The crowd is larger than expected. Packed together, a restlessness in the air, they chatter and cackle excitedly, awaiting the coming show. The light is red, flickering and angry. Above the rabble sit men and women, composed and assured, surveying the scene from their gilded perch. Some are openly curious; others wear masks of imperious indifference. Burly men stand vigilant at the exit, watching and waiting for signs of trouble. Impatient expectancy pervades. At a stroke, the powder keg could ignite.
The gentleman who is the cause of the fuss has been pilloried and lambasted for what seems an eternity. Some have called him a threat to the nation’s security. He is friends with dangerous people. He seeks to destroy every institution the state holds dear. He hates his country. Yet for a small minority, he is a beacon of hope, an example of defiance against the oppression they feel they can no longer endure. He stands for those without a voice. He would change everything that is wrong with the state. He is a hero.
He is finally led to the platform, smaller, thinner than many imagined, his face tired and unshaven but his eyes steely and resolute. When they see him, the crowed erupt and bay.
At this point, history tells us, Guy Fawkes, his limbs devastated beyond repair, somehow managed to topple from the scaffold, breaking his neck to spare himself the pain of what was to come. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, proceeded to deliver a fiery talk that was big on rhetoric and skint on detail. He remains unbowed after the torturous weeks of the Labour leadership campaign, but one wonders how long it will be before Mr. Corbyn takes to a stage, catches a glimpse of the floorboards in the first row, and realises that they’re beginning to look rather friendly.
His performances at Prime Minister’s Questions have thus far produced the odd sparkler but precious little else. It is at these rallies, these great assemblies of students and other people who agree with his views, that the leader of the opposition has, er, ‘dazzled’ audiences with his bonfire of the vanities. ‘The Tories? On the fire! The electorate? On the fire! Diane Abbott’s instruction manual? Oh, you better believe that’s on the fire! Where are those effigies of the Prime Minister and Snowball? Why should the poor pay a penny for the Guy whilst the 1% avoid paying the Guy tax? Why haven’t we re-nationalised bonfires yet? The state used to run mass burnings, there were more of them, they were efficient and an affordable pastime for working people. Free tuition for pyromaniacs everywhere!’
And that was just the Labour student who introduced him. So I hear.
The problem is, whatever Jeremy Corbyn says at these things, it is almost always entirely forgettable, unless it’s something easily manipulated, such as when he mentions incendiary words such as ‘Osama’, ‘Bin’ and ‘Arsenal’. After his speech at the Guild last week, we had the entirely predictable faux outrage of his opponents during Remembrance Sunday. Mr. Corbyn wore a red poppy. He bowed at the cenotaph. He even went above and beyond, staying behind to applaud and thank veterans whilst other politicians scuttled off to what one assumes/hopes was a free hog roast somewhere. ‘Pacifist Corbyn refuses to bow!’ screamed one tabloid, to add to a litany including such zingers as ‘Corbyn snubs the Queen’, ‘Corbyn: abolish the army’ and ‘Yaya’s secret love child.’
Admittedly, the last one may have been about something else, but Mr. Corbyn’s face was still next to the headline, the bastard.
Of course, these were headlines from people who are supposed to hate him, just as the (slightly embellished) views of his supporters come from people who are supposed to be lunatics. What will prove most tiresome will of course be the hostility towards him from his own MPs. As alluded to previously, the common view (at least that of the mainstream media) is that Mr. Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader will prove as long-lived and successful as Guy Fawkes’ career as a demolitions expert. The barrage against him will continue and he will remain unelectable, made all the more painful by regular outbursts from, among others, the human dugong formerly known as Mr. Karen Danczuk. The odds of him even making it to 2020 are about as likely as Bruce Jenner emerging from an operating theatre, needle and thread in hand, shouting ‘only joking!’.
The old joke goes that Guy Fawkes was the last honest man to enter the Palace of Westminster with a clear agenda and the resources to see it through. At the very least, Jeremy Corbyn appears an honest man, but one doubts that he signed up to be Labour leader to play the human punch-bag. Given his atheism, it is unlikely that he will be striking any Faustian pacts with the Devil to reverse his fortunes in the near future (though judging by the eerie red lighting in the Guild during his rally, don’t rule it out just yet). If he is to survive, far more substance is required of speeches like this. It’s all very well getting rapturous adolescents to collectively orgasm just by stepping onto a stage and waving (or thrusting your pelvis if you’re Justin Bieber or Silvio Berlusconi) but even they, eventually, stop listening to broken records.
Without solid, workable policy beyond ‘protect our NHS’, then, one would suggest that before he tackles enemies beyond Labour, he demonstrate his ability to make the tough decisions physically: by tossing many, many broken old Labour records (and some ‘experimental’ ones which still sound awful) onto that big old sacrificial bonfire. Maybe strap Andy Burham to a rocket, or tie Chuka Ummuna to a Catherine Wheel and let it rip. A spectacular demonstration for Peter Mandelson or the dugong, serving the dual purpose of finding a use for Trident. Or if money really is tight, a sparkler could be plunged through Mandelson. Or he could just be left out in the sunlight. Cross party approval would surely follow, meanwhile, for getting out that portrait Tony Blair’s kept locked in the attic all these years and showing it to him.
If Jeremy (or Gerrmeh, if Abbott is to be believed) is to become prime minister, he will need to be pretty liberal with who he immolates, and ensure his (sorry, their) executions are spectacular. If he can’t pull off this elaborate gun powder plot, he will find himself choosing between throwing himself into the flames first, or facing the indignity of the electoral scaffold come May 2020.
It would be wrong to suggest that Guy Fawkes was any great proponent of free speech; persecuted though they were, a 17th century Catholic England would hardly have been freer than a Protestant one (though presumably more sinning would have been going on). Though we often suppose today a less fraught time, there exist (and one suspects, always will) those who seek to crush the views of others through censorship, rather than debate.
The University of Liverpool and the Guild of Students have avoided major debacles since that smoker incident, unlike Manchester, Durham and Cardiff who have banned speakers such as Milo Yiannopolous, Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer (small fry compared to the hysterical weepathons in the United States, at Yale and Missouri). Yet last week a Stepford Student decided to weigh in on the debate anyway with a sermon tailored for the more delicate, simple-minded among us, as to why, actually, banning people from speaking isn’t suppression of free speech. Just ponder that for a second.
Better writers than I have already published excellent articles opposing the insidious rise of the love-children of Mary Whitehouse and the Stasi. On the same day the Sphinx published the piece, David Aaronovich produced a column in The Times to complement the body of work, largely in the Spectator, of Brendan O’Neill. Rather than bore you, then, I would direct you, if you haven’t already seen them, in the direction of these writers.
You will soon encounter the real issue with expression in Britain today: that both the Spectator and Times’ collections extolling the virtues of free speech are stuck behind a paywall.