Cartoons and the Political System: Canada, Quebec, Wales, and England

Ray Morris (York University)


Since the eighteenth century, political cartoons have expressed laughing or scathing discontent with rulers. From expensive prints, they moved into magazines and later newspapers. Their content illuminates public opinion (Steakley, 1983), shared symbolic consensus (Beniger, 1983), abstract concepts (Emmison & McHoul, 1987), and the legitimacy of government (Streicher, 1967).

In Press' theory, cartooning depends on the political system. In totalitarian regimes art must praise the system and denounce its enemies (1981, pp. 52-53). In authoritarian regimes there is some dissent, and when they become brittle cartooning mercilessly exposes their rigid foolishness (pp. 53-56). In a Western democracy during peace-time, cartoonists are watchdogs, keeping power-holders honest and accountable (pp. 56-57).

One might then generalize that cartoonists focus on office-holders and aspirants whom the public can hope to defeat in an election or a popular uprising. Morris' data confirmed this (1989, pp. 124, 128). Cartoons in Canada, Britain and the U.S. focus overwhelmingly on the leaders of the party in power. Other government and business figures are in the minority.

Press leaves two major questions unanswered. First, are the other government figures portrayed as unflatteringly as the top politicians? Second, why is political satire so narrowly focused? This research seeks answers by examining cartoons on the Queen and her "servants" from Quebec, (English) Canada, Wales, and England. The answers will shed light on Press' general conclusion that cartoons are low satire, ridiculing individuals or parties (1981, p. 77).

Morris (1989) proposed a different conclusion. Low satire was common when newspapers were numerous and reflected their owner's party affiliation. They used to be optimistic that affairs would improve when the electorate awoke and ousted the incompetents. As newspapers became monopolistic, cartoonists became professionals, focusing on the current power-holders. Now there is pessimism: all are foolish like the public which elects them. This is medium satire: democratic decision-making is itself lampooned.

Morris found that Canadian cartoonists contrasted the posturing, destructive wastage of politics with the purposive, constructive efficiency of business (pp. 163-164). Politicians devoted their energies to keying (Goffman, 1974, p. 44): scoring debating points, cultivating their public images, building bureaucracies, holding inquiries, making cosmetic changes. He concluded (pp. 167-169) that cartooning misrepresented politics and business as well-balanced rivals (Wilden, 1979, 1981) and masked the massive overlap and interchange between them (Fournier).

A third possibility is that cartooning has moved into high satire, mocking civil servants, symbolic figures, and all forms of decision-making, whether based on expertise or heredity.


This paper tests these competing high and medium satire hypotheses by studying cartoons of civil servants and the British royal family. If they too are portrayed mainly in comic terms, cartooning has become high satire, directed against politics as an institution (Frye, 1957, pp. 234-235).

If these hereditary and expert appointees are shown as straightforward and hard-working, cartooning as a whole would then constitute medium satire, aimed only against the democratic conventions of politics (Frye, 1957, p. 229).


The national background of the cartoonist was found to have a major influence on these portraits. They were therefore subdivided into two categories, "our rulers" and "theirs." The settings chosen were not a representative sample of monarchies or of countries which acknowledge Queen Elizabeth. This exploratory study sought, instead, variability within the Commonwealth in three respects. First, there should be a spectrum from strongly favourable to strongly negative royalist sentiments. Second, there should be variation in closeness to London. Third, there should be variation in the frequency of royal visitation. Canadians associate the Queen only with state visits. The British picture her facing family problems and difficulties with other royalty, dealing with Parliament, struggling with transportation, and resisting the abolition of her office. The category of "their rulers" included 23 cartoons by Welsh-speaking and 17 by Québécois artists. "Our rulers" were featured in 30 works from England and 30 from (English) Canada.

A third source of cartoons on "their ruler" was added. The English sources included 40 cartoons of an imaginary royal pair. They were distinctly unimposing and physically unlike the current royal family. They were identifiable as royalty only by their crowns, thrones, or captions.

Data Sources

The Canadian cartoons come from the Public Archives in Ottawa. They were assembled by Terry Mosher and Guy Badeaux, and include the best Canadian humorous drawings of all periods up to 1979 (Desbarats & Mosher, 1979; Morris, 1989). In the period chosen here, 1960-1979, the collection contained 30 cartoons of royalty which appeared in English-language and 17 which were published in French-language newspapers. Nearly all featured state visits.

The English cartoons came from the Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature at the University of Kent, and from the three anthologies of royal cartoons (Davis, Grosvenor, Howard). Of the 140 available cartoons of Queen Elizabeth and her family during the 1960s and 1970s, 30 were randomly chosen for analysis here, along with the 40 drawings of an imaginary monarch. Their subject matter was very varied.

The Welsh nationalist cartoons were in the Welsh National Library in Aberystwyth. One appeared in Planet, three in Barn, and nineteen in Tafod y Ddraig, the monthly of the Welsh Language Society. Fourteen referred to the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969. The Welsh-speaking nationalists resented the imposition of the son of a foreign colonizer, while perceiving Charles himself as the victim of others' manipulations. Their feelings were inflamed by the English-speaking Welsh elite's support of the investiture.

