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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lies, Damned Lies, and Dodgy History

Here comes a general election, and with it the inevitability that for the next few weeks we'll be subjected to dubious historical allusions and comparisons galore. The last few days have seen much talk of coalition governments, so journalists in search of a headline have decided arbitrarily to apply the term 'Kingmaker' to Nick Clegg - despite the fact that the word has overwhelmingly negative connotations, even if one leaves aside the wholly unlikely concept of 'Clegg the Kingmaker'. (The much-maligned BBC provided an exemplary explanation of the historical origins of this term, allowing a knowledgeable historian to do most of the talking; would that many other employees of the BBC and other media did likewise.) There's also been some discussion of previous precedents for hung parliaments and/or coalition governments. One allegedly eminent political writer who shall remain nameless (oh, all right, it was Fraser Nelson of the Guardian) got horribly tangled between the two, assuming that the number of years of minority government in the 20th century were identical to those of coalition government; wrong, as coalitions provided the government for a grand total of twenty years (1916-22 and 1931-45). We're already seeing the frenzied gloom-and-doom merchants hold forth on the evils of minority governments and coalitions, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the world's democracies get on perfectly well under such conditions. (Think of such notoriously unstable tin-pot third world backwaters as Germany, the Republic of Ireland and...umm...oh yes, Wales and Scotland...) Coming soon, presumably, will be the earnest discussions of the constitutional role the queen would have in the event of a hung parliament, all of which will probably ignore the fact that during her reign she has been far less involved in, and certainly has less room for manoeuvre in, deciding on the government of the UK in such an event than do the likes of the Belgian monarch or the average Governor-General of Canada or Australia.

So stand by for a flood tide of ill informed, lazy or simply wrong history, trotted out to back up particular agendas or to add impressive-looking 'facts' to relentlessly superficial reporting. One final example: the 'poshness' of the Camerons has been an easy target, and it's almost become a mantra to refer to 'Sam' as 'a descendant of Charles II' and 'Dave' as 'a descendant of William IV'. OK, fair comment up to a point, but let's have a little perspective here - thanks to his remarkably active nocturnal proclivities, there are thousands of descendants of Charles II (Rupert Everett, for one, which might be why he provided one of the best-ever screen portrayals of the king*), while Gordon Brown is probably descended from King Robert the Bruce - most Scots are, just as most English people are descended from King William the Conqueror. Royal descent isn't particularly special, it's just a matter of how far back in your family tree it happens to be. Moreover, there seems to be much less focus on the fact that the PM is perfectly entitled to call himself Dr Brown, given his doctorate in History; but then, perhaps the fact that he was educated to such a high level doesn't fit comfortably with projecting the image of a modest man of the people, in contrast to 'David-Old-Etonian-Descendant-of-William IV-Cameron'? Just a thought.

(* Everett is surely unique in having played both Charles I and Charles II on screen - respectively one of the shortest and one of the tallest kings in British history, not to mention bearing virtually no facial resemblance to each other.)  

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