Corbyn: Scarlet Pimpernel of UK politics?

Jeremy Corbyn’s opening campaign speech was a bit of a turn-up. Full of energy and passion and with turns of phrase reminiscent of Harry Potter: “the wealth-extractors”. They sound nasty. He is now dashing around Tory marginals, campaigning like a professional.

It came as a surprise after the listless, phoned-in performance he turned in over Brexit, and in the Commons, sounding often like a substitute maths teacher gamely – but lamely – filling in for the drama department.

Obviously it’s still unlikely but it would be ironic if Corbyn turned out to be Britain’s next Prime Minister.

It struck me that perhaps the feeble performance at PMQs and elsewhere could have been an act, designed to lure the Tories into calling a snap election, when he would throw off the facade and emerge as a true leader.

Actually this idea, of the apparently pathetic loser who turns out to be an absolute brick, is a popular one in English literature.

Sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, I listen to books read by volunteers LibriVox – recently I have been enjoying The Scarlet Pimpernel, in part because it is read with great verve and enthusiasm by someone who obviously loves the book.

I can remember from my youth the pink-spined copies of this very long series by Baroness Orczy in Edinburgh’s central library but I somehow missed out on reading them. It is what might be classed as good-bad fiction (always preferable to bad-good). The plot concerns a French actress forced to flee Paris by the excesses of the Revolutionary Terror. She has married a man she now sees as a useless idiot with an annoying laugh – little does she realise that in fact Sir Percy is only pretending to be an effete fop – in reality he is the daring hero who regularly risks his life to save her compatriots from the guillotine. “They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven, is he in hell, that demned elusive Pimpernel?”

Classic English hero

Percy Blakeney is not the only English hero in this mold. Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers’ classic detective, is described as having “a vaguely foolish face” and appears to concern himself with trivial matters, like what’s for lunch, while underneath the fussy exterior, he has a mind like a steel trap.

And then there is one of the most beloved characters in all of English fiction – PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. Bertie is an unintentional hero, finding himself at the centre of the story rather against his better judgement. He is propelled into action by his code of honour – never let down a pal, never refuse to help a damsel in distress. Wooster of course always ends up being rescued by his clever valet Jeeves. But hs is not short on courage or loyalty and he always wins out against the self-important and cynical.

Jeremy Corbyn never expected to win the Labour leadership, standing as he said at the time, out of a sense of duty to put radical policies on the slate. The record shows that he is