The analysis of June’s referendum vote that put the onus for the Leave decision onto older voters, seems to have faded as the the debate turns to what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means.
However, if you are sad enough to look back at the news media’s range of vox pops and interviews leading up to and following the vote, there is no doubt at all that many older voters had the fixed view, some had even an obsessively fixed view, that voting ‘Leave’ would whisk them back into some comfort zone of years gone by – a zone without immigrants, without ‘foreign’ interference. And it would mean, of course, as we have seen in an earlier column, they could get their blue passports back.
It might at this point be worth asking why the man who took the risk with his children’s futures and called the referendum, stood out so strongly against sixteen year-olds having a say in their future. We can ask away…but it surely provides a fruitful area for future conspiracy theorists.
In this 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, we might get more sense by looking at the words of one of the greatest playwright’s oldest characters. The one that comes to mind – after Falstaff’s dying days, Lear’s madness and Prospero’s island fantasies – is John of Gaunt and his views in Richard II on the island that was then known as England.
Shakespeare gave John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, one of the most recited and anthologised speeches in all his works – the ‘scept’red isle’ speech. It first attracted the attention of a compiler in 1600 – he was working on the England’s Parnassus anthology.
Gaunt stands out because though he is sick and dying, he claims old age – and its accompanying wisdom – and glories in his role as an ‘oldie’ opposing King Richard’s misrule. In the very first line of the play, Richard fixes Gaunt as an old man:
Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster…
Later, at one point in Act II, the King calls him ‘aged Gaunt’ and Gaunt responds playing on his own name:
O, how that name befits my composition!
Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old.
The King does not hear Gaunt’s speech – it is after all largely a complaint against Richard II as an alleged betrayer of England’s royal traditions and plunder of the economy. It can also be read as the speech of a nationalist, a little Englander, even as a supporter of English exceptionalism.
Richard II was written in about 1595 as Elizabeth was ageing and the royal succession was top of the agenda. Gaunt comes down fiercely on the side of having an English Sovereign. He would say that wouldn’t he? Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son, was set to succeed Richard – as Henry IV.
So while the speech is shot through with a preference for English kings and all things English rather than continental, quite a lot of the speech can be ignored if we are looking for present day parallels: Gaunt carefully forgets the whole Norman Conquest bit of royal history. And in post-Shakespearean Britain we have had first the Hanoverian and then the Saxe-Coburg-and-Gotha (aka the House of Windsor) royal invasions from Germany.
This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself…
This precious stone set in the silver sea…
It is all loud and stirring stuff – though not quite the phrasing for the dimmed voice of a dying man.
In the light of UKIP-type whinges about things foreign, other parts of the speech do ring current political bells. For instance: “This fortress built against infection…” Infection? The footnotes suggest this refers to ‘the kind of imported foreign corruptions’ Richard had brought from Europe.
Gaunt then refers to the isle as ‘this little world’ – perhaps a parallel to Brexiters’ ‘little Britain’ that can take on not just Europe, but the world, on her own. Which gets us to the UKIP heart of Gaunt’s complaints: the ‘silver sea’ serves as ‘a wall’ – or ‘moat’ – “Against the envy of less happier lands.”
This has a clear parallel in calls to stop the influx of economic migrants who are envious of British pay scales and, of course, envious of the British benefits system. Across another ‘silver sea’, Mr Trump and his wall against ‘others’ also comes to mind.
Gaunt would surely have applauded that famous Daily Express headline – undoubtedly written by a sub-editor steeped in his boss’s preference for Empire – “Fog in the channel – Europe isolated.”
Just before the King and Queen enter and bring Gaunt’s rhetoric to a sudden halt, the speech touches on a theme that would, had it been slightly more simply expressed, have fitted well on the side of a Leave campaign bus:
“England…is now bound in with shame, With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds; That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
Were those EU treaties nothing more than ‘inky blots and rotten parchment’? In fact those ‘bonds’ were Richard’s way of bleeding the country financially dry to get funds to fight his war in Ireland.
Indeed, Gaunt’s harshest words are reserved for Richard’s economic policies: “This dear dear land, Dear for her reputation through the world, Is now leas’d out…like to a tenement or pelting [paltry] farm.”
What would Gaunt have had to say about the much-lauded ‘inward investment’ that pays low wages, pays little tax and sends all its profits out of the country? After all, ‘inward investment’ will have to flourish if we are to avoid a lengthy post-Brexit downturn in the nation’s economic fortunes.
Should we bother with the words of the old and dying? Before he starts his great speech, Gaunt seeks to boost his value as a critic of the King:
O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Inforce attention like deep harmony.
Where words are scare they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
As for giving the vote to sixteen year-olds, the Duke of York (King Richard’s uncle), goads Gaunt on with statements about Richard’s love of luxury, of lascivious verses, of Italian fashions and of flattering words to all of which, he says, “The open ear of youth doth always listen”.
It looks very much as though Shakespeare believed we are doomed to hear counsel from the old and dying who yearn to return to some quaint and golden era of their youth. We can listen to them, but do we have to act on their meanderings?
Had not Gaunt been of royal blood, Richard might have taken extreme action against him and his criticisms of the way the king was ruling:
Now, by my seat’s right royal majesty,
Wert thou not brother to great Edward’s son,
This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head
Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.
Old people who let their tongues run roundly in their heads, should watch out and beware of what they wish.[NOTE: while trying to find an easy-access online version of the full speech to refer readers to, I chanced upon a blogger finding similar parallels with Gaunt’s words. You can read that blog here. The whole of Act II Scene i can be read here.]