Socialism needs a little touch of Harry in these benighted times.
In the summer of 2012, when the world came to London and patriotic fervour was at full whack in the UK, I had the vivid experience of walking onto the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe, in front of a crowd as diverse and international as any I’ve ever seen, and speaking the famous “Band of Brothers” Crispin’s Day speech as Henry V.
Brexiteers have taken their own version of Henry’s fight to the European mainland and won, with nothing but the very crudest and stupidest deployment of the exact same rhetoric. That rhetoric so effective that Johnson and Gove couldn’t actually believe they’d won. It’s becoming apparent that they didn’t even intend to win. That’s how powerful these linguistic tools are. The look on their faces after the referendum result was that of children who had handled their father’s gun and accidentally fired it. And of course that other conspicuous exploiter of jingoistic sentiment, Farage, is a man who denies all knowledge of any shots being fired. Jo who?
The 2012 Henry V I took part in was the final instalment of the Globe to Globe festival, in which every Shakespeare play had been performed over the summer, each in a different language – and the place still hummed from the voices of Sikhs, Maoris, Chinese, Macedonians, old people, children, LGBT people, deaf people, students, readers of every paper, financiers, other halves and other skin colours. And here we were, the English finale, representing the English language with the most English play ever written. There was an American fella in the yard wearing a Union Jack hat, and when during “Once more unto the breach” I spoke directly to him as a “good yeoman whose limbs were made in England”, grabbing the hat off his head triumphantly and brandishing it for all to see, it didn’t matter that the gesture didn’t make much sense – the foreigners in the crowd went nuts for it along with everyone else. At the end of that speech, when I held my sword aloft and incited the audience as a proxy army to “Cry God for Harry, England and St George!!” the whole lot, including actual French people, joined in and cheered as we ran off.
Much as I’d love to claim so, it had very little to do with my acting. The truth is pretty simple: it was their primal group reaction to the language I was given to speak – Henry’s rhetoric powerfully effects people of any age, creed, colour or nationality. It stirs Conservatives and believe it or not Liberals too. It can even cut through deep cynicism sometimes, in the best moments. And even when it fails, there’s still a demand to hear the character speak – for those who buy into his rhetoric love to adore it and those who don’t love to abhor it. Because they know that in the wrong hands it’s incredibly dangerous.
In remaining aloof from it, though, leftie anti-monarchists aren’t just missing a trick here, they’re squandering a vital chance to participate effectively and meaningfully in the nation’s political conversation, and produce a formidable leadership. They may sincerely want to combat today’s dangerously resurgent far Right in Britain, but are unwittingly hamstringing themselves in their efforts. The Left should be developing and finessing their own equivalent of Henry’s rhetoric, not ignoring it, reasoning with it or rolling their eyes. It is an essential, indispensable tool for whipping up popular unity. Without it, or some form of it, I doubt the Left can ever hope to regain enough mass grassroots support to win a general election and actually further their cause.
The American psychoanalyst Jonathan Haidt identifies 5 key moral/psychological tools that humans have used and continue to use throughout the world in building civilisation. You can be damn sure Shakespeare’s Henry wields all 5 of them with panache. Today in the UK, the Right also capitalises on all 5 of them (no matter how unconsciously they do it, or how ridiculous they may seem in the process), whereas the liberal intelligentsia only trade on 2 of these moral tools, refusing to go anywhere near the other 3 on moral grounds. And this is a gigantic weakness for them.
Out of the 5 tools, the 3 generally hated by the Left are:
In-Group / Loyalty,
Purity / Sanctity and
Authority / Respect
because (and this goes without saying as far as they’re concerned) these things are so easily warped into elitism, bigotry and belligerence in turn. But when people are anxious about the future of their society – as they quite naturally are when no one in their immediate life points out that the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express are lying to them every day; and when they’ve never actually met or personally trusted a black person or Muslim – then what reassuring notions do they turn to? Loyalty, Purity, Authority.
Liberals get so frustrated by this pattern that they just cut all lines of communication with the whole triptych of morality, because they simply don’t get it – or, worse, are above it. “When you create In-groups you demonise others, it’s just inherently divisive”, they reason, unable to believe they’re having to point that out. “Advocating “purity” only leads to some variation of religious tyranny and the oppression of women, you small-minded idiots; and “respect” should be earned, not enforced. Isn’t that patently self-evident, how can anyone not see that? Go on, make me put on a tie and sing the national anthem, you shiny, pompous jizztrumpet, I dare you.’
