Keeping Cheerful

Ci ragiono e canto contains the splendid song Ho visto un re (words by or adapted by Dario Fo; music by Paolo Ciarchi, best known for Piccolo uomo and now, I believe, a noise artist, and/or Enzo Jannacci):

I saw a king
a king who wept, still seated in the saddle.
He wept so many tears, so many tears that
even the horse got wet. Poor king
and poor old horse as well.
The emperor had taken from him one fine castle
the crafty sod
out of thirty two of them he’d owned. Poor king
and poor old horse as well.

The song, of course, goes on. A king, a bishop, a rich man, an emperor and a cardinal have all of them been ‘half ruined’. (The bishop indeed is so upset that he bites the hand of his sacristan.) Fo then mentions the peasant. He’s been cheated out of his chicken, his turkey, his wife, his farmstead, his son who’s gone for military service, even his pig. So he’s been completely ruined.

But does the peasant weep? Not a bit of it. He laughs. Because it’s the duty of the poor to keep cheerful, to avoid upsetting wealthy folk.


Rowan Williams appeared to take a similar line in yesterday’s Times. Britain’s MPs have suffered enough. They’ve even sacked the Speaker, rather in the manner of the bishop biting the hand of his unfortunate sacristan. Enough humiliation. We must move on.

‘We must move on’ is painfully New Labour. Indeed there’s a thesis to be written (using Talmy’s Force Dynamics) on how New Labour likes to use ‘speed’ whenever it lacks direction, which is often. Here, though, it belies something else. Whilst Dr Williams purports to solicit restraint when attacking dodgy MPs, he actually seems more confident in making the perfectly valid point that public service is (or ought to be) about something more than rule based behaviour and that the something he has in mind includes (or ought to include) the institution of a higher morality of some sort.

And yet he misses the vital point, which is that the Great Expenses Fiasco with all its absurdities, its lying and its cheating is but a symptom of a very much greater corruption, that of representative democracy itself. So his thesis becomes a purely local one about cleaning up peculation, about how a regular audit by nanny (‘Turn out your pockets this minute, Master McNulty!’) won’t solve everything and not about more explicitly political issues, such as:

  • how Parliament itself now fails miserably to represent the electoral will of this country. In 2005, for example, 22% of those eligible to vote supported the present government, despite its large majority. This was the worst result for any single party government since at least World War I
  • how the Executive now retains almost total power within the parliamentary process, so that the views of the opposition can generally be ignored
  • how the Whip systems, the Committee system and the craven acceptance of both of these by backbench MPs (who now function either as lobby fodder or as deracinated local ombudsmen or as both; hence the two homes) means that reams of fatuous and ill considered legislation are passed without scrutiny and, frequently, without comment
  • how, in more general terms, principle has now become mere policy, consumables to be sold to a supposedly gullible public for whom New Labour has contempt; means have been severed from ends; political labels have become brands, power has been exiled into bureaucracy, and so on.


But if representative democracy is to mean anything, then it must be about something very like a sort of mutual inspiration: of the leaders by the people and of the people by their leaders. Whereas what we have is mutual contempt. We may or may not want to solve this. And if we do, it can’t be by keeping cheerful lest MPs should get upset.

Anger may embarrass many people, but it is the surest sign that our democracy isn’t yet dead.

We need to become angrier still. And angrier, of course, about still more. Not just about bent cabinet ministers, duck islands and moats.


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