In total, keying was studied in 60 cartoons of "our" monarch and 80 of theirs. The results were compared with 389 cartoons of civil servants and politicians from (English) Canada and Quebec (Morris, 1989, pp. 120, 130, 153). Keying refers here to the replacement of serious, constructive, economical work by activities which may look identical to outsiders but which insiders clearly understand to have quite a different purpose. It commonly means that politicians "go through the motions" in a way which critics consider frivolous, destructive and wasteful. The cartoonist claims to be the sharp-eyed observer who exposes the inside story, exaggerating the keying until it is unmistakable. For royalty it means sitting inertly on the throne in case a visitor comes, or standing on a balcony to wave to a minuscule crowd. The opposite of keying is to engage in everyday activities such as shopping and housework.

Table 1 shows the percentages engaged in keying, for the three categories of political figures. Comparisons will be made, first, between "our" and "their" leaders of the same type and, second, among leaders with the same national background.

Table 1 Percentage of Cartoons Showing Leaders as Keying
Bureaucratic Royal Political
Background Ours Theirs Ours Theirs Ours Theirs
% 18 23 43 72 60 75
N 34 31 60 80 90 234

First, "their" politicians and royalty were, as expected, significantly more likely than "ours" to engage in keying. The differences were negligible for bureaucratic figures. National background thus influenced the extent of differentiation among these categories: cartoonists drew sharper distinctions when showing other nation's political figures than when caricaturing their own. This is confirmed by the values of x beneath the table.

Second, when national background was held constant, three of the four comparisons between royalty and another group were statistically significant. The sole exception was between their royalty and their politicians. The rank order for the categories was very clear: civil servants were shown most favourably, then royalty, while politicians were the least favourably depicted.

It was clear that civil servants were a much stronger foil to the foolishness of politics than royalty were. Within the cartoonist's own national background this was muted by the relatively even percentage increases from left to right. For other countries, these nuances disappear, and the separation of civil servants from royalty and politicians is stark. Indeed, their kings were portrayed as more foolish than our politicians.


Royalty occupy an intermediate position because they are often portrayed as the victims and servants of politicians. Their foolishness results from efforts by politicians to exploit royal popularity, and not from their own mistaken initiatives. A cartoonist may also laugh at their rigid sense of duty and protocol, or may hint at a revolt against routine tours, unimaginative official gifts or tedious salutes to crowds.

It is perhaps surprising that civil servants were portrayed as keying less than royalty. In popular stereotypes, civil servants are in close contact with politicians, both as advisers and executors in policy matters. They are wasteful and inefficient, but they neither squabble in public nor accept final responsibility for policies.

In cartoons they were generally supportive figures in the background. Even when they occupied centre stage, as in cartoons on federal bilingualism, they were portrayed as more the victims than the causes of extravagance.

The low level of keying attributed to civil servants is anoma lous in terms of the high satire model. This model implies a "tainting" metaphor of politics, in which those who are closest to the political action will be most prone to keying. When the civil service is characterized in terms of internal decision-making processes, however, the results are much more understandable. Business is portrayed (Morris, 1989, pp. 130-133, 152-154) as the domain least subject to keying; and civil service decision-making patterns are closer to the autocracy of business than to the democracy of politics. Indeed, in these cartoons the democratic decision-making model is portrayed as more foolish than either the bureaucratic model or the aristocratic model where royalty governs.

A similar conclusion is reached, though the numbers are too small for statistical significance, when one asks against whom the venom of nationalists is directed. There was evidence that Welsh and Québécois politicians who "sold out" were portrayed much more negatively than the royal family of the colonial power. The symbolic invasion of her foreign majesty was shown in less negative terms than the "treason" of those who were supposed to be the representatives of "our own" nation.

These findings support the medium satire hypothesis, that most political cartooning is an attack on the democratic and "public" segments of decision-making processes in the contemporary state, from the vantage-point of the more autocratic procedures of private or public bureaucracy. One of its underlying messages is that autocracy is much more likely to produce tangible results and less likely to degenerate into delays, unpleasant arguments and hence waste.

Study of cartoonists' motivations and the impact of their work lies outside the scope of this article. It has not been possible to show whether cartoonists lampoon democratic procedures with particular severity because the medium in which their art form appears is inherently anti-democratic, or whether this greater severity reflects the higher expectations of democracy which its supporters share. In the latter perspective, democracy has high ideals which are difficult to maintain, and it is more open to criticism from its devotees than autocracy, which lacks such ideals. Cartoons seek to improve it through consistent attention to its shortcomings and not, as this article has implied, to undermine it through medium satire. The choice between these two perspectives can hardly be made within the scope of the present research, either in terms of what cartoonists intended to achieve or in terms of the actual impact of a steady diet of caricatures which point out the foolishness of all political power-holders, regardless of their party platforms or personal characteristics.


There is currently no satisfactory term for the nine provinces and the territories.
The data on this point were very strong, but too extensive to be included in a brief report.
For royalty, p = .0004; for politicians, p = .0034.
For our royalty vs.our civil servants, p = .0083; for their royalty vs. their civil servants,p < .0001; for our royalty vs. our political chiefs, p = .0214.


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