The power of the political cartoon

The great thing about a political cartoon is that it sums up the state of play at any moment in politics. It’s clever, funny, amusing, it informs and entertains us. It does all the things in one drawing that a newspaper does throughout all of its pages.” George Osborne

Immediate, imaginative and frequently impertinent, political cartoons are often far more powerful than the written words which are produced in the space around them. Journalists are often jealous of political cartoonists for this very reason. The cartoonist’s message is clear and understood in seconds, characters are caricatured and delivery is accessible and amusing. An effective cartoon distils information into a single image that resonates with the public perception of an issue or person. 

I look forward each week to receiving ‘The Week’ magazine in the post and seeing what cartoon colours the cover of that issue. These political cartoons adorn the whole cover, filling a full page. They often sum up that week’s current affairs and public emotion far more than editorials and comment pieces inside.

Political cartoons are fundamentally a British phenomenon. Despite ‘going global’, British creators still lead the political cartoon ‘industry’, if you can call it such a thing. The first cartoons were created by the ‘Shakespeare of the etching pen’, James Gillray in the late eighteenth century. They immediately resonated with the wider population and were increasingly dissipated through print shops, magazines and newspapers throughout the nineteenth century. The Napoleonic Wars in particular popularised the political cartoon. Indeed, James Gillray is credited with branding Napoleon as ‘the little corporal’, and perhaps his most famous works include ‘The plum pudding in danger’ (1805) which Napoleon and William Pitt are seen carving up the globe. One contemporary of Gillray noted that “[t]he enthusiasm is indescribable when the next drawing appears; it is veritable madness. You have to make your way through the crowd with your fists”. 

The popular magazine, Punch, which was in print from 1841 until 2002 was historically an important source, alongside newspapers, for disseminating political cartoons. The advent of photography, television and radio in the twentieth century, and improvements in literacy rates made cartoonists’ work even more amusing, relevant and radical, as the population was increasingly aware of current events and what their politicians looked, acted and sounded like. Their caricatures could strike even more a cord with the population. Individuals are instantly recognisable in cartoons and the message is clear. Cartoons are constructed through analysing narratives and perceptions, harnessing the unique aspects of a politician’s look, opinions or actions to humanise topics.

Despite being scornfully criticised by some for lowering the tone of the debate and trivialising issues, images can cast a powerful interpretation on the day’s news. Politicians have a love-hate relationship with them – cartoons have the potential to be a powerful tool in political campaigns. However, cartoons can get under the skin of our leaders. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said that the cartoonist David Low was ‘evil and malicious’, and both David Cameron and Gordon Brown were unhappy about how fat they looked in cartoons. Image is key in politics. 

Political cartoons also offer an important historical record of the political climate. As Adam Boulton from Sky News wrote: “often long after you’ve forgotten the details of the story, it’s their images which sum up the mood of the times”. Indeed a fantastic collection of political cartoons, edited by Tim Benson, called ‘Britain’s best ever political cartoons’, charts the last 200 years and highlights notable favourites. In many ways, the political meme is the online successor to the political cartoon, however cartoons are cemented into the print journalism industry and are here to stay. 

The satirical brightly coloured alternative form of news, the political cartoon benefits from the ridiculous – and don’t we have a lot of that in politics!