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Shakespeare and the Redundancy of Conservatism



Shakespeare is much overrated, and I am no fan of his plays. It goes without saying that he is inferior to the Greek dramatists. In terms of plotting, he is inferior to Marlowe. In terms of language, he is comically inferior to Cranmer and the authors of the Authorised Version. However, just as Anglican priests should feel obliged to preach the Thirty Nine Articles, whether or not they believe in them, so theatres subsidised by the taxpayers should have some regard for the text of Shakespeare.

Not so the Royal Shakespeare Company. For all it gets at least £15.4m a year from the Arts Council – plus whatever it rakes in from less direct public subsidy – its management has decided its main object is less the competent performance of Shakespeare than the usual ruling class propaganda that the poor should be made cold and hungry to change the weather. Erica Whyman, the Company’s artistic director, has commissioned a rewriting of The Tempest as ruling class propaganda:

Textual changes will flow from the directors’ interpretations, too. “Our Tempest will be foregrounding the play’s interest in the climate crisis,” she adds, revealing that this version will rename the goddesses Juno, Cere and Iris as Earth, Rain and Fire.

As said, I have no taste for anything by Shakespeare, whether or not rewritten, and my tax money wasted on Miss Whyman’s salary is nothing beside what goes unaudited to the Zelensky régime in Kiev. But this news story reminds me that I have written nothing on politics for months, and it prompts the following reflections on the salvageability of our institutions.

I spent the 1980s and 1990s predicting and lamenting the death of our Ancient Constitution. This was not the provisional work of more or less stupid intellectuals. The English Constitution was part of the organic unity of our nation. It was one with our language and our history and our general beliefs about ourselves. It needed no justifications, no hierarchy of laws, no entrenchment, no supervisory panel of judges. We had trial by jury not because some piece of paper required it, but because we had agreed, since before the Norman Conquest, that a man should suffer punishment only after the lawful judgement of his peers. We had a privilege against double jeopardy because we agreed it was fair that a man should be troubled only once by the authorities with an accusation of some specific wrongdoing. We had freedom of speech because it was our birthright. We knew who we were. We looked down on foreigners, and we took it for granted that they should look up to us.

I have given up on lamentations during the present century. I have given up on them because my predictions turned out to be broadly correct. The English Constitution is something nowadays to be discussed in various past tenses. In 1997, I looked forward with particular horror at what was now certain to come. I was like a man in fine clothes who found himself compelled to cross a sea of pig filth. I fussed and tutted over every speck on the national shoes. A quarter of a century later, we are spattered up to our waists, and it hardly seems much if we trip and land on our faces. The forms of our Constitution have been changed in random though generally malevolent ways. Even those forms that remain have been drained of their ancient substance and filled with something new and wholly malevolent.

The Conservative Party has not only failed us. It has betrayed us. It has conserved nothing. It has joined in the work of destruction. We now face the prospect of another Labour Government. This will almost certainly complete the draining of substance and the changing of forms. But I no longer greatly care. The Monarchy is much in the news at present. A few months ago, the Queen died. We have a coronation approaching. More importantly in the past few weeks, the younger son of the King’s first wife has published an extended ghost-written whine of self-pity. The response of the fake conservatives who are allowed into the media is to complain that he is bringing the monarchy into disrepute, and even endangering its existence. So far as they believe what they are saying, they deserve the comment that Tom Paine made on Edmund Burke – that he “pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.” What has the Monarchy done in living memory to uphold the Ancient Constitution? The answer is less than nothing. The late Queen was a woman of notable uselessness. Of all the documents put before her to sign, she seems to have queried only personal cheques. The new King is stupid or evil, or possibly both. What I have read of his coronation plans involves a repeat of the woke pantomime that opened the London Olympics. His son appears to be no better.

