Modern Politics: What Would King Arthur Do?

13/03/2012 23:15 GMT | Updated 13/05/2012 10:12 BST

They call him the "Once and Future King". Legend has it, Arthur resides in eternal sleep on the Isle of Avalon, awaiting the day when England needs his help to fight off some cruel calamity...

Well, I don't know about you, but I wish he'd bloody wake up already. How many invitations does the man, need? Was he there for the struggle against Hitler, defending the skies of London from the Luftwaffe's incendiary bombs? Was he b****cks!

So much for specialising in repelling German invaders... and what about the credit crisis - arguably the worst financial disaster in modern history - did we see any wise fiscal solutions from the legendary Dark Age king then? No, we bloody didn't - just hour after hour of Robert Peston frowning at plummeting graphs, and stock footage of sweating city traders holding their heads in their hands, as if they were worried their skulls might come loose and roll down the corridor.

Typically, I also notice a distinct lack of mythical medieval assistance on the NHS. Does King Arthur have any solutions for reforming the expensive-but-necessary public health institution? No, he's strangely silent on the matter. The lazy so-and-so.

That's the problem with heroes - they don't help much, no matter how deeply we long for them to swoop in and fix stuff. Okay, I'm not talking about Spiderman here, or even real heroes like fire-fighters and bomb-disposal technicians. No, what I want to witter on about this time is the notion of historical heroes... the men and women who are still famous today because of some stuff they did ages ago (you know, The Rolling Stones...) No, I'm kidding. I mean proper historical celebs, the ones who are so well-known, they get their own movies (you know, The Rolling Stones...)

Okay, seriously - this piece is about how we use historical characters from the past for our own ends, which is ironic because they themselves had done the same to their own predecessors...

Every generation looks back in search of heroes. In the Ancient world, Alexander the Great was the Elvis Presley of dead celebrities, and even Rome's mightiest took a pilgrimage to his tomb at Graceland... or Alexandria, as it was known.

When Augustus Caesar visited the shrine, he kissed the Macedonian conqueror's face and accidentally broke the mummified nose in the process. Aiming to deflect the obvious panic from the local guide, who must have been going bat-shit crazy trying to calculate the insurance premiums, the young Caesar harrumphed that he'd "come to see a king, not a corpse"... presumably before feigning a headache and exiting before the Egyptians could hand him a bill for the damage.

Augustus was not the only one to ruin the sacred temple. The quite bonkers Emperor Caligula pilfered Alexander's breastplate as a memento, perhaps deciding it was shinier than the cheap-looking knock-off in the gift shop.

Yet, despite the catastrophic PR disasters these two visits must have been, a Roman emperor was wise to travel to the resting place of history's greatest military general - today politicians seek endorsements from rival candidates and business leaders, but back then you needed an endorsement from a god if you were looking to assume divine status yourself.

Alexander had claimed divine qualities in a ceremony at the shrine of Amun in Egypt, so his desiccated corpse was more than just a relic - it was potent, and imbued legitimacy. That said, young Augustus was clearly a little unimpressed by the dried up bones of a long-dead man. He'd obviously been expecting a lightshow and chorus girls...

Not everyone is forced to come to terms with the deflating reality of their beloved historical icons being a bit of a let-down. The Victorians lionised Richard the Lionheart as the arch-personification of the English Christian warrior, and happily repeated this to themselves for decades, prattling on and on about him like a pushy-mum trying to get their precious offspring into an exclusive school. It is only today that King Richard is known as an angry, homicidal, French-speaking, power-hungry schemer who reigned for ten years, yet only managed to clock up a total of six months in the country, during which time he levied taxes and offered to sell London to anyone who'd buy it.

The Victorian statue of him outside Parliament in Westminster is now an almost dictionary-definition of irony. Who knows? Perhaps in the year 2580 there will a memorial dedicated to Osama bin Laden in the Rose Garden at the White House, praising him for his capitalistic fervour, and his love of Broadway musicals...

Yet, heroes don't just disappoint - they can be dangerous too. I began this piece with King Arthur, the slumbering political consultant with his phone seemingly on silent mode, who has been working his motivational mojo throughout the centuries. Despite being almost completely made-up, Arthur was a major inspiration for King Edward I, the really angry bloke from the Braveheart movie.

Longshanks, as Edward was known, justified his violent acts (forcibly trying to bind Scotland, Wales and Ireland together under his rule) with constant reference to Arthur's story - there were jousting contests, round tables built, and the King even had Arthur's 'remains' dug up and reinterred in Glastonbury Abbey. He also took great pleasure in wearing Arthur's 'crown', which he nicked off the Welsh in 1282.

