John Bird: Echoes from the past are all around us

The winds of history blow strange

If you want a little sense of historical vibration, go to Tate Britain’s British Baroque exhibition. It’s on until April 19, with the subtitle ‘Power and Illusion’.

It’s a staggeringly glittery show, with the ascent of Charles II to power in 1660 being the opener. It’s so French and European. Charles himself even makes it into the centre of one of the major paintings as Neptune, symbolically a god and not a king after all.

The historical vibration is that Tate Britain sits on the north bank of the Thames very near to Thorney Island, which is the old name for the grounds where the Palace of Westminster was built. And near to Parliament itself. Many of the big actions shown in the Baroque exhibition happened within a 10-minute walk along the once marshy river bank.

We talk about the Westminster bubble. And the predominance of London over the rest of the country, the North-South divide. But here in this exhibition you have the main players, the main palaces, shown but a spit and a fart from where all the action was had. And politically is still had.

Baroque to me means over-decorated, over-priced, over-designed. Swirls of mushiness mixed in with a striving for grandiosity. And it all occurred nearby.

One painting shows the Banqueting Hall designed for Charles II’s grandfather, James I of England and VI of Scotland. Designed by Inigo Jones, it was the very place where Charles’s father, Charles I, breathed his last. He was executed there in 1649. Then you had Cromwell, then Cromwell’s son, cocking it up; and then a very unhappy realm of fighting and infighting. So they dug up Charles père’s living son Charles, holidaying sur le continent, and said, “Look please come and be a figure of unity and fluff.” Which of course he did.

But the winds of history blow strange. Most recently we had a non-riotous rejection in the House of Lords and Commons of the 2016 referendum. And suggestions that whereas the royal family have since Charles II’s time been largely wealthy, living in the lap of luxury, but only tokenistic top dogs, they were going to be roused from their historical slumber and used as brokers to break the parliamentary stalemate.


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So going to the Baroque exhibition from the over-decorated past I couldn’t help feel that history was actually there – almost revived and dusted down for modern times.

Royalty did suddenly look as though it would have to broker a deal as it did in 1660 when former radical republicans said, “For the life of Riley, can you come back and just sit there! And we’ll give you money and gold, and your old palaces. Just to stop us tearing the guts out of each other.”

Merchants, once plotting regicide so that the king could not tell them where they could trade, became new converts to the royal indulgence.

I may well be exaggerating when I see the ghosts, not of the old golden days of monarchical restoration in the exhibition, but of a recent hung Parliament; until Johnson got his blindingly powerful mandate to get us out of Europe and into a Brexit world.

Perhaps as a person who voted Remain I might be seeing ghosts that were not there, and echoes of history that are groundless.

We have another echo now, with the coronavirus. In 1974 we had the ‘Three-Day Week’, when Parliament under Ted Heath instructed the nation to stay home and not go to work. This was largely because of the enormous power of the unions challenging the power of Heath’s government. For that short interlude the unions came out on top. The 1970s though gave way to the 1980s and Thatcher had the bit between her teeth to break union power.

A great northern shift of Parliament and royalty might not be a bad idea. So long as it takes prosperity in its wake

Now of course it is not a trade union’s power that is slowing the wheels of industry almost to a halt. It is the fact that we trade with distant countries and a lot of commerce and travel has led to the movement of people globally. So our international trading has made us exposed to a viral variation and is likely to empty streets and fill up isolated homes.

In 1665 poor London was hit by the plague, which killed tens of thousands and spread all over. Fortunately for London the deadly illness was partly doused by the Great Fire. In fact when I was a child it was always put to us in history lessons that we were saved as a nation by the deadly fire destroying the ancient buildings in which the even deadlier rats carrying disease could be destroyed.

A new London, more prosperous, more driven to command the world’s economy, grew out of the post-fire rebuilding. The scruffy little London could become the powerhouse that it is now. The powerhouse that Johnson is determined will shed much of its power to other parts of the UK. So that the lopsidedness created by London can be reduced.

A great northern shift of Parliament and royalty might not be a bad idea. So long as it takes prosperity in its wake.

Coronavirus will change us. Now wash your hands. But not of “prosperity for all and not just the some”.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief  of The Big Issue