Now is the winter of our discontent?

Now is the winter of our discontent?

…who shall be the ‘glorious sun of York’?

The phrase ‘the Winter of Discontent’ is perhaps now better known to describe the political demise of the Callaghan government and subsequent victory of Margeret Thatcher in 1979 than the misquoted opening line of Shakespeare’s Richard III whence it came.

It captured, and still does, a deep misery – the feeling of a spiralling towards catastrophe that media pundits are trying to re-ignite in the face of a global depression, wildcat strikes and what is beginning to seem like a weekly dosage of impropriety and corruption in Parliament. They are not wrong to do so – there is an odd mood in the country at the moment, and little stands between a general disgruntlement (tolerable in any civilised democracy) and a more unwieldy feeling of dispair.

The scenes of wildcat strikes at refineries across the UK has reminded many of the industrial strife that marked the demise of the last Labour government, but the anger at the intrusion of foreigners reminded me more of the Evil May Day riots as transcribed in that lesser-known Shakespeare play (apparently) Sir Thomas More. There is, justified or not, the beginnings of a concern that belief in our democratic government is coming under strain at a time when politics itself is once again hampered by its own sleaze. Several have commented here that a combination of the scandals over expenses (especially Derek Conway’s fine this week) and Erminegate, in conjunction with the BJFBW theme of the strikes presents the perfect storm for the anti-politics of the BNP to see a surge in support.

I was struck today with an uncomfortable thought. As my taxi tore past the Houses of Parliament this afternoon, I realised that it seemed only a few weeks ago that the first mutterings about a Government of National Unity seemed so fanciful. Reflecting on the scale of the economic crisis and the recent gossip about possible coalitions suddenly made this unorthodox situation seem a more likely possibility than at any time in my memory.

Noting today’s date, January 31st 2009 marks the 303rd 403rd anniversary of the execution of Guy Fawkes, and I could not help but remember that he was, in the most literal sense, a son of York. I began to wonder about the prophetic power of Shakespeare’s opening line that now confronts us “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York” – the line obviously refers to the infamous Richard III, but my mind turned from ‘the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions’ to other ‘sons of York’ who might best be placed to see us through this particular storm.

Ii occurred to me that, if forming a national government, there would be two sons of York whom I would enlist without question: Vince Cable and David Davis. I recognise that both have their detractors – the extent to which Cable really was prescient about the economic downturn, or the ‘soundness’ of Davis’ decision-making. I accept both sets of qualms, but they miss the point. Whether justifiably or not, both David Davis and Vince Cable are genuinely reassuring to the public. They exude confidence and integrity when speaking on their chosen subjects (economics and civil liberties respectively) and they retain the rare distinction of being considered somewhat independent – or at least not reliant on their parties for their appeal.

I pondered that perhaps the scariest crisis facing British politics this week is not the economic collapse, or the spectre of the BNP, or jobs going to foreigners – it is the recognition that Government is rapidly losing the confidence of the British people, and yet that confidence is not falling by right to the Opposition. There was, I sensed, a loss of faith in the system itself. Beyond our analysis of the horse race, and the implications for the political parties of coalition government, there is a serious solution that could perhaps be tendered: that the politicians who do still enjoy widespread and cross-partisan support should be permitted to take the reigns of power.

And so, I asked myself, with Cable at the Exchequer and Davis ensconsed in the Home Office, where might I find a third son of York to take the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ensure the making of summer from these darkest days? And as the vision of Frank Dobson handling our negotiations with Iran grew ever more lurid, I realised that perhaps the prophetic power of Shakespeare’s opening line might just be overstated.


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