See clearly – do not dismember your kingdom

I have enjoyed the season at the Globe this year. Their Merry Wives has received much deserved praise for its light hearted romp through the lives and loves of Windsor housewives, and their Midsummer Night’s Dream stresses the comic, with well played scenes from Bottom and the mechanics. The production which has made the biggest impression on me was the depth and tragedy of King Lear.

The tragedy seems so topical because it is on one level about a King who gives away his kingdom to the wrong people, splitting it physically to do so and causing civil discord through the gross lack of judgement. It has been a bad few years watching our present government giving away our powers of self government with a similar lack of judgement, stirring up disagreements where there need have been none, and splitting the country into European style regions. Gloucester also makes a rank misjudgement by choosing the advice and word of his illegitimate son over his legitimate son, setting himself up for loss of title, and loss of his eyes.

Both Lear and the Duke of Gloucester bring their misfortunes on themselves by making gross misjudgements about their children. Lear refuses his sweetest daughter a third of his kingdom when he dismembers it for his three daughters before his own death, because she does not express her love as flatterers do. Gloucester, who wishes to keep his inheritance whole and is not in the business of giving it away before his death, rashly decides to disinherit his heir, giving the promise of it to his bastard son who is falsely undermining his brother and then his own father. Neither old man can see clearly. Lear goes mad. Gloucester, in one of the most shocking scenes in theatre, has his eyes put out, to make the point that he has not been using them well. He is stripped of his title and powers thanks to the duplicity of his illegitimate son. Had Lear not made the error over Cordelia and given her her just third there would still have been trouble in the kingdom, for the whole idea of splitting it with daughters like Goneril and Regan was fundamentally ill conceived. Both old men lose their revenues and their authority through their stupidity.

Shakespeare is not suggesting there are easy answers to the war between the generations.His play reminds us how fragile a thing peace and good government is. A single rash misjudgement on the scale of Lear’s or Gloucester’s can set in train a series of events that leads to the destruction of a person’s health, wealth and status. There are always people in the world of politics – or most other worlds – who will lie and cheat to gain office. Once in office they will abuse or even destroy it. Others will have to obey them for they have “authority”, and some will willingly obey them because they have patronage.

Like Lear, this government’s tragedy is they cannot see clearly. They are unwilling to admit the magnitude of the economic errors they have made. They refuse to accept that their mismanagement of the public sector is a big part of the problem the UK now faces in adjusting to the credit crunch. Indeed they wish to make it worse by their extreme policies of public spending and borrowing. They too have set in train a series of tragic events that will do harm to the United Kingdom. Just as Lear’s splitting of the country caused grief, so Labour’s lop sided devolution is now destroying them through the pressure of the SNP and the strength of English resentment at its unfairness.

Shakespeare’s masterly use of the theatrical – Lear’s madness in the storm and Gloucester’s pathetic attempts to kill himself – are extreme to illustrate wider truths about the human condition. Seeing Lear again in such a good production was a poignant experience. Our country is beign dismembered by politicians who cannot see clearly. Once again powers to govern ourselves are being given away. Once again those in power are making rash judgements, and cannot distinguish good advice from false.

No wonder this too is a time of troubles. Bad economic misjudgement and a bungled constitutional settlement with Brussels and the regions will bring the government down eventually . The tragedy is we are still so far away from a possible change of government, and this government is so far away from understanding what is wrong, let alone wanting to do anything to put it right.

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16 Comments

  1. John
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Over the months that I have been reading your blog I have been pleased with your cogent arguments about the ineptitude of this government. Their abysmal record is plain for anyone to see. We have, however, no chance when we have letter writers on ceefax who, "remember when Maggie Thatcher made us pay for hearing aid batteries." These are the, "My father and his father voted Labour and so will I." brigade. It would appear that the government will have to do something absolutely awful to convince these people. I think that would be impossible. I can't think of anything worse than they are doing already.

    Reply: The aim is to win a majority, not to convinve everyone! The present polls are fine – the frustration is they prevent an election.

  2. Posted August 17, 2008 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    The present polls are fine – the frustration is they prevent an election.

    If Camoron wasn't so weak he'd have called a vote of no confidence as soon as No Mandate Brown seized power.

    Reply: And lost it, uniting the Labour party – he is a better politician than you!

  3. Posted August 17, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    To others, being wrong is a source of shame; to me, recognizing my mistakes is a source of pride. Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes… George Soros

  4. Posted August 17, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    A recurring theme in almost all of Shakespeare is when is it legitimate to rebel against a lawful ruler or rule that is unjust. His answer, making him a philosophical conservative, is virtually never. Lear gives up lawful power & finds the result not to his taste. Hamlet agonises over punishing his father's murderer who, by that murder, has become to lawful king. The Duke of Venice dare not break his own laws to stop Shylock getting his pound of flesh. Even Midsummer Nights Dream is about the 3 classes – magical beings, kings & commoners – knowing their place.

    As regards devolution I supported it in Scotland & would again. Howecer it has produced a problem in unbalanced power & is fairly closr to making it impossible for a Scot to be PM which would be disasterous for the union. I think a federal UK is the only thing which would work since anything which produces 2 tier MPs is bound to be destructive. Federations have a fair record of stability & I believe, are capable of doing things rather better than unitary states since they allow more experiment in policy & experiment is the way to prove things. As a Scot I am not entitled to a vote but would prefer the Federation to include a number of different English states rather than 1 unit, but I recognise that is not currently popular in England. If a unitary England were chosen there should still be constitutional arrangements whereby regions could choose to change that. All of this implies a written constitution which I think Shakespeare would have approved of.

