'The Thick of It' Gave Us the Language for Today's Political Absurdity

It also managed to almost exactly predict three real-life policies.
July 23, 2019, 12:42pm
Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi​) and Ollie Reeder​ (Chris Addison​) in ​The Thick Of It
Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) and Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison) in The Thick Of It. Photo by Andy Paradise © BBC via Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

In the opening scene of The Thick Of It, Minister of the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, Hugh Abbott; political advisor, Olly; and civil servant Terri are in the back of a car, freestyling policy ideas to fill a policy-shaped hole in Abbott's upcoming speech. They come up with three nuggets of purest-driven dumb: "ASBOs for pets", "everyone has to carry a plastic bag" and "national spare room database".

All three have since become British government policy: the first two dead-on, the third as an echo of the Bedroom Tax.

Time and again, The Thick of It led and reality fell in behind. Eighteen months after “Do you know what it’s like to clean up your own mother’s piss?” we had The Gillian Duffy Incident. Nick Clegg used to bang on about "alarm clock Britain". Season two's Nicola Murray had her own target market: "the quiet bat-people". Murray's came first. The term "omnishambles", coined on the show in 2009, leapt from the screen into politics after George Osborne's flaky 2012 budget. By the following year, Malcolm Tucker's phrase had entered the OED.

The Thick of It didn't invent modern politics, but it gave us a perfect language to describe it. It updated our worldview on what politics was. Last year, as Priti Patel was flying back from Kenya as International Development Secretary in order to be sacked by Theresa May, the entire flight was broadcast on Sky News. "My," we all scoffed. "How very Thick Of It."

What did we mean? We meant that the politicians who had once seemed godlike now seemed as harried and at the mercy of events as anyone else. Like all good satire, The Thick of It told you that the gods were mortal. Its genius was in telling you how they weren’t even very good at being mortal.

With Spitting Image, a generation earlier, politicians often ended up secretly flattered by their portrayal. Even if you were Norman Baker, a literal slug, or John Major – grey, pea-eating philtrum of a face – there was a caricature you could own. Norman Tebbit apparently loved being portrayed as a truncheon-swinging brownshirt. Being skewered implied you had real power in the first place.

But The Thick of It picks up the story at a point where the entire political class has run out of ideas, and moved from being the hunters into the hunted. In place of grotesques, the show offered only shabbiness and neuroses – a world where our leaders are more terrified of us than we are of them.

The central truth that makes The Thick of It so meme-ready isn’t even about politics so much as it is about the media. It says something that its strongest character is the man in charge of taming the press. This is a show about the impossibility of getting any idea implemented in the sniper’s alley of rolling news. It's a world where the true antagonist isn't the Opposition, or even your own side. It’s the shrieking, gibbering journalist just out of sight, pointing and laughing for no other reason than that he has a hole in the paper to fill.

Lately, though, The Thick of It has started to yellow at the edges. The era it defines is what might be called Blair-Cameronism, and we are moving past that era now, into an age in which the press itself has lost the immunity it once enjoyed, and has finally been identified as an equal part of the problem. Now, the hunted is everyone, and the hunters are the vast tectonic forces that social media has unleashed.

Instead of a team trying to keep their candidate on-message against a media gunning for a 'gotcha" moment, the modern world is full of alternative networks trying to de-throne the conventional media itself, from Lord Adonis to Paul Joseph Watson. It's at once far more trivial and far deeper. It’s why, in the wilds of our new networks, The Brexit Party can mushroom overnight but Nicolas Sarkozy can’t even make it through the primaries of the French elections.

As society re-organises itself along lines which no longer resemble the old left-right (but equally are no Third Way), politics is no longer about the kind of initiatives that drove The Thick of It – putting a penny on income tax here and announcing you want to "call App Britain" there. It’s serious again.