By Charlotte Neal
We have probably all seen culture secretary Nadine Dorries’ recent car crash interview where she seems as much of a parody as comedian Sooz Kempner’s mocking impression. This follows the seemingly endless flow of memes about this Tory government and the cringeworthy clowns who make up Boris Johnson’s cabinet.
Particularly noteworthy is the former Health Secretary. With ‘Matt Hancock memes,’ being one of Google’s top searches in the UK for 2021, clearly this has become a mainstream phenomenon. Not only are these memes often very creative – and objectively hilarious – they also indicate a broader awareness of the political failings of our current government and can be a useful way to engage people in politics.
Since the daily covid briefings we all endured through the lockdowns, politicians feel closer to our day to day lives than ever before. This is as both public officials but also individual characters. Memes are another format that makes us feel more connected to these politicians as individuals – even if it’s just for a laugh at their own expense.
This may, however, be having some negative consequences.
Despite making current political scandals such as ‘partygate’ more broadly known, memes simplify and flatten the political debates we could and should be having. The gossip over parties ignores the deeper consequences of the Government’s mishandling of covid. This cannot be so easily memed and is much harder to make funny.
Memes can only convey so much to us. In part what they convey is the ridiculousness of politicians and a sense among the public that ‘they are all the same’. This was the case with the avalanche of sleaze scandals revealed last year. Revelations like this can lead to people feeling more disengaged from politics – if they are all awful then what is the point?
To a large degree this seems part of Boris Johnson’s agenda. In a recently resurfaced video he claims to want to ‘make so many gaffs that nobody knows which ones to concentrate on.’ From his ramblings about Peppa Pig to his shambolic hairdo, all of this is an act designed to distract. The recent government strategy ‘Operation Red Meat,’ falls in line with this same strategy.
Designed partly to appeal to backbenchers who could make or break Boris’ leadership, it deploys several ‘culture wars’ issues such as military crackdowns on migrants in order to move debate away from ‘partygate’. It also distracts from things like the police, crime, sentencing, and courts bill which is attempting to undermine democracy and human rights. This ‘red meat’ tactic similarly memes real debate as it frames issues in ways which stop us having meaningful conversations about important issues.
All of this shows that Boris Johnson wants to be a meme. This explains how politicians can embarrass their way into the cabinet office and disguises fascism with farce. It also risks letting political scandals such as ‘partygate’ become last week’s news cycle as quickly as the Maybot and lets Boris off the hook for being an awful Prime Minister.
We are all guilty of enjoying a Matt Hancock meme every now and then, but we should not let them overtake the real political debate.