Ladies and Gentlemen, this week we have been celebrating Shakespeare in Parliament. It has been a strange experience to see his musicality and breadth of moral vision juxtaposed with the narrow foolishness and dreary ranting of so much current political debate.
Shakespeare, almost more than anything, is a poet of politics, large and small—of how we live with each other. And so he is a poet of love, and war, and sorrow and friendship and every aspect of our messy human madness.
He reminds us that words—teem and bubble as they do—are what civilise us, colonise us, and clothe us. That life is an education in what it is to be human; and one where words, and above all his words, are our educators.
Yet, as Parliament shows, there is too a place for the prosaic.
If poets are our unacknowledged legislators, then thank God our legislators are not unacknowledged poets. Or if they are, it’s best that they remain so, for we need their prosy skills, such as they are, and we fear too much persuasion.
The greatest politicians—such as Burke, or Churchill, or Lincoln—have always understood the power of words, and they have drawn on that power without abusing it. But there is collective wisdom too in proper public deliberation: in a Parliament that genuinely parleys.
We revere Burke’s Speech on Conciliation, Churchill’s Finest Hour, Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, and rightly so. These are miracles of language.
But let us not forget such other things as the 1,400 careful words—and they were careful, on pain of death—of the Petition of Right, composed just 12 years after Shakespeare’s death. These words are no miracle of language, to be sure, yet—even more, perhaps, than Magna Carta itself—they mark the moment when the rule of law came of age.
We stand in their shadow, no less than in that of Shakespeare. But in parting celebration of him, and of the London Library, and of a glorious event, here is Prospero to send us on our way tonight:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, we asked several MPs to recite key speeches from his plays. In the first of the series, Jesse Norman MP reads Prospero from The Tempest Act IV Scene I.
In the bad old days at Stamford Bridge, it was not uncommon for Chelsea fans to be accosted with the dread question: “Oi! You ‘Arris or Wilkins?”
To hear it was to experience the hideous certainty that any attempt to explore the relative merits of Ron “Chopper” Harris or Ray “Butch” Wilkins as Captain would be swiftly shredded, and you with it, while the wrong answer might very well be terminal.
The EU referendum is very different, of course. But there is still the same urgent drive on both sides to tribalise, to play divide-and-conquer... with the poor, suffering voters haplessly caught in the middle.
The same is true of MPs. Many of my colleagues have come out enthusiastically for one side or the other, some have been stampeded into doing so by the social media, while a few remain undeclared.
People sometimes forget that referendums are very different from general elections.
In referendums there are no MPs, no political parties and no Prime Ministers (indirectly) to vote for. Their impact runs, not for five years, but for at least a generation. A bad decision cannot be improved only a few years later by voting the other way.
There are no manifestoes, and just one question to be answered. In this case: In or Out? The impact of this decision may be starkly different for different people: for the small business owner vs. the big corporate executive, for the housewife vs. the pensioner, for the student vs. the civil servant.
Everyone has their own opinions, and rightly so. There are huge questions of economic growth and national identity at stake.
Today the cross-party Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which I chair, publishes its first report on the BBC Charter Review. We have concluded that the BBC needs a radical overhaul of its governance arrangements; and that the Charter review process itself needs to be significantly improved.
As George Orwell said, “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.” One of those things is the BBC. To Britons, it’s just the Beeb, or Auntie: a slightly old-fashioned member of the family whom they love to grumble about but secretly rather adore.
To foreigners, it’s much more: a beacon of enlightened values of openness, freedom of thought, toleration and diversity, more vital than ever today in a world of ideological and sectarian division. It's one of the things that make the UK a soft-power superpower.
As a rule the policy of this column has been to focus on local issues.
On the nitty-gritty of potholes, school funding and better public services in our gorgeous county. Not for it the commentator’s curse of lush and airy speculation about national or international events. And certainly not, ahem, politics.
Reader, I am afraid you may experience a slight service interruption in this respect over the next few weeks. But I make no apologies for it. For there is one issue that is local because it is national, and national because it is international. That is the forthcoming EU referendum, now almost certain to be held in on June 23rd. It is, quite simply, far too important to be ignored.
Some of my colleagues in Parliament have thrown in their lot with one camp or the other, in or out, and others will doubtless follow them. It is absolutely their right to do so, and the campaigns for and against UK exit from the EU will be livelier and stronger for their participation.
My own approach, however, will be slightly different.
In 1982 Margaret Thatcher led a British delegation to Beijing to discuss the vexed question of Hong Kong. They were given second-rate accommodation, and most of the Chinese leadership deliberately stayed away from the British banquet at the Great Hall of the People.
But matters really hit rock bottom back at the hotel when Denis Thatcher discovered that he could not obtain a gin and tonic, a point on which he was vociferously indignant to his wife in the privacy of their bedroom. The eavesdroppers took the hint; both gin and tonic were then supplied.
To read this book is to find oneself in something of the same position as the Chinese eavesdroppers.
The proposed closure of No.1 Ledbury Road has featured heavily in these pages, and my in-tray has been filled with correspondence from local people who are concerned at the situation. Only last week the centre was temporarily closed at no notice due to staff illness, causing great distress to those it serves.
For those readers not familiar with No.1, it is a specialist resource unit that provides respite care for young people with complex health needs and disabilities.
As well as providing vital support for the children concerned, No.1 throws a lifeline to their parents and carers, allowing them to rest and spend time with other loved ones. I have had the honour of being Patron to the Friends of the centre, where many children have formed long-lasting and close friendships over many years.