His grandson, Edward III, shared a similar martial spirit which led him to begin the Hundred Years War in 1337. Normally, wars are accurately named after their salient details, but this one was so over-the-top on the violence scale, even its name didn't do it justice. The Hundred Years War actually lasted 116 years, on and off, and brutally ravaged France. King Edward probably had no idea what he was starting - but his enthusiasm for invasion did not just come from a love of duty free cigarettes. No, once again, he was enamoured of Arthurian legend, and set-up his own chivalric order of Christian warriors, the Knights of the Garter, to mirror the Knights of the Round Table. As if King Arthur hadn't caused enough damage already, Henry VIII would later use both Arthur and Edward III as models for his own reign, and, yes you guessed it, this largely involved declaring war on France and Scotland.

In order to raise the funds for said wars, a spiritually-conflicted Henry, wavering between Catholicism and the newly-promulgated Protestantism, agreed to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and plundered over 800 religious institutions for their gold, land, and even their masonry, which he flogged to the highest bidder.

Henry's ill-gotten revenues were enormous, and were flung indiscriminately at the army and navy budgets. It was with this money that Henry could afford to build state-of-the-art warships, like the Mary Rose. Of course, back in Tudor times, state-of-the-art actually meant top-heavy-death-traps. She sank in full view of the King in 1545, shortly after having been expensively pimped out with heavy guns. So, Henry's costly audition for England's Greatest Warrior King Since Arthur™ was a disaster.

Yet, the collateral damage was not just to the Church. The clinically obese monarch's rapacious greed damaged society at large, as monasteries provided vital community services - schools, hospitals, libraries and shelters for the poor were all closed en masse, leaving nuns and monks to turn to prostitution and vagrancy to survive. So, if David Cameron continues closing libraries, he'll soon have to deal with an epidemic of well-read sex workers, who organise their dildos by the Dewey Decimal system.

Today, we've largely got over the man-crush on the quasi-fictional Arthur, but we're not without other historically dubious heroes. There is a trend amongst American Christians to ask, "What Would Jesus Do?" Now, I'm an atheist, but I believe Jesus was probably a real person with a brilliantly progressive outlook on life, so I can happily get onboard with the WWJD concept.

As a philosopher of non-violence - who espoused the need for social welfare and charity, while opposing avaricious capitalism - Jesus sounds like an excellent moral guide for the modern age. Alas, according to many, it seems Jesus would buy a gas-guzzling Chevrolet station-wagon, oppose Climate Change science, and vote for Rick Santorum. In the same way King Arthur was politically used to justify pretty much anything in the Middle Ages, Jesus has somehow been co-opted into the Republican Right Wing today. Try as I might, I cannot really see Christ picketing Capital Hill, waving a placard attacking the concept of universal health care.

In Britain, a less potent but similar deification has sprung up around the cult of Winston Churchill. As cash-strapped and rickety modern Britain tries to posture on the global stage, valiantly fighting off the greasy advances of the monstrous European Union, we are often exposed to invocations of Churchillian stoic isolationism.

British conservatives deploy the two-time prime minister as an updated John Bull character - there to wave his fist at the Froggies and Krauts, while reading the Telegraph, bestriding a giant, inflatable Yorkshire Pudding. Yet, Churchill was one of the leading exponents of a United Europe, calling for such a thing in his Zurich speech of 1946. He did firmly state a need for British independence of Europe on certain matters, but he was anything but xenophobic to the concept of a shared pan-European framework for encouraging political liberty and economic stability.

The problem with invoking historical heroes is that they were people of a different time, with an outlook on life alien to our own. Yes, we can invoke their courage, or we can try to emulate their principles, but the world has invariably moved on since they were doing their thing. It's always wise to try to learn lessons from the experiences of others, but it seems more common these days to simply kidnap a defenceless historical personage and cynically strap them to a cause, hoping that their celebrity lends a certain oomph to our position. So, we end up with people claiming Lincoln and Washington would support an aggressive strike on Iran's nuclear capabilities. This is simply speculation because what defined these leaders was the age they inhabited.

Washington and Lincoln were arch-pragmatists who would do almost anything to save the American experiment from collapse. Today, however, America is in rosy health and there seems little chance of Britain reinvading, or the southern states seceding from the Union, so it is unfair to extrapolate answers to modern questions from their utilitarian actions in a previous time of profound uncertainty. Who knows, Washington might have been a socialist ally of Castro were he around today...

That said, it might be great fun to wildly and inaccurately speculate how various historical characters might solve modern problems... but that is a (totally unwarranted) exercise for next time.