Euan McColm: Raise your glasses to the Pub Landlord

THERE are few things more unbearable than wacky ­political candidates. I loathe and pity them in equal measure.
Al Murray intends to stand for election at the general election for the hotly contested Kent constituency of South Thanet. Picture: PAAl Murray intends to stand for election at the general election for the hotly contested Kent constituency of South Thanet. Picture: PA
Al Murray intends to stand for election at the general election for the hotly contested Kent constituency of South Thanet. Picture: PA

There’s the forced zaniness, of course; the determination to see through a single terrible gag while carrying the unshakeable belief that doing so while wearing a pith helmet or calling oneself Ron Stupid makes things doubly hilarious. All of that is bad enough.

But look past the irritating “jokes”, look in the eyes of these men – and they are almost always men – and you’ll see a sadness. You’ll see the loneliness of the long-suffered ­punner. The pathos is overwhelming.

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Wacky candidates are to be discouraged, for our own good and theirs. Unless, that is, the wacky candidate isn’t actually one at all.

The comedian Al Murray this week announced the candidacy of his Pub Landlord character for the Westminster constituency of South Thanet where he’ll challenge, among others, the Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Standing for the Freedom for the United Kingdom Party – or FUKP – the ­Landlord pledges to jail the unemployed, make beer a penny a pint, and install Alex Salmond as First Minister of Norwich, so that he might understand what it truly is to be ignored.

As you’ll know if you’ve ever met any, people can be terribly suspicious, and so while some of us greeted this announcement as the great news it was, others were less enthusiastic, dismissing it as a publicity stunt. Surely this was just a grasping luvvie out to boost his DVD sales? And, if not that, then it was a posh boy ­(Murray studied modern history at Oxford and his family tree includes the odd toff, for whom I don’t think he can be held personally responsible) sneering at the working class.

Ukip’s Scottish MEP David Coburn was especially annoyed by the Pub Landlord’s candidacy. If Al Murray stood as Al Murray, that would be fine, reckoned Coburn, but for a ­fictional character to stand for election was “clearly wrong”.

Let’s rattle through these charges. I don’t know Murray or his personal circumstances but he does seem to sell out huge theatres and appear on telly quite a bit so I’m willing to ­venture he’s scraping by and doesn’t desperately need to drum up sales.

The accusation that the comedian is operating from a position of lofty disdain assumes that Murray’s audience – and, remember, he is a mainstream rather than a cult figure – isn’t in on the joke. It says “yes, I understand the satirical intention of the Pub Landlord but other people are too thick”.

As for Coburn’s remark, I reply, with a look of deep sincerity and a consoling hand on the forearm, “but aren’t we all fictional characters, ­David?”

Now that’s all cleared up, we can concentrate on why the Pub Landlord’s candidacy is such a magnificent thing.

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We’ve been talking a lot about free speech lately, about the right to challenge and offend. The murders of journalists, police, and Jewish citizens in Paris by Islamist extremists has thrown these issues into the sharpest focus. This, though it’s scarcely consolation to the bereaved, is one positive consequence of the ­terrorists’ actions (though some of the more hand-wringing responses are littered with “yes, buts”, finding nuance where none exists).

But the debate about free speech should not be held only under the ­illumination of a bomb blast. The ­battle against the curtailment of ­personal freedom is not simply about what we can or cannot say about prophets and worshippers. It is about much more than that.

We face threats to simple freedoms each day. Prime Minister David ­Cameron wants to scrap the Human Rights Act, for goodness sake. And more worrying still than his intention is the fact that he sees it as a vote-winning exercise.

In Scotland, the SNP has made criminals of football fans for singing songs which might cause offence, even if there is no evidence that ­offence actually was caused, or that there was anyone other than a copper around to hear what was sung. (That’s right – under the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, it is possible to be convicted of committing an ­imaginary crime with an imaginary victim.)

A few years ago, a bloke called Paul Chambers joked on Twitter, after his flight was delayed by snow, that ­Robin Hood airport in Doncaster had “a week and a bit” to sort things or he’d blow it up. For this gag, he was convicted of sending a menacing ­message under the 2003 Communications Act, and he lost his job.

Murray was among high-profile f­igures, including the actor Stephen Fry and the writer Graham Linehan, who spoke out in support of ­Chambers, attending court with him, and arguing in the media that the ­legislation which made him a criminal had grave implications for the freedom of speech of us all. This ­support was crucial in overturning the conviction.

Murray is a funny man but (and this is so often the case) he is also a serious one.

And so why don’t we assume that the same drive to challenge authority when it is in the wrong is behind his decision to stand – albeit as a fictional character – in South Thanet? Farage’s thoughtless, binary approach to the issues of the day – whatever happened, it was immigrants that caused it – bleeds through the UK’s national debate.

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By committing himself to a full campaign in a character that parodies that petty mentality, on a manifesto that laughs with disrespect at the ­often meaningless pledges of all ­parties, Murray promises to provide us with a remarkable feat of satirical theatre.

The Pub Landlord – the Guv’nor, to me and his other admirers – will probably not win in South Thanet. Nigel Farage remains the clear ­favourite to take the seat.

It’s a shame, really, because behind this comic challenge to the worst of our political discourse is a free-­thinker, unfettered by tribal loyalties, who would make a very good MP, ­indeed. «