Wat Tyler uses Facebook and Instagram to build up a following, and then Twitter to gather a crowd for (and during) his march on London. He’s watched throughout by agents of King Richard II’s government, and he’s lucky to beat off an attempt to shut down all his social-media accounts using terrorism legislation. Early skirmishes go viral, and the insurrection spreads through London’s Docklands (which in those days actually were docklands). King Richard II, being 14 in 1381, is adept at vlogging, and breaks off from his series of profiles of celebrities visiting court, to appeal for calm.
That goes down badly with the cabal of sinister-looking hard men in black hats and tights leading the royal government, and the Lord Chancellor, Simon Sudbury, colludes with the Lord High Treasurer, Robert Hales, to force through legislation whereby all online activity carried on government servers has to be vetted by his office. But the various young noblemen (and women) who grew up with Richard, sharing his private tutors, et cetera, have their own ideas about that. The government scrambles to shut down YouTube, but can’t get it done before another clip appears in which Richard appeals to people to, like, chill.
And we take it from there. Encouraged by the king’s attitude, the marchers press on to the Tower of London, where they find Sudbury and Hales both laughing maniacally from high windows, and then they stop for lunch at Smithfield Meat Market – where they’re met at last by Richard, who has been encouraged by his friends to lay on a big spread at Vic Naylor’s in St John Street, which was actually open from 1986 to 2009 but what’s a story like this without at least one anachronism? The two sides immediately hit it off, and it’s agreed that, one, serfdom will be abolished, and two, the Council Tax won’t be introduced in 1993.
King Richard II was nothing if not forward-thinking. English (and in due course, British) history goes off in an entirely new direction. The widespread use of social media in 1381 completely messes up the endgame for the grown-ups around Richard: the militia raised by London mayor William Walworth doesn’t crush the revolt – the rebels use Twitter again, to raise the alarm – and in due course Henry le Despenser’s army fails to stem the tide of revolution at the Battle of North Walsham, which in my version never happened. There’s a clip of a young woman standing in front of a fully caparisoned warhorse, and refusing to budge.
The Summer of Love comes early – 1386, not 1967 – and history accelerates. Restrictions on cross-channel travel are lifted, and a trading alliance is formed between England and France. The Long Parliament, which is on record as having sat from 1640 to 1660, actually gets its act together in 1388. First item on the order paper is a bill to replace the established system whereby old, rich men (and women; this is alt. hist.) with country estates and private armies run everything. That’s approved unanimously, and Richard’s young allies carry their beanbags and smartphones into the debating chamber.
Around about now, coffee begins to be imported from the New World, and on 5th April 1389 the first takeaway Tall Skinny Latte is ordered from a coffee shop in Pudding Lane, London. The place used to be a bakery, but they’d had a small fire, and after the owner had installed his new-fangled sprinkler system, there wasn’t room for the old bread ovens – just for one coffee roaster. Sprinkler systems took up a lot of space back then. The Spanish Armada drops anchor that lunchtime at Canary Wharf (fair weather, lousy navigation), and to their collective surprise the soldiers and sailors on board are invited to the first of a series of street parties that’s going to be held on the western edge of London as it was then (they accept).
The Long Parliament debates a motion to extend the European Free Trade Area to include Castile, Aragon and Granada. But – this being a novel that I’m NOT writing at the moment – nobody dashes off any merry quips, epic poems or complete plays in blank verse about the merits of free trade. There are NO parallels here with the events of today. The English Civil War doesn’t start on time, admittedly, but when it does start it has nothing to do with empire builders versus free traders. It’s all about early surveillance capitalism, and the king’s monopoly on podcasting. Some of those royal fashion shows are a bit, y’know, samey. Yes, and all those men standing in shop doorways with big box cameras on tripods and black cloths over their heads can’t be doing much for trade.
By now, the Long Parliament has given up all pretence of being a debating chamber, and every day, new-fangled apps are being trundled out on carts and carried to Ye Innovation Hubbes of the City, where young people fired up on caffeine and the adventure novels of William Shakespeare are fitting out ships to sail off over the horizon and explore distant lands. They've all got hats and cloaks and telescopes, and they're all fired up with the dream of bringing back tobacco, expensive footballers, mythical beasts, dinosaurs thought to be extinct, self-help gurus spouting the wisdom of remote tribes, jewels prized out of weird little statues with curses attached.
As they work, and as they celebrate their good fortune to come, those young would-be adventurers share but one aim: to build a free-trade area on which the sun never sets.
I looked up a politician the other day. This individual had been described as “loathsome” on Facebook. He’s not somebody I would support, and his views are some way distant from anything I could believe, but I have a problem with attacking individuals directly, rather than engaging with their beliefs. Not just because history’s full of examples of how wrong that can go, but also because any set of “loathsome” beliefs can be refuted by argument – assuming that they’re wrong – while name-calling says so much more about the person shouting the names. Call me idealistic, or naïve, but a founding principle of liberal democracy is that we prefer debate to insult.
So. I looked him up. He’s out of step with what “we all believe”, if I can put it that way, and my reason for looking him up was that I couldn’t quite work out what he was doing in the House of Commons, as an elected MP. How could those views have won an election? Still don’t know the answer to that one, but what I do know is: in the general election of 2017, this individual won by a margin of more than 10,000 votes. That “deafening silence” I mentioned earlier – the people who don’t talk about politics outnumber the people who do. And they vote differently.
Because I’m not half as fluent in Latin as I like to pretend, I looked up “ad hominem attack” online, and yes, that is what I’m talking about. An “ad hominem attack” is a “fallacious argumentative strategy” whereby you call me an idiot rather than telling me where I went wrong. Nothing in the word “loathsome” will convince our featured politician that he’s on the wrong side of the argument. More importantly, while you’re busy name-calling, those 10,000 voters will keep silent rather than engage with you, and they won’t switch their votes.
There’s a diagram. Look up “Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement” and scroll down through the results until you get to this, for example. You can stop off at the essay on "How to Disagree" at paulgraham.com, but what you want is the pyramid – actually, it’s on the Wikipedia page as well, but that link gives you both pyramid and a bit of background. [And, curiously enough, a YouTube clip entitled "Jim Gaffigan Wants You to Talk to a Trump Supporter – and Listen." Which makes a similar point, in a US context, rather well.] Searching for “How to Disagree” gets you a lot of other results, most of which emphasise politeness, but we’re going with the pyramid.
Lowest form of political argument – disagreement – is name-calling, so the pyramid tells us. Second-lowest is the ad-hominem attack (Paul Graham’s essay explains the fine difference between the two). If you want to be heard – for example, by those 10,000 voters – you have to go further up the pyramid. At the top is refuting the central point of an argument. And what Paul Graham says about that one is: it’s the only form of disagreement that involves no dishonesty whatsoever. That’s his point rather than mine, but – yeah, I get it. Make your point. Justify it. Convince people. Get elected, and sort out this mess.
Back in 2016, we had a People’s Vote on the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” On Monday of this week, our politicians failed to agree on: should we stay in a customs union with the EU; should we remain in the EFTA; should we hold another referendum; should we vote on whether to leave without a deal if we can’t agree on a deal? All of those options arising as part of our elected representatives’ attempts to implement the result of the 2016 vote. They represent us, right? Does that mean they’re like us?
Discuss. But before you start – Paul Graham concludes his essay with this. “You don't have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don't want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.”
Let’s just argue, shall we, without the insults? We’re all on the same side, after all – or if we’re not, we should talk about that.