Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Rex Nemorensis

In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary...

The post which he held by this precarious tenure carried with it the title of king; but surely no crowned head ever lay uneasier, or was visited by more evil dreams, than his. For year in and year out, in summer and winter, in fair weather or in foul, he had to keep his lonely watch, and whenever he snatched a troubled slumber it was in peril of his life. The lea
st relaxation of his vigilance, the smallest abatement of his strength of limb or skill of fence, put him in jeopardy; grey hairs might seal his death-warrant.

Sir James Frazer, of course. I was put in mind irresistibly of The Golden Bough, not so much by the grey hairs which sealed Ming Campbell's political death-warrant, as by the revelation that Chris Huhne, now among the favourites to succeed him, was foremost among the plotters of this swiftly-attained coup. It's often said in politics that he who wields the knife does not usually wear the crown. This may be true, to some extent, of the Conservative Party (it was certainly true of Michael Hestletine). It was not true of the Blair/ Brown succession, which saga however, with its long-festering fratricidal passions, recalled a story from the Bible more than anything from classical mythology: the tale of Jacob and Esau, perhaps. With the recent travails of the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, we seem to be in the woods at Nemi.

Huhne toppled Campbell, and seeks to wear his crown. Just so did Ming orchestrate the defenestration of Charlie Kennedy, an act that did not conspicuously redound to his party's advantage, nor even, with hindsight, his own. In that respect, for all the tributes now being paid to his statesmanship and dignity, he had it coming. Kennedy was a leader who, for all his manifest incompetence and inner demons, knew instinctively what the Lib Dems were for: to incarnate a mood of non-specific dissatisfaction, to not be as other politicians. Campbell tried to turn the Lib Dems into a serious force, and in the process has brought them close to annihilation.

The Lib Dems, it seems, are now embarked on a revenge cycle of leader-switching which for so long incapacitated the Tories and which saw the periods of office of Major, Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard become progressively shorter. A process which embodies, as so much in politics seems to, the sort of primitivist fallacy which Frazer devoted his career to decoding: that the fertility of the land depends upon the health of the king.

In the three Hausa kingdoms of Gobir, Katsina, and Daura, in Northern Nigeria, reports Frazer, as soon as king showed signs of failing health or physical infirmity, an official who bore the title of Killer of the Elephant appeared and throttled him.

Much in modern politics depends, of course, on the ritualistic presentation of The Leader as a sort of god-about-town, the possessor of preternatural abilities to magic away all the ills of the modern world yet somehow simultaneously the sort of bloke (sic transit gloria Thatchris) you'd want to have a drink with down the pub. In reality, all leaders float upon much deeper currents, most of the time merely treading for water and struggling for breath while others try to drag them down.

It is a sombre picture, set to melancholy music... No one will probably deny that such a custom savours of a barbarous age.