They will flatly deny having any powerful instinct for Sanctity, Authority, In-Groups themselves – remaining defiantly, humanistically republican on the subject. But if they’re honest, they have to concede that some part of them is pricked when they listen to Henry V, whether they do admit it aloud or not. It’s just that it makes them deeply uncomfortable to feel, as many swing voters exposed to Brexit’s lobbying did, that
“I am not a Tory, a monarchist, a Catholic, a medievalist, an Englishman, or, despite all the good that it engenders, a lover of war: but the beauty and power of this traditional exercise was such that I, watching it, wished I was, thought I was, and was proud of it” (Eckert, 1972, via Smith and Shakespeare, 2002).”
Having thrown things at the telly every time the royal family come on the news and some correspondent or politician or archbishop uses fawning words about these unelected monkeys, Liberals cannot then allow themselves to admit that the rhetorical themes associated with the Right – Loyalty, Authority, Purity – can sometimes be woven together in such a way that it stirs their own blood and fleetingly makes them want to actually follow into battle a figure they intellectually know to be a warmongering imperialist mass-murdering arsehole. It would be like a feminist admitting to being turned on by rape fantasy. So they stamp on the thought like a giant spider coming out of their wardrobe – because for too long and too often those rhetorical tools have only proved themselves to be malevolent forces, and anything associated with them leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
I remember another performance at The Globe in which two stocky, middle-aged white men with shaven heads unfurled a St George’s Cross flag in the gallery and silently, gently wafted it above the heads of the groundlings, not only during “Once more unto the breach” but also “Crispin’s Day”. They didn’t shout anything, they didn’t threaten anyone, in fact they were impeccably behaved – all they did was grin at each other, for all intents and purposes enjoying the play. But something about it was subtly different from the American tourist in his Union Jack hat. It detracted from the performance, it didn’t feed it. They weren’t really listening, they’d come to do this on cue. And a faint spectre walked through the room, and the air turned slightly but noticeably cooler. In that moment we all hugged the notion that all men are created equal just a little closer.
The Left don’t like to touch the rhetoric of Purity, Respect and In-Groups because it seems to contradict that basic dogma that all men are created equal. But this attitude itself instantly creates an In-Group – the group for people who believe that all men are created equal. Bigots who don’t believe it aren’t part of the in-group, and shouldn’t be trusted to be part of any political decision-making until they develop some compassion for other human beings. And in thinking this way they’ve talked down to the electorate, alienated them, told them they have no worth, that they’re beneath contempt, and sent them the way of Farage and Jonson, who tell them the opposite – they dub them “ordinary” and “decent” whilst waving a spitfire beermat at them, putting on “I Vow To Thee My Country” and reading a passage from, I dunno, maybe Henry V. It doesn’t matter that they lie through their teeth – they talk about sovereignty; no matter that they’re the least respectable men in politics – they talk about respect; so what if their whole racist morality stinks – they talk of taking the country back, ie purifying the land of brown faces. And that was enough to win the EU Referendum and risk catalysing a mass international devolvement across the continent into similar smaller, aggressive tribes, which in turn risks the stability of their own entire neo-liberal economic world.
Instead of safeguarding the keys of the rhetorical arsenal, the Left have wilfully ignored its open door, purely because it makes them feel uncomfortable to go in there themselves, and they have carelessly ceded the whole lot to the Right, thinking it doesn’t really matter, because such rhetoric is self-evidently contemptible, and besides they’ve got verifiable facts on their side. Like facts actually count in this fight. They don’t. We know that now, beyond dispute. What matters is that a profoundly dangerous rhetorical weapon has been left unlocked and within the reach of public-school psychological seven-year-olds.
The only part of this whole line of thinking the Left are comfortable with is trying to drag the conversation back to the final 2 of Haidt’s 5 psycho-moral tools
Not doing harm / providing care, and
Fairness / Reciprocity
These are the only ones that Left and Right actually have in common, and which everyone from Western Europe to Eastern Europe, from the US to Latin America, from Asia to Australasia, consistently value above all the other 3.
But by now it’s already way too late. The Bullingdon Club have long since nicked these ones for their own ends – claiming they want to save the NHS, and trying to look all sincere when they say it. And people actually do believe them when they say it, because this whole time they’ve been led down a path paved with Respect, Purity and Loyalty. Conservatives and the Far Right have done with Henry V exactly what the Left hate it for – appropriated its rhetoric and used it to dupe their base into a gut feeling that the Tory plan for the NHS is a just and reciprocal arrangement for the pure-blood, authoritative in-group that they’re all a part of.
