Mark Steel, 'What's Going On? The Meanderings of a Comic Mind in Confusion'

IssueMarch 2009
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

Late in 2007, someone forwarded me an excoriating critique of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) - the largest of Britain’s Trotskyist groups, and the driving force behind the Stop the War Coalition. Noting that the party had “shrunk to a shadow of the size it was even a few years ago” and that “anyone who has raised the issue has been derided”, the piece – written by a long-term SWP member for the Party’s internal bulletin - concluded that “[u]nless we radically address the decline we’ve fallen into, and transform the culture that has up until now resisted such a process, the SWP will become a group that few people with the sense of drive, imagination and purpose essential to change the world will be attracted to in the long term.”

What raised an eyebrow was the name of the author: Mark Steel.

As anyone who has heard him on the radio, or read his regular column in the Independent will know, Steel has long been one of Britain’s funniest – and most intelligent - political comedians.

For some, his long-term affiliation with the SWP – not known for its sense of humour – was always something of a mystery, but anyone who had read his earlier book Reasons to be Cheerful would have known just how much he owed the Party in terms of his own political development. Surely it was inconceivable that he would leave after almost 20 years?

This book dovetails the story of his departure with that of the collapse of his marriage – and whilst that might not sound like much of a recipe for mirth, it’s actually very funny. In fact, it’s laugh-out-loud-funny in the way that makes you want to read out passages to your friends.

Highlights include the SWP-Galloway break-up (“One SWP leaflet began: ‘There is an old saying in the West Indies, “The higher the monkey climbs the more he exposes himself.” George Galloway and his supporters have climbed very high in the past few weeks.’”) and Steel’s appearance on The Moral Maze (where he challenges right-wing historian David Starkey to defend a bizarre assertion that his father had been a skilled engineer at the age of two).

Moreover – and this will hearten any PN readers who have felt crushed by the hegemomic presence of the SWP within the anti-war movement – he also has some nice things to say about the non-SWP parts of the peace and global justice movements, name-checking CAAT, Smash EDO, McLibel, the ISM and CAAB among others.

He even commits the ultimate left heresy of changing his mind in public: long sceptical about the value of direct action, he ends up concluding that “without their wonderfully eccentric and imaginative actions, the humiliations inflicted and the retreats forced on [powerful companies such as McDonalds or arms company Reed-Elsevier] wouldn’t have happened.”

Mark Steel may have jumped ship and he may be confused (aren’t we all?), but he’s still committed to trying to change the world, and for that, as well as for his passion and humour, he should be applauded.

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