04 April 2019
April 01 Politics
Names, clowns and presidents.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Change UK? The name was announced a day or two short of April 01, but there was something unlikely and amusing about it nevertheless. Was it some sort of joke?
It’s still early days for the eleven breakaway MPs of the Independent Group. That announcement was merely their first step in formally registering with the Electoral Commission as a new political party, and they don’t yet have a manifesto. But their defections were acts of protest against the referendum vote to leave the EU and against the drift of mainstream political life away from the centre ground. So that’s two defining ideas, at least:
The UK is in the EU, and the Independent Group wants us to stay in the EU. No change there, then;
The Conservative party is moving to the Right, and the Labour party is moving to the Left, but the Independent Group wants to stay in the middle. No change there, then.
So Change UK was formed as a reaction against change, and both of its two defining ideas oppose change. “Want everything to stay the same? Then vote for Change UK!” Doesn’t quite work as an election slogan, does it?
Then there’s the ‘UK’ bit of the new name. It’s always troubling, for some reason, to see the name of a country incorporated into the name of a political party. Somehow it seems to brand the party as marginal, parochial, extreme. There’s Ukip, for example. And the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, far right). And France Unbowed (La France Insoumise, far left). And Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, far right). And Forza Italia (Silvio Berlusconi).
I can’t help feeling they’ve missed a trick, as well. Emmanuel Macron – surely the model for anyone starting a fresh new centrist party from scratch – was canny enough to encode his own name into the name of his new movement. The world was quick to notice that both names share the same initials; En Marche – E.M. – Emmanuel Macron. (And when Monsieur Macron succeeded in becoming head of state, that movement morphed into a fully-fledged political party with the expanded name of La Republique En Marche – La R.E.M. – Le Roi Emmanuel Macron?)
But Change UK?
Hang on a minute, I’ve just spotted something. Change UK – Ch.UK – Chuk – ah!
That’s very good, Mr Chuka Umunna! (I assume it was your stroke of genius?) Very clever, and very funny. That explains everything! But have your ten colleagues cottoned on to it yet? And how are they likely to react when they do? You’ve all appointed Heidi Allen as your interim leader, and a permanent leader won’t be elected until the new party’s inaugural conference in September, but it certainly looks like you’ve put down your marker in advance of that, doesn’t it?
It was fitting that this new party’s unlikely and amusing name emerged in this April Fool’s week just as British politics began to slide into farce. But Britain wasn’t alone in honouring April 01 in its politics, however.
In Ukraine, a well-known comedian and comic actor won the first round of the presidential elections at the weekend and may well secure the presidency in the run-off later this month. Volodymyr Zelensky has no political experience, but he’s famous in Ukraine as the actor who plays Vasyl Holoborodko, the main character in Servant of the People, a popular tv comedy series about a history teacher who becomes president after ranting and raving against corrupt politicians on social media.
Mr Zelensky entered the presidential race only a few months ago and instead of election rallies he stages free comedy shows. He’s promising a crack-down on corruption in politics and business, tax reforms, talks with Moscow to improve the toxic relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and referenda about Nato membership and other issues. He appears as an anti-establishment outsider ready to overturn the ineffectual old order represented by the other candidates (the current president Petro Poroshenko and the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko).
But he seems to have an Achilles heel as well as a funny bone. He’s backed by Ihor Kolomoyski, a billionaire who left the country when six billion dollars were found to be missing from the largest private bank in Ukraine – a bank in which Mr Kolomoyski was a shareholder. And questions are being asked about the links between the controversial tycoon and the presidential favourite. Not so amusing, perhaps, unless you have a very dark sense of humour.
Indeed, if President Zelensky turns out to be anything like President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala, the comedian and comic actor who was elected three years ago, then Ukraine is on for a heavy dose of very black jokes. Jimmy Morales campaigned as the anti-corruption candidate, with the slogan Ni corrupto, ni ladrón, “Neither corrupt nor a thief”, but he’s been mired in corruption allegations ever since his election (see Politics and Comedy, Shaw Sheet issue 139, 01 February 2018). Three months ago he expelled a UN-backed anti-corruption commission, giving its prosecutors just one day to leave the country. The president himself was under investigation by the commission, and it had charged his own brother and son with corruption. Two days after the commission’s expulsion, however, their trial was indefinitely suspended.
You may have noticed that, unusually, there was no April Fool hidden in the pages of last week’s edition of Shaw Sheet. We broke with tradition because we guessed there’d be more than enough in the news this time to make everyone scratch their heads and say “Is this real, or is it some sort of joke?” without anyone making anything up.