Honourable Men

Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar is a text famous for its oratory and skill in speaking one thing while meaning another. Time and again, he describes the conspirators who have killed Caesar as ‘honourable men’. As this repetition builds it sounds ever more hollow. The substance of the speech creates a growing space in which the populous may start to draw its own conclusions. It is a tactic of consummate skill that in Shakespeare’s hands becomes the opening salvo in a civil war.

‘Honour’ is not a term that sits comfortably in modern discourse. There is a mountain of evidence that suggests some MPs, who by tradition carry the title ‘Honourable’, are content to exhibit behaviour that undermines the recognition implied by the convention. It appears at times that there is a general desire on their part to sully the value of ethics in political office to achieve a particular goal: if everyone is behaving badly, what’s the difference when it comes to voting in elections? One recent example of this is the repeated claim by the Prime Minister that there are more people in work now than before the pandemic.

Responding to a complaint from the fact-checking organisation Full Fact, Mr Humpherson had told No 10 this claim had been made by the prime minister in Parliament on 24 November, 15 December, 5 January, 12 January and 19 January.

And it was “disappointing” the prime minister had “continued to refer to payroll employment as if describing total employment, despite contact from our office and from others”.

BBC News Website 7 February 2022

Perhaps Mr Johnson has learned the lesson from his time in journalism, that prominent and false claims continue to have credence even if they are corrected at a later date (less prominently, and in a much smaller font). Whether it is the ‘success’ of Brexit; the assertion that the UK Government did an excellent job handling the pandemic; or the overall state of the economy, aspirational claims and bluster appear to be the primary tactic of current political leadership. I am sure that however inaccurate many of these claims will appear to be, their confident assertion will hoodwink many people. The Globe’s touring production of Julius Caesar carries the right stapline: ‘Ancient Rome has never felt closer to home’. Elsewhere, Shakespeare provides Beatrice with words of contempt for the supposed bravery of big liars:

He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it.

Beatrice speaking in Much Ado About Nothing Act 4 scene 1

Establishing honour in civic life is not easy. It isn’t difficult to accuse people in leadership of hypocrisy, and none of us is perfect. However, it is a very sad state of affairs when honour is no longer held as a value to pursue. When simply holding power is seen as a kind of virtue, and the assumption is that whatever ‘sacrifice’ might be involved can be offset by the prospect of future gains (Saturday’s Guardian suggests that the Prime Minister will be able to earn £5 million per annum after leaving office).

The current political landscape in England cannot be blamed on leadership alone. We have stood by while the virtues and values of good government have been eroded. Any attempt to reverse this decline and promote more honourable leadership will require work at the grass roots. As people see the bluster for what it is, there is the chance that we can re-set expectations and encourage action and voting that sustains a better quality of leadership. I am not altogether hopeful that this can be achieved, but what honour would there be if we did not at least make the attempt?

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