It is thought that Queen Gertrude was referring either to the incessant social-media shouting about Jeremy’s virtues, or to the incessant social-media shouting about Boris’s flaws - although it is possible that she was just watching a televised Leadership Debate featuring Jo Swinson and/or Nicola Sturgeon.
Also in the commentary box for the 2019 General Election in the UK, Carl Von Clausewitz, author of On War (1832), wrote, “Three quarters of the factors on which a vote in this General Election is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.”
This was, of course, an updating of Clausewitz’ seminal masterwork, in which the words “a vote in this general election” have replaced the words “action in war”.
Clausewitz, a polymath known for his love of jellied eels and enthusiastic if uneven playing of the tuba as well as for his weary acceptance of the inevitability of fake news (not to mention fake biographical details), was also an acute, albeit posthumous, critic of the media age.
Like Sun Tzu before him, Clausewitz pointed to the cult of personality among media interviewers. “They think themselves generals, who only observe,” as Sun Tsu didn’t write in his non-existent classic The Art of Politics – a sequel to his The Art of War (5th century BC).
Sun Tsu was friendly with the late Sir Robin Day, big-name interviewer of the Thatcher era, who titled his autobiography Grand Inquisitor (1989).
Day was one of the early exponents of the art of repeating the same question again and again; he earned his entry at brainyquote.com with the observation, “Television thrives on unreason, and unreason thrives on television.” You can buy an autographed hardback first edition of Grand Inquisitor from Lazarus Books, for £11.66 (other autobiographies by self-styled grand inquisitors are available).
This is undoubtedly the election in which we haven’t learned anything new since the election in which we learned that we must use social media to excite voters about the election. Facebook is rank with sensational headlines shared from dubious-sounding almost-newspapers.
“Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,” said the not-yet-title character Richard of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s Richard III, looking at the statistics for his Facebook page.
The tactic of launching an online “newspaper” to give spurious validity to our fake news is being comprehensively tested in this election campaign, perhaps to destruction.
Scholars have compared this use of “newspapers” in political crowd-rousing to the custom whereby any article about creative writing is illustrated with a picture of typewriter keys. Others have suggested that the use of the big-name interviewer, repeating the question and then interrupting the answer, is also a throwback to an earlier political age.
“We do it this way because– we do it– if you’ll just let me finish– we do– my point is that we–” said one eminent psephologist, discussing the parties’ tactics in the campaign so far.
There’s very little new going on this time, and even the mainstream media seem to be working by rote through a dog-eared second-hand copy of a decade-old playbook. “Politicians, like generals, have a tendency to fight the last war,” said former US National Security Adviser John Bolton, conveniently, picking up a point that’s been made before.
Same with media, obviously. What do we do in an election? What did we do last time? We do that again.
It’s a shame that politicians are delivered to the studio fully media-trained, and not equipped with some terrible secret on the scale of the Watergate break-in and its aftermath. Although I suppose if they were, they’d never get to confess it.
“Welcome to The William Essex Interview. We’re joined in the studio by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”
[Fade theme tune. Up lights. Camera One.]
“Your Royal Highness. Tell me exactly, what is the question?”
“To be or–”
“I’m asking about the question.”
“Yes, we’re not here to talk about being. This is your chance to tell the electorate exactly what is the question?”
“Well, you’ve had your chance. We’ll move on.”
“Whether ‘tis nobler in the–”
“It’s too late now. I want to ask you about your beliefs.”
“There are more things–”
“I’m sure there are, but I’m not asking you about things. I’m asking you, what’s in heaven and earth?”
“There are more things in–”
“There you go, talking about things again. Are you avoiding the question, your Royal Highness?”
“There are more things in heaven and earth–”
“Oh, there are things there too, are there? Things everywhere, I suppose? Very materialistic. But that must be a very limiting belief system, surely – things, and nothing else, in heaven and earth?”
[Aside, whispering to an aide.] “…his quietus make with a bare bodkin…”
“Didn’t quite hear that, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Join us next week, ladies and gentlemen, when I’ll be talking to Lady Macbeth – aargh!”
Roll credits. Fade.
There is a last smattering of physical back-up copies that were printed out around 2000, by old people who forgot to press Save once and never forgot the experience, and then – thanks to the inevitable deterioration of digital storage – nothing until around 2025.
That, of course, is when we all get bored with digital surveillance and the silly promises of tech companies, and go back to typewriters and film cameras and adding machines that don’t pretend to think. But that’s a story for another day.
Nothing between 2000 and 2025 will be recorded. We’re living in a dark age. Historians will celebrate every small clue that’s discovered – a postcard from circa 2015; a scribbled shopping list; a receipt that somehow hasn’t faded.
They’ll read many, many Quick Start Guides telling them that the full instructions for their gadget may be found online, and they’ll gaze in blank confusion at reams of Warranty Information.
Those scraps will be all they have to go on, as they work out the history of the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
Just imagine. The British Civil War of 2016 to 2020 won’t be recorded (I’m going to print out this post and leave it lying around for a historian to find) and nor will the events described as “carnage” by the American president in his inaugural address.
The final victory of the Rebel Alliance over the Evil Empire will be lost to history, because it was only ever digitally recorded, as will the tussle between the EU and the UK that occupied so much of our waking lives in the early twenty-twenties.
There’ll be no written-down physical record of what happened as global warming reached its climax in 2022/3, way earlier than anybody’s targets, and the only clue to the pre-deluge shape of the continents will be an ancient map with “Here bee dragonnes” scratched in the bottom-left corner.
Ireland will be found and mis-identified as Atlantis. A salvaged first edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden will be read by biblical scholars for clues as to the location of the Garden of Eden – and included among the Apocrypha.
Archaeologists of the distant future will puzzle over the plastic layer in the fossil record.
Here in England, this far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire, when 2025 comes we’ll still be celebrating the results of the 2019 General Election, in which light banished darkness, good won out over evil, social-media prevailed, and we all lived happily ever after.
And laughter was general over England.