Politics as Theatre

Of course it was shocking that Nadine Dorries should choose, in support of Liz Truss in the current Tory leadership contest, to re-tweet a photo-shopped picture showing a betoga’d Boris (Caesar) being stabbed in the back by a similarly betoga’d Rishi Sunak (Brutus) –  https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/nadine-dorries-shares-image-rishi-27621179; in the light of the only too real knife-murders of prominent politicians that have been perpetrated in Britain over the past few years. At the very least it was in very poor taste, and might even have been provocative.

But it also reveals certain other things about the constituency that Nadine (and Liz) are appealing to; which is entirely made up, remember, of Tory party members, who represent only 0.3% (yes, 0 point three) of the general population, most of them – as one authoritative recent survey confirms  (https://www.ft.com/content/1454fe21-5b2e-459c-966c-65fd48d52f8f) – elderly, well-off, and living in the south of England. (What a way to choose a prime minister! But that’s Britain’s governmental system for you.)

In the first place it shows how much support and affection the corrupt, unreliable and thoroughly disgraced Boris Johnson still has in his party, for those party members to regard his removal from office as a betrayal, Sunak’s part in which may well be the factor that weighs most heavily against him. (He abandoned Boris just before his fall. Truss never did.) That speaks volumes for their judgment; possibly for their admiration for public school-educated ‘toffs’ (although Johnson isn’t a genuine toff. His family isn’t aristocratic. Yet; we still have his resignation honours list to come); and for their real political savvy.

Beyond that, however, it also says something about how politics is widely regarded on the Right – and probably more broadly – today. Nadine’s Julius Caesar image clearly refers less to ancient Roman history than to Shakespeare’s version of it – ‘et tu Brute?’ – which most educated Britons are more familiar with. Shakespeare’s ‘Histories’, of course (the English ones), are not really that, but are dramas – usually tragic – seen in terms of personalities, set very loosely against ‘historical’ backgrounds. They may have been influential in leading readers and play-goers to assume that this is how genuine politics works: as dramas involving characters, to be manipulated by them. Social, economic and other factors, and even ideologies and principles, are irrelevant except as tools. Which they may be, to an extent. But not wholly. If so I’ve been wasting my whole career, as a historian endeavouring to reveal the broader, deeper and more impersonal currents of history.

Apparently Boris’s current writing project – interrupted by his prime ministerial furlough – is a biography of the Bard. That should make interesting reading. Whom will he identify with? Not John or the Richards, we assume. Or Lear. One of the Henrys, perhaps? Or Falstaff, even….

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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