I could continue. I could say the Church has been colonised by probable atheists, there for salaries that, if not generous in themselves, are higher than their personal market worth, or for easy access to under-age boys. The Bench is a committee of authoritarian leftists. The chartered institutions are the same. The whole administration is a mass of incompetence and petty corruption. The Ministers no longer try to hide that they are taking bribes. Corruption beams from their horrid faces. The classics are rewritten to be goodthinkful, and hardly anyone complains. We have indeed dropped into the filth, and those dragging us through it make a point of kicking anyone who declines to wallow in it with the approved show of enthusiasm.

But I will not continue. I have said enough. We have fallen, and, looking at those countries with a less fortunate history than our own, there are lower depths yet awaiting us. Should I care? Should I not give up altogether on writing and focus what time I have left on securing the least uncomfortable life possible for me and mine? Though always desirable, national improvement is possible only when there is a nation still fit to be improved. I am no longer as sure as I was about England. Before the spring of 2020, I could tell myself that the people had always voted for improvement when given the chance. The English had voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. They had pinched their noses and voted in a team of corrupt mediocrities when these turned out to be the only group in politics who seemed willing to go through with the Referendum result. Surely, though oppressed, the nation was still sound?

I am no longer so sure. I live in a middle class area. Every Thursday during the Lockdown, I was troubled by the sound, from every front door in my street, of people banging their pots and pans in required solidarity against a virus that plainly showed itself from the start to be no worse than a mild seasonal flu. I then saw the hundred-yard queues of people waiting patiently to be injected with an untested vaccine they had already been warned was at least dangerous. More recently, doubts regarding the wisdom of our war with Russia have been routinely treated in private conversation as equal in their morality to defences of pederasty. Everyone in England but the rich is cold. Everyone but the rich may soon be hungry. There are no demonstrations in Trafalgar Square. When the Ministers tell us we are all in the same boat, there is no replying shout that they are in first class and we in steerage. If every nation gets the government it deserves – government, that is, in the wider sense – the English have no right to complain; and they do not complain. Richard Lynn once assured me that IQ in England had been falling by one point every decade since 1901. 1901 was many decades ago. Whether IQ means as much as people tell me I will leave aside. There seems little doubt that the English who once defended their ways and liberty with fists and more deadly weapons, who began the scientific and industrial revolutions, and who planted their flag in every corner of the world, are as extinct a people as the Athenians of the age of Pericles were when Hadrian visited the city.

So why continue writing these polemics? Everyone in charge is committed to making things progressively worse. Those not in charge who want improvement are a dwindling minority. I do no measurable good to me and mine by continuing. I shall risk measurable harm if I try to be more prominent than I have made myself. One answer is that I have reached an age where habits picked up in earlier years can no longer be given up without considerable pain. But there is also the desperate, if probably foolish hope, that I am wrong. Perhaps things are not so bad as I usually believe them to be, and I can still in some small way contribute to a restoration – a restoration I may not see, but of which the smallest chance loads me with a duty to continue writing.

There is, however, no doubt that the days of lamenting the death of the Ancient Constitution are past. It has gone beyond recall. Any restoration now must be much more of a new beginning. There is a case for reconnecting the most vital threads from our past to a future settlement. But I do not believe these threads involve a privileged role for the family of Alfred the Great, or any of the outward forms of the Ancient Constitution. We have been notorious, since the eighteenth century, for our indifference to questions of political legitimacy and national identity that consumed other peoples. Now that the mostly unspoken consensus has passed that allowed us the luxury of smiling at the antics of foreigners, we must begin to think about first principles. This will often be painful. It may lead us in directions that we once thought undesirable. Even so, we are left with no alternative if we are not to continue our slide towards, and perhaps below, the level of other nations. And, if I cannot be bothered to explain myself more clearly than I have, a period of Labour government may not be quite so regrettable as I regarded the advent of Tony Blair in 1997.

As for the Royal Shakespeare Company, we shall know we have stopped losing when Miss Whyman and her friends are glad to be pushing trolleys round a Tesco car park.

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