What Would Shakespeare Make of It?

I originally wrote this blog for 2020UK.org back in 2012. Given where we are as a nation slowly emerging from the COVID-19 lockdown, I though this might be an opportune time to bring it up to date, given that politicians these days seem to have shorter careers than the average Reality TV star. My sources come from the works of England’s greatest playwright who I’m sure, would have plenty to say on the state of the country today. The plays are the same, only the characters and the contexts have changed!

For those of you like me who sometimes take an irreverent view toward authority and the world in general, I thought it might be amusing to try and put some of the recent headlines into context using a selection of Shakespeare’s more famous works. Opinions will vary; some may well prefer tragedy to comedy; I’ve chosen two comedies and one tragedy; but like any good debate, the quality can only be enriched by the variety of opinion that contributes to it.

A Comedy of Errors – Or, how many of us would probably sum up the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic which has swept our nation. The only question is where to begin? Matt Egeon Hancock led the with the initial response as far back as 23rd January this year, when he stood at the despatch box in the House of Commons and declared in response to reports of a coronavirus emerging from the Chinese city of Wuhan that;

“The public can be assured that the whole of the UK is always well-prepared for these types of outbreaks and will remain vigilant and keep our response under constant review in the light of emerging scientific evidence.”[1]

In the same statement Hancock also declared that, “While the risk of the virus to the UK had moved from very low to low, it possessed a world-leading test to detect and deal with it and that the NHS was well-prepared for any such outbreaks.” So well prepared in fact, that manufacturing industry had to step in to help make the necessary PPE equipment to make up the shortfall in stock, the consignment from Turkey when it did finally arrive was mostly inadequate for the job demanded of it and until the Army took control of the distribution process, most of it wasn’t even getting to where it was desperately needed, especially to care homes. If that wasn’t enough we had the fiasco over the testing app, the technology for which had been offered by Google and Apple but the Government wanted to develop its own but then found it couldn’t, so had to go back to the technology giants to develop a system that won’t be ready until winter at the earliest.

We reverted to the manual system deployed so successfully in countries like Germany only to find that the required number of tracers had yet to be recruited and when they had, they had no details given to them of who to trace. Then there was the confusion over the number of tests which were being carried out with the magic daily target of 100k largely a matter of interpretation as to how it was achieved. We are at last finally are beginning to get a grip as the programme is rolling out, but after weeks of falling rates of infections and deaths we are now talking about localised lockdowns should there be a spike in reported cases as was seen recently with Leicester. I have only covered a very brief part of the past fourteen weeks, any further analysis would be too depressing and would be grounds for a change of name to A Tragedy of Errors, and where there will likely be many more tragic errors to come.

The UK death toll now stands at 44,198 people across all settings; since the 04th of July pubs and other places of entertainment are re-opening and churches and other places of worship can resume public services but are restricted to what they can do – singing is definitely OUT! As we celebrate the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the NHS, which has been severely stretched with over 300 health and care workers having paid the ultimate price for their dedication, they deserve far better from our so-called leaders. Finally, with doctors fearing that A&E units will see a rise in alcohol-related incidents due to excess consumption and violent behaviour as a result of pubs being allowed to open, who in their right mind would want to be a Copper?

Much Ado about NothingWith so many MPs having to shield themselves due to age, caring responsibilities or living with underlying medical conditions, parliamentary watchers have been treated to the sight of a virtual parliament taking place through the use of a video conferencing system. The results early on appeared to indicate that the system worked well, with members unable to attend engaging in thoughtful debate often with a mutual respect not always evident when the green benches are occupied  – such as at Prime Minister’s questions – as well as being able to vote remotely like their counterparts in the House of Lords are doing.

However, Jacob Dogberry Rees-Mogg in particular, felt that this temporary hybrid arrangement was not how parliament should be seen to work when it came to passing legislation. The government then proposed a motion that virtual voting cease and members return to voting in person through the division lobbies. The resulting vote carried in the Government’s favour (mainly through the presence of sufficient Conservative members) although some concessions were made to the current proxy and pairing arrangements for absent members to ensure a degree of fairness.

Predictably a number of MP’s took to both mainstream and social media to complain about how their constituent’s voices would not be heard if they were unable to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions as well as its wider implications for representative democracy. The sight of 90 minute long queue snaking around the grounds of the parliamentary estate waiting for MPs to cast their vote did leave most of us who were watching scratching their heads in disbelief.

If modern technology can ensure that workers can work from home as Boris Johnson urged in March, and with systems like Zoom and Microsoft teams virtually hosting everything from international conferences, messages from royalty, Brexit negotiation meetings, prayer meetings, virtual church services, board meetings, home schooling etc, then surely parliamentarians should be able to do the same in the mother of Parliaments? Cynics have suggested that this is the government’s way of keeping potential rebels in check and ensuring their grip on legislative time table. While there are parliamentarians who favour the traditional methods of doing business, if the rest of the country including the upper chamber is having to adapting to this new electronic way of working, then surely those we elect to serve us should be doing the same?

Coriolanus – Devotees of this Shakespearean tragedy will no doubt recognise similarities between the Prime Minister and the patrician character who while considered a courageous personality having recovered from the coronavirus himself, is hindered by his indifference toward common people and his past attitude as a journalist and as Foreign Secretary toward certain ethnic minorities. As someone who likes to be seen as a man of action in getting things done like Brexit and to build, build, build our way back to prosperity, Boris Johnson is often very uncomfortable with detail, preferring to delegate such matters to the likes Michael Menenius Gove and Dominic Cominius Cummings.

Recently he took to the airwaves in his fightback to regain the initiative, making set-piece speeches and appearing on radio and Television where he was forced onto the defensive at times over the Government’s response to the current Covid crisis and likely impact of the economic crisis to come. Certainly there are mutterings on the back benches and among some of the normally loyal conservative press that Boris needs to rediscover his mojo if he is to lead his party into the next election and ensure a successful transition to an independent trading nation from January 01st next year. Another factor weighing on peoples’ minds is that having become a father again recently, what of the opinion of Carrie Virgilia Symonds who like her Roman counterpart, may recoil at the thought of the likely political battles being played out over the coming months?

One Tory whose immediate future is secure right now is that of Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, who most observers agree has had a good crisis. But as the economy begins its long uncertain recovery, the current support schemes for furloughed staff and the self-employed start to wind down and with some 11,000 job losses already announced this week, how much longer he can remain in his exalted position is unclear. His statement to Parliament this coming week should give a clue as to where his economic priorities will actually lie. Sunak is thought to harbour ambitions of his own for the top job; might he yet prove to be the Tullus Aufidius, pledging loyalty to the end but also looking for the opportunity that will leave him standing in triumph over Boris Johnson’s political corpse?

Whether Boris suffers the same fate as Coriolanus and ends up being banished from the centre of power remains to be seen. Should the chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Sicinius Brady, begin seriously to test the waters regarding his (Johnson’s) popularity among the backbench plebs, we might yet see the men in grey togas to begin quietly plotting for a change of leader.

If he were writing today, Shakespeare would probably sum up being Prime Minister (or First Consul) by quoting directly from Julius Caesar – the Kenneth Williams version that is;-

Oh infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!!     

[1] Source: https://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2020/january/statement-on-wuhan-coronavirus/