And that base now hears precisely none of their leftie screams of “You’ve been conned; you’re not really a part of it at all; those deals are only ever good for the pure-pure-bloods, the in-group-within-the-in-group, the anointed few. The ones who can afford private healthcare. It doesn’t matter to them how much harm is caused outside that group, how dismal the level of provided care; they don’t care about fairness for anyone not in their group, and have no interest in give and take, unless it’s to give as little and take as much as possible.” They just don’t hear it. Because that would be disloyal, disrespectful, and besmirch the immaculate. Even a skeptical rightist views the world through this lens.
So, to ask a rhetorical question, where does this leave the Left? It leaves them 5-0 down in extra time. What they need is to score all 5 of these rhetorical goals. Not just 2 of them. All 5. And they need to do it right now. If they can do that, then they’ve levelled the playing field, and when the rematch comes we’ll actually have a contest on our hands.
When the 2012 Olympics were looming, a lot of Brits rolled their eyes, assumed the worst, scoffed at optimism, squirmed at public protestations of unity. But in the opening ceremony, when those kids bounced up and down on their beds with fearsome nurses dancing joyfully and protectively around them, and when that aerial view of the gigantic NHS logo unfurled, a lot of those same people would have died to protect the welfare state. Many of those squirmers miraculously turned into the shoutiest screamers for team GB, and for two weeks GB Against the World was a glorious, wonderful campaign to be a part of.
It’s not news that sport and the arts can do this to people. What the Left needs now is a political rhetorical equivalent. A safe simulacrum for Henry’s invasion of France. They absolutely must appropriate the rhetorical tools of the Right, the way the Right have monopolised the rhetorical common ground. And tune their message to chime with Henry’s, instead of kicking against it. If they can somehow find a socialist vocabulary for sanctifying the good fight – giving it a kingly status and compelling their supporters to swear fealty to it on bended knee without saying so – then they’d actually be in that fight.
But is it possible to adapt this Royalist rhetoric for Left Wing purposes, and make it work? Yes it is. Tom Paine did it in 1776. When George Washington and his rag-tag militia sat starving and hungry, waiting to be slaughtered by the British, Paine recognised it as an Agincourt moment. And what did he do? He warmed their hearts with ‘The American Crisis’, said “these are the times that try men’s souls” and gave them the faith to meet that trial by reaffirming the purity of their cause, by letting them know they had the authority of justice and truth on their side. With fierce anti-monarchical sentiment, he turned Washington into Henry V, and the American insurgents into the English army, and so they beat the English army and toppled the King. It was a glorious, transcendent, spotless fuck-you to a completely baffled Right. It was so good that even liberals still don’t like to talk about it over here.
Henry transmutes criminals into cavaliers by “gentling their condition”, by promising that they’ll be purified in rallying to his cause; by empowering them to “show us the mettle of their pasture”. If the Left spoke of our modern underclass as the salt of the earth and made them feel like kings (and not complexes of interrelated issues which are all forgiveable because it’s a systemic economic problem they were born into and yes I know that’s actually the truth but honestly blah blah blah…) if they could just make them feel intrinsically valuable – saluting them as valiant white Knights defending their Englishmens’ homes and families, protectors of the weak and vulnerable – then they’d have injected a shot of chivalry into the nation’s bloodstream – immaculated it, if you will – which is a kind of moral code that has an embedded, unspoken, self-correcting, group-think cap on cruelty written within it. And a great many would pick up on that implicit message, just as they did during the olympics, and would gladly rise to that standard of behaviour, purifying themselves and helping to purify others. Sportsmanship and decency would count for something in Britain again.
If the leadership of the working classes endowed their adherents with the blessed authority of a compassionate spirit and a proud intrinsic respectability then no one would dare pull them up for not wearing a decent suit. If they displayed a ‘modest stillness’ they might demand allegiance – and if they made examples of people who betrayed the ideals of their cause then cooperation would go through the roof (Haidt also points this out; that punishment is an intrinsic part of group cooperation – another idea lefties are not remotely comfortable with). No one gets fired in politics any more, they all resign. But what if Corbyn, for example, could shred his former shadow cabinet in an equivalent of Henry’s stripping Scroop of his honours and holding him up as ‘another fall of man’? What if, in short, the Left found a way to ennoble their countrymen, and give them a righteous quest? Well, then those countrymen might just flock to their banner.
Poverty would cease to be an impotently received suffering and would transform into an actively born labour, and consumers would gain a precious reminder of what is intrinsically valuable – not how much footballers get paid, but their weightless grace with the ball, and the sense of belonging the beautiful game instills; not the corrupt idiocy of particular MPs, but the precious sacredness of each man’s spotless vote.
