When our Monarch delivered the programme of her government from the dais in the House of Lords, there was some discussion of the significance of her clothes. No-one on here would admit it, but I do think that what she wore – coat and hat in the colours of the EU, over a simple green and blue dress – was highly significant. Essentially, she had abandoned the formal robes of the head of our sovereign estate, and wrapped herself in the flag of the EU, in order to ordain a sequence of legislation and negotiation ostensibly intended to sever the chains of our political subservience to that institution.
Neither did she wear the Crown of State, or acknowledge her ownership of the Sword and Cap, those other symbols of our sovereign constitutional dispensation.
Someone pointed out the pearls she was wearing, and I rather fatuously responded. This was in a context of attempts to wrest the symbolism of her clothing away from what it clearly was, an assertion that our deepest level of sovereignty and nationhood was now in the hands, and at the behest, of a supranational empire of which we were now a merely adjunct part. Centuries ago, other powers also perhaps routinely clothed their puppet monarchs and janissaries in imperial ceremonial garb, to make the same point. We are just unused to having it done to us, but the message is the same, and coming at this specific point in time, seems to me to be a confident and almost mocking assertion that we cannot win – if ‘we’ means those of us who wish to become a truly sovereign nation once again. It was a calculated symbolic slight, the public humiliation of the personification of our constitutional monarchy, our constitutional democracy.
Going back to my response about the pearls, I (fatuously) said perhaps they hinted at Scene II of the Tempest, where Prospero’s captive spirit Ariel leads the ship-wrecked Ferdinand to his master by singing the song which famously includes the stanza
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.
The Tempest is a play about the re-justification of things, through the opportunity provided by apparent chance, seized on by an alert Prospero to regain his proper place in the world. It is about revelation, for Miranda – who she is, as she finds out that her father is not ‘merely’ an old magician in a cell on a lonely island, but an overthrown and exiled Duke of Milan. Prospero reveals to Miranda her true identity even as he plots to bring Ferdinand and her together.
There is much conniving and plotting in the play, as two separate murder plots arise, the one grotesque, the other considered, but each about seizing power. The remarkable thing is that in the end no-one is murdered, no-one suffers more than being led along by magic, and Prospero’s vengeance on the authors of his exile so capriciously brought within his power, is simply a vengeance of reconciliation, with him adopting his rightful place once more, Ferdinand and Miranda betrothed, and a frankly happy ending.
An ending engineered by means which we, in our enlightened times, would have no doubt frowned on – Prospero uses magic in ways which at times seem quixotic and cruel. He is far from the embodiment of that kind, gentle, benevolent image we love to create around power, and which we anxiously re-enact in our religious leaders. It is about the use of that power (magical in Prospero’s case) in the confidence of a moral entitlement to do so. When was the last time we, as a nation, felt certainty in that close connexion between necessity and virtue, in our actions in the world?
Returning to those pearls – Ariel’s song is an affirmation that everything that ‘doth fade’ in life – mortal bones, tissues, the intimate actions performed in their so very temporary presence – is transformed by some process of magic of time, superior even to Prospero’s devices. It forms the enduring, precious inheritance which can tell us who we are. Though mute in itself, if we hear the ringing of the bell, the sea-nymphs ringing the knell, we can discover ourselves. We can become re-united with the true, transformed past; we can understand our own mortal existence within its frame; and we can contemplate the potential gravity of our present actions, as they are inevitably transformed into myth, history, culture: the inheritance of our descendants.
When the GE campaign was being waged, I said at one point that a good slogan to fight on would be ‘It’s Not About The Economy Stupid’. I was (and am) offended by every single argument about our future being mangled into a question of economic prosperity – and immediate prosperity at that. At the time, I wanted to wrest the argument back to one of sovereignty. Everything devolved from that single central issue, I thought – control of our borders, control of our legal dispensation, control of our relationships with other sovereign nations, and yes, control of our economy.
I now think that that knowledge of who we are that I refer to above is actually prior even to the issue of sovereignty. Dean Acheson famously said Britain had ‘lost an empire, and failed to find a role’. I think it goes much deeper than that. We have lost the thread of our deep identity. Until we reconnect with it, we will not be capable of true sovereignty, the exercise of autonomy over ourselves and power over the world outside, and the recreation of a moral framework which will reconcile ourselves to the possession of that power and the wealth that can only accompany such power.
There are many in the world now, and in our nation, competing in mischief to tell us quite different stories about ourselves – stories of intrinsic wickedness, stories that repel rather than attract. This is quite deliberate. There are some even,who are actively trying to cut us off forever from our past, by claiming that the interpretation of that past is essentially arbitrary or merely utilitarian. They claim the right to subject it (on our behalf) to fundamental revision in the light of their own considerations of current morality (whose origins are themselves unchallengeable by us, significantly).
Many people wish to interpret our past for us – to place themselves between us and our inheritance, like the church once placed the priest and the rood screen between us and God, taking the sacraments and interpreting scripture on our behalf. From whatever source they arise – alien religion, political cult, psychopathic association – they do not have our interests at heart. They intend to plunder our accumulated wealth – economic, intellectual, historical, cultural – and enslave us to their purposes until we have outlived our usefulness to them.
If we want to succeed as a nation, rather than resigning ourselves to becoming an adjunct in someone else’s empire, the one thing we need to do more than any other – the one thing we can do which will resonate throughout our land, through classes and ages, through rich and poor, through any who are genuinely prepared to adopt a future illuminated by the shining light of our true, transformed past – is to dedicate ourselves to understanding once more just who we are. Only then will we achieve sovereignty, and only then will we achieve national power and prosperity.
I leave this piece deliberately unfinished, an open question – how do we do this? Where are the pearls, where is the coral – where is the enduring stuff of our past, which can stiffen our sinews, and bring enlightenment and fraternity to our poor lost souls? Please, no more tea-lights, spreading more darkness than light. No more helpless embracing of a future of death-in-life, the hollow laughter of arbeit-macht-frei. We can find the answer to obliteration, and we can only find it within our collective inheritance, our pillars of ownership and consent.
Churchill was the last one to invoke it. He would have been the first to say, that in the end it was not his own greatness, but the greatness of what he conjured into being, that amounted to anything, that made the difference – for all of us.