Zec, who was also Jewish.
Philip Zec, one of 11 children of a tailor from Odessa, waged his own personal war against Hitler from the offices of the Mirror. He had applied to join the RAF but never received his call-up because key newspaper figures came under the schedule of reserved occupations.
Among his many memorable images is his VE day cartoon ‘Don’t Lose It Again’, showing an exhausted British soldier handing over a hard-won victory wreath. By the time it appeared, Zec had already taken his place on the Nazis’ blacklist, to be given appropriate punishment after Germany had won the war. Also on the list was New Zealander David Low, who worked at the London Evening Standard.
Low had been creating newspaper cartons in London from 1919, producing work that brought both acclaim and notoriety. His 1937 strip titled ‘Hit and Muss’ (Hitler and Mussolini) led to complaints from German diplomats and was censored, but the cartoonist spent the war years creating illustrations that were concise and often prophetic.
A cartoon from 1938 shows Hitler dressed as Father Christmas collecting babies from across Europe and dropping them into his gift sack.
At his gallery in Putney, Benson, 60, sits beneath Zec’s original VE day cartoon, which he snapped up at auction in Eastbourne, and surrounded by hundreds of original news drawings.
Brought up in central London by parents who were members of the Western Synagogue in Crawford Place, he taught history before leaving to do a PhD on Low, and has spent the decades since feeding his passion. “I think Jews are quite prominent in cartooning because they’re outsiders looking in,” he says. “They weren’t part of the establishment.”
He is used to the idea of political cartooning causing offence – some have called it a bloodsport – and says the only time he can be sure of getting publicity is when there are accusations that a drawing is racist, sexist or antisemitic.
“But if it’s published in a mainstream national newspaper I will defend it,” Benson says. “It’s the intent that matters, especially if it’s a visual image.”
In the past couple of years the veteran Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell has had two cartoons rejected by his editor as antisemitic. As Benson puts it: “Steve Bell is a law unto himself, or tries to be.”
Twenty-eight entries are in the running for the 20th annual Political Cartoon of the Year award, which Benson organises and which take place next month. He recalls that the winning entry in 2003 was Dave Brown’s caricature of Ariel Sharon eating an infant.
In the cartoon, published the day before the Israeli general election, Sharon says: ‘What’s wrong… You never seen a politician kissing babies before?’
There was a furious front-page story in Ha’aretz and representations from Sharon’s solicitors that the cartoon alluded to the blood libel; Benson himself received hate mail (“I was getting petitions from Israeli schools,” he recalls). He doesn’t predict a winner this year but says: “I find the best ones are usually those you get in an instant. There’s an immediacy to them.”
With Westminster politics in disarray, the country’s hard-working illustrators are on top form, ahead of their continental counterparts in draughtsmanship and with a flair and originality unseen in America. “We have the best artists here,” as Benson puts it.
Perhaps the next government could do with some of their good judgment and insight too.