The history parody 1066 and all that famously described the English Civil War as being between the “wromantic and wrong” Cavaliers and the “repulsive and right” Roundheads.
With Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn now odds-on to face each other across the dispatch box – and with our society in the midst of a cultural civil war of sorts – you could say that not since the 17th century has this country been led by two men who so embodied the classic archetypes of the Cavalier and the Roundhead.
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Boris, with all his man-baby ‘divine right’ sense of entitlement, may not be everybody’s idea of wromantic – though his number of progeny and extensive back catalogue of amorous liaisons may suggest that some have indeed seen him that way. He does, though, embody something of that politically captivating sense of party-fun and devil-may-care irresponsibility that eventually made the Royalists a more attractive proposition than the moralistic fun-sponges of the resistance.
Admittedly, that word ‘eventually’ is doing a lot of work here. For not until long after the king’s head was separated from his body, and the grim moralists had had their day, could the party times return again – which conjures the image of that blond mane being held aloft at Traitor’s Gate. Whatever the modern-day equivalent of decapitation might be, it’s not a wholly unlikely prospect.
Likewise, earnest Jeremy Corbyn does a more than passable impression of stolid Leveller single-mindedness. Just think of all his moralistic, almost Old Testament prophetic determination for reform according to some Biblical blueprint for the flattening out of our social and economic differences.
Corbyn’s mentor, Tony Benn, was thoroughly steeped in the revolutionary politics of the English Civil War – a long war that he believed had never been fully settled. The war was grimly repulsive to some, visionary and right to others – though one suspects that there will be never enough of the latter for Corbyn to successfully complete the reformation he has in mind.
Of course, the danger here is one of projection. Corbyn is hardly the visionary thinker that this comparison suggests. His big ideas are all borrowed and as second-hand as his wardrobe. He may love pottering around on his allotment, but that hardly makes him Gerard Winstanley in 1649 on St George’s Hill.
Boris also is flattered by this archetype. He would love it, I am sure, if we were to associate his whirligig of mood swings and curious on-off relationship with the truth with the spirit of the dashing Prince Rupert – at turns leading his troops into battle and the life and soul of the riotous after-party. Oh what fun. But I suspect the joke won’t last long. It’s only a few hundred yards, after all, from No 10 to the Banqueting House where Charles I met his sorry fate.
But there is a serious point buried amid the fun: the extent to which Roundheads often misunderstand the appeal of the Cavaliers – and also of Boris. No one expects Cavaliers to be morally virtuous. But people do respond to Cavaliers’ general attitude of celebration and fun. And to the belief that being a flawed human being is no disgrace.
That is why the typical Roundhead attacks on Cavalier immorality often serve to deepen the popularity of their target. This infuriates Roundheads and confuses them. Think of LBC Radio host and permanently angry Remainer James O’Brien – who prides himself on knowing a thing or two about being right – doing his absolute nut with incomprehension at people voting for Boris.
“I voted for Boris Johnson to be Mayor of London in 2006,” he admitted yesterday, but I “can’t really remember why”.
Well, I can tell you why many people did: because they recognised in themselves the very flawed characteristics that they see in him – and ones that Roundheads would put on trial. Indeed, the reason Roundheads are widely regarded as repulsive is because their self-righteousness is seen as persecutory.
Boris’s voter appeal may also be linked to his unpredictability, this being an unusual moment in time when, for Leavers at least, his many vices act more like virtues. Can you imagine how maddening the spreadsheet Eurocrats in Brussels will find the explosion of floppy haired chaos that will descend on them after his coronation? They don’t know what he will do because he doesn’t know what he will do. And Boris has had a lifetime of knowing how to turn the chaos he creates to his advantage. Brussels is afraid of him because they fear he could be someone genuinely barmy enough to go for a no deal.
And only when they start to worry that they are playing chicken with someone who is so unmanageable that he will keep driving full throttle towards them – someone who won’t listen to their sensible advice that this will hurt you more than it will hurt us – only then will the EU be forced to change course.
This was, incidentally, also Prince Rupert’s novel tactic: making his cavalry charge full tilt at the enemy. It is, though, a worrying comparison for Leavers. Let’s not forget who lost the war.
Like Rupert, Boris Johnson is unlikely to be remembered as a successful leader. The flaws – so appealing to some – will inevitably bring him down. Posh boy charisma is no substitute for character. And when he falls, this country will continue to be faced with the ongoing task of making peace with itself.
The Church of England was revived after the English Civil War as a kind of peace treaty between two sides who saw the world very differently. The church represented a sort of truce or pact between former enemies who would sit and pray alongside each other in their local parish church and agree to disagree. In this new-look church, the aptly named Book of Common Prayer would offer a focus for unity, and pastoral care would matter more than divisive theology.
It was in this post-civil war period, in response to the destruction that had gone before, that the English especially developed a suspicion of ideology and a renewed sense of the value of compromise. I do not know what institutions of healing we have left any more. And there is an important challenge in that thought.
But once this present battle is past, and our politics returns to the reassuringly boring, we will all need to learn again how to see the good in each other, and how to sit alongside each other without reaching for the pitchforks.