Royalist sounding psycho-moral tools emerge as social beacons of fellowship, endurance, justice, compassion. “Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester”, who in my lifetime could have been renamed “Thatcher and Churchill, Regan and Blair”, could be replaced with “Bevan and Attlee, Crow and Benn” – or any other list of socialist saints you care to name. Just have some saints. It doesn’t really matter who, and it doesn’t matter that they were humans not beyond question – the right dismiss Mandela as a terrorist – what matters is holding them up poetically as lights in the darkness, so that “every wretch, pining and pale before / beholding them plucks comfort from their looks.”
With such tools they could stem the tide of the Daily Mail’s campaign to divide the oppressed into faces of different colour, transmuting those enemies into fellows-in-arms, and doubling the size of the unions. They could reunite England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, even in the face of rancour and petty in-fighting, just as Henry does at the gates of Harfleur, and leave the out-group “French” meanwhile to their bickering, meretricious vain-glory, just as Henry does. And it would drive those “frenchies” up the wall. And the kick-back would be vicious, but it simply wouldn’t matter. That famous underdog spirit would spark into life, and with righteous purpose gently but firmly ignited in their breasts, the grassroots would stick with that leadership through any amount of pain, suffering and privation the “French” threw at them, and they’d do it gladly, because their hearts would feel warmer, larger, their spirits cleaner – their eyes would be agleam with noble lustre as they sang their anthems with bursting hearts and lungs. When Bob Dylan sang:
“I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singing”
he looked like shit and was completely out of tune. Seriously, the man can’t sing a note. Does it matter? Does it fuck. What matters is that an entire generation were inspired to join the civil rights movement, and flocked there with clearer eyes and spotless minds, and that they changed the world for the better.
But in our socialist Henry V, exactly who are the French going to be? Socialists will be deeply suspicious of answering this question, because they see that choice as an indictment; as being counter to their value system. They cannot morally choose a scapegoat – even the Tories – because their philosophy is supposedly based on tolerance and inclusion, not exclusivity. And because they’re terrified of creating zealots, or being labelled as such.
But even if not someone in particular, they must pick something. They must somehow make it their “course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” because “that action, hence borne out, / May waste the memory of the former days.” And because if they don’t pick a proxy France, like Jonson and Farage did, they’ll continue to lose the English army through neglect, and their daily Agincourts will only ever keep going the other way.
A crucial point to understand is that the Left do have massive advantages here – for a start they can consciously learn this skill. They can study it, adapt it and hone it. Whereas the Tories and far Right are naturals. It’s a completely internalised value system for anyone with even a faintly royalist upbringing, they’ve just grown up with it, and so they bandy it about idly, indiscriminately, without consideration or question. Witness Johnson and Farage. Witness the indiscriminate euro-directed bile that follows, coming out of English football fans on the continent, from men who would merrily “go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard”. But if those same good yeomen were to pick Johnson and Farage themselves as Turks, reflecting their own arguments back at them in different clothes, they’d be terrified – and more to the point would have no argument for it. Their only answer would be open violent repression, and a total loss of moral higher ground. The Left can actually beat them at their own game because of this. Because the Left do actually want a better world for everyone, not just the people they know. The Tories don’t, never have and never will. Traditionally this has been the Tories’ ruthless advantage. This doesn’t have to be the case.
Talk of doing no harm, of providing care, of justice, is so obviously virtuous it gains little traction on its own. It must be married to the other talk of Loyalty, Authority, Purity – which isn’t inherently malevolent. That’s just how the Right have traditionally abused those themes.
Read the poetic oratory of Henry V again for what it is, not for the use that private interests would put it to, not for the propagandising dangers which you see embedded in it. Just read it in and of itself. What does it do to people? It does something alchemical, it turns base human beings into golden-hearted supermen, it “bends up every spirit to its full height” and elevates pathetic beings of sullied flesh into albescent, soaring immortals. Everyone wants a piece of that. They can’t help it.
In 2009, just before I played Prince Hal and moved on to Henry V, I was part of a staging of the Tom Paine story at the same theatre. It was an adaptation of Trevor Griffith’s screenplay “These Are The Times”. He wrote it for Richard Attenborough, who planned and failed for years to bring the story to the world on the same scale as he did the stories of Stephen Biko in ‘Cry Freedom’ and Gandhi in the movie of the same name. Never have the arts been more important or more threatened in our society in my adult life than now, and never have the times been so ripe for that story to be told. If clowns like Farage and Johnson can turn themselves into Henry Vs without a shred of truth to their cause, there’s no reason any member of the left you picked out of a hat couldn’t achieve something spectacular for people of every age, creed and colour in the land.
And, by secular socialist Jove, I hope they do and soon.