14/02/2009

Canutism


Further reflection on power

As everyone knows King Canute went down to the beach with his courtiers and there he commanded the tide to cease. Foolish King.

Or, as every sophisticated person knows, King Canute went down to the beach with his sycophantic courtiers in order to teach them a lesson: not even the King can command the waves.

So why on earth is the British government so trapped in the myth of Canutism? In the hope that it will be re-elected it has set itself to give the voting population confidence that it is in control. Of everything.

Therefore, as soon as things don't go right, the government gets the blame. It could not command the financial bubble. It can't control teenage pregnancies or truanting. It can't control knife crime. It can't control the weather.

Crime is a clear equivalent of Canute's tide. By definition crime is what happens beyond governmental controls. Hence the emphasis on punishment - knowing that it cannot control crime the government emphasises its reaction. But punishment (as a political tool, not the reality) is smoke and mirrors - designed to obscure the fact that crime cannot be controlled. (Though it may be possible to manage it.)

Blair and a strong economy meant that the impression of control was sustainable. Brown and a collapsing economy mean the impression that everything is out of control. In fact nothing has changed in the government's capacity to control the people. (Lots of controls and constraints have been put in place and their legacy will last decades, but it still cannot control the uncontrollable.)

And the Church has swum in the same stream. Faced with people not doing what the leaders want of them there is an instinctive turn to demand more powers - to control the words and behaviour of the people. It won't work, can't work. But it can do a lot of damage on the way.

We need to lose the Canute myth and rediscover a more sophisticated Canutism.

The authorised version:

Canute began by being a Bad King on the advice of his Courtiers, who informed him (owing to a misunderstanding of the Rule Britannia) that the King of England was entitled to sit on the sea without getting wet. But finding that they were wrong he gave up this policy and decided to take his own advice in future - thus originating the memorable proverb, 'Paddle your own Canute' - and became a Good King and C. of E., and ceased to be memorable.

1066 And All That, W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, 1930.


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