Twitter abuse and the joy of #BardPoliticians

Published by ConservativeHome

bard politicians“And there’s for twitting me with perjury,” cries George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, as he lunges toward the customary bloody stab-fest at the end of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part III.

As an unapologetic Bardophile, I take the view that nothing escapes the attention of the world’s greatest poet and playwright – democracy, witchcraft, suicide, psychosis, England, Iceland, football and tennis: it’s all there. But ‘twitting’ during the Wars of the Roses was not a prescient reference to the emergence of Twitter: it is part of a tirade of insults among fractious brothers each vying for the Crown of England. Richard taunts Prince Edward, who declares himself better than all three traitorous and usurping brothers. King Edward IV, Richard and George in turn stab the young Prince Edward to death. Queen Margaret faints, and Richard skulks off to the Tower.

In this little twitting spat, insults are liberally hurled, offence undoubtedly caused and blood flows in rivers. It’s all a bit too much for Margaret to bear, but there’s no ‘Report Abuse’ button for her to press, no tabloid editor to harass and no intervention by the Chairman of an influential Commons committee.

This got me wondering about the Twitter abuse threshold; the undeniable social-media reality that one person’s harmless jibe is another’s grievous offence. You joke about a hijab; you’re an Islamophobe. You diss French cheese; you’re a xenophobe. You joke about the Welsh and find yourself hauled before the courts on a charge of racism. Or you’re frustrated by a flight delay, so you threaten to blow the airport sky high – quite obviously in jest – only to be arrested, tried and found guilty of breaching the Malicious
Communications Act 2003.

If Twitter ever installs a ‘Report Abuse’ button, it won’t be long before it is itself abused by the touchy, thin-skinned and humourless.

Last month I was watching Michael Gove at the Dispatch Box delivering a tour de force during Education Questions. He spoke his speech trippingly on the tongue. He mouthed occasionally, and had a tendency to saw the air too much with his hand (thus). In the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of his passion, he didn’t tear a passion
to tatters, to very rags, or split the ears of those on the green benches.

In fact, for the most part, he suited the action to the word, the word to the action; he showed virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. This got me thinking about the whole theatre of others, as for the most part they strut and bellow their humanity quite abominably.

So captivated was I by the Education Secretary’s hammy performance that I decided to start a Twitter hashtag (NB don’t bother doing this unless you’ve got c10,000 followers). I tweeted: “Let’s kick off #BardPoliticians – I think Michael Gove would make a superbly acerbic Malvolio”, and I lured fellow Bardophiles Dan Hannan and Paul Goodman into my tragi-comic indulgence.

It didn’t take long for Dan to take the bait. Ever a proponent of life imitating Shakespeare, he disclosed the nugget that a couple of years ago David Cameron made it known
that he thought himself a latter-day Henry V. I spluttered over my tea, but an entertaining thread ensued: is Boris Cameron’s Falstaff? Is Gordon Brown Macbeth?

Julian Huppert happened to be in the news that day, with the Daily Mail asking if he was the dullest MP in Westminster, having gained something of a reputation for “long-winded
questions and interventions in debates”. Ginger goatee aside, I thought we might have found our #BardPoliticians Polonius. And then I received an excellent suggestion that Vince Cable would make a good Touchstone Funny how the baddies came from Scotland, the goodies from Notting Hill, and the windbags and clowns from the Liberal Democrats.

Would any of this this banter justify pressing the ‘Report Abuse’ button?

Well, Mr Huppert has complained very publicly about the boisterous jeers and regular lampooning he receives the moment he rises in the Chamber to speak. But what if a certain insensitive casting proposal should offend? What, say, if someone suggested that Harriet Harman might make a splendid Katherina, needing to be tamed, or Eric Pickles a corpulent Falstaff, begging to be spurned?

After all, Chris Bryant mounted his high pantomime horse a few years ago over a casting suggestion. He accused George Osborne of delighting in playing Baron Hardup during a time of recession, and urged him to play Prince Charming instead. To this the Chancellor quipped: “At least I’m not the pantomime dame”. This met with much hissing and booing from the Labour benches, so Chris Bryant carried on playing to the Twitter gallery, insisting the Chancellor’s response was either “homophobic or just nasty”.

Dan Hannan demurred on my casting Gove as Malvolio. “Surely Mandelson is Malvolio,” he contended. “Gove ‘Sir Topas’ who examines him. Gove once played a curate.”

I had forgotten that little cinematic gem. A thespian background is nothing to be ashamed of: some of the world’s greatest and most inspirational politicians have been actors in
a previous life. One thinks of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Glenda Jackson…

But the Hannan School of Acting was verging on typecasting. You can’t cast Gordon Brown as Macbeth just because he’s a Scot. Or, as Andrew Lilico suggested, Peter Bone as one of three witches just because he seems to enjoy stirring cauldrons of poison.

On the question of John Bercow, I couldn’t decide whether Mr Speaker or Chris Bryant would make the better puffed-up waterfly Osric. And then I found myself trapped in a never-ending fantasy. Who would make the best Cassius? Who had the leanest
and hungriest look? What about Brutus – an honourable man prepared to indulge
in a bit of regicide for the good of the state? If Cameron is not Henry V, then
who? Enter true patriot Steve Baker, heading to the Chamber for another EU
rebellion.

But this is all shadows on the casting couch. When nature is in revolt and children are born with teeth, we seek prophecies of stability and images of social normality. Parliament is steeped in the loyalties of blood and allegiance, and politicians plagued with vaulting
ambition. Evil lurks, but heaven is gilded into the architectural fabric of the Palace. Political hierarchy needs its protagonists, its intrigue, its darkness and devils. As the great man said, all the world’s a stage, and Westminster is itself pure theatre. We groundlings are both bound by its law and spellbound by its virtuous rottenness.

We’ve seen this play before, of course. Conservatives are Lancastrians, Labour are Yorkists, and every PMQs is a re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth. And if you think all this is theatrical hyperbole, just ask Alex Salmond about the looming referendum on Scottish independence and the Battle of Bannockburn.

Did I mention Alex Salmond?

Banquo or Bottom?

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