    • Iain
      Posted August 18, 2008 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      "If a unitary England were chosen there should still be constitutional arrangements whereby regions could choose to change that."

      I presume you would also support Scottish regions being able to get out from under Edinburgh rule?

      • Posted August 18, 2008 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        And I take it that, just like local governement is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament north of the border, John will agree that any decision on regional government in England will be the responsibility of an English Parliament and not the British politicians that have conspired for years to balkanise England into artificial euroregions? It wouldn't be fair, after all, for John's consituents to have a regional government foisted on them using the votes of MPs elected in Scotland or Wales who are unable to do the same to their own constituents.

  5. Stephen
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    As ever I find your comments on the economy highly astute, but are the Tories going to continue more or less with the same mad spending policies as labour when they finally get into power?
    It think Labour have proved, yet again, that chucking money at problems does not solve issues of poverty, crime and joblessness and poor educational standards. But I worry that the Tories will be too frightened of the liberal left to fight for sane policies on Europe, education and the economy?

    Reply:No, Conservatives will seek more value for money. We did not support the naitonalisation of Northern Rock, and Both David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear their wish to share the proceeds, of growth, not spend them all on the public sector.

  6. Financial Services A
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    The Kingdom could be given away by everyone moving to the south. Which I did.
    I would be interested in John Redwoods opinion on this think-tank report that has proved controversial by describing some north of England cities as "beyond revival" and suggesting that residents should move south. A gift to John Prescot and Labour. SNP too for sure.

    Reply: I disagree with the Think Tank

  7. Posted August 17, 2008 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    If your answer to "lop-sided devolution" is still English Votes on English Matters or the latest constitutional fudge proposed by your party, English Pauses for English Clauses then you're wasting your time worrying because it will still be unfair and inadequate and the union will still be dead within a decade.

    If you're a true Conservative & Unionist you'll support a proper English Parliament like the one the Scots have been given. Not only will anything less be grossly unfair and inadequate, but why on earth do you think that your constituents deserve less democratic representation than the celts?

  8. Keith
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    In reply to Neil Craig…..it is legitimate to rebel against a lawful ruler when you win!!

    You say……. making it impossible for a Scot to be PM which would be disastrous for the union.

    I say…we've already got one and what an unmitigated disaster he has been. He has reduced this country to a laughing-stock amongst the civilised world.

    Bring on the tumbrils.

  9. mikestallard
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    I am so glad that you find Shakespeare helpful. Out here in the Fens, we are pretty cut off from all that Culture Stuff. We did have a production of Grease, however. Tragically, I seem to have missed it.
    Our History is one of the English/Scandinavians conquering first Wales, then Ireland, then Scotland. Ireland was very much against us, although it provided most of the private soldiers for the Empire (including Generals Wellington and Montgomery). Scotland, once it saw the carrot, joined in the Empire and provided a huge amount or farmers and settlers.
    Today, without an Empire, what is the motivation for Scots staying in? In that Farming programme where Scottish farmers were included, it was surprising to hear so many English accents. I reckoned it was about half and half.
    I am not at all sure that we haven't got the balance about right at the moment and that maybe Wendy Alexander was right about the ballot for Scottish Independence taking place immediately.

  10. Kevin Lohse
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    "A recurring theme in almost all of Shakespeare is when is it legitimate to rebel against a lawful ruler or rule that is unjust. His answer, making him a philosophical conservative, is virtually never."
    Bearing in mind Shakespeare grew up in the reign of a man who was the Stalin of his day, whose descendant was known as "Bloody Mary", and that Elizabeth's claim to the throne was non too secure, Shakespeare's " innate conservative philosophy" could well be put down to a strong desire to keep his head.
    I feel that this govt. is more in tune with a Japanese "Noh" play. All the characters rush around striking poses and making lots of noise, accompanied by a disordant orchestra. There is no discernable plot, and all the characters are (politically) dead at the end of the performance.

  11. Tony Makara
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    On the matter of Lear and higher culture, when are the BBC going to use some of the money they bleed out of us to provide a proper arts channel? BBC Four is 'pop culture' in spite of its claim to be highbrow. I live in a village and would have to go well out of my way at night to find a proper theatre and a decent play or concert. So, I can only hope to see such culture on TV but instead I'm expected to watch 'Batman' and re-runs of 'Top of the pops' on the so-called arts channel. As John's piece makes clear, culture like Shakespeare is uplifting and thought-provoking, yet we rarely see anything like it on TV. The BBC claims to be a public service broadcaster that caters for everyone, so how about a higher-culture channel for those who enjoy the arts? BBC Four just does not fill the niche. By the way, excellent article Mr Redwood!

  12. Financial Services A
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Hmmmm! Interesting again to see what John Redwood has to say about a think-tank report that has proved controversial by describing some north of England cities as "beyond revival" and suggesting that residents should move south. A gift to Prescot and the SNP! This is a real post from Bazman.

  13. Bazman
    Posted August 17, 2008 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Interesting again to see what John Redwood has to say about a think-tank report that has proved controversial by describing some north of England cities as “beyond revival” and suggesting that residents should move south. A gift to Prescot and the SNP!

    Reply: The soundbite used by the independent academic that great northern cities should migrate to Oxford and Cambridge was fatuous. It cannot happen and will not be policy.
    There is a more interesting question, which I have discussed here in the past and will return to sometime, of why so much money and effort by Labour in the last ten years to help the North has resulted in the gap with the south widening in the south's favour.

  14. Johnny Norfolk
    Posted August 18, 2008 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Spot on John. I think its a pity that some still do not see it that way.

    They still cannot see the hand in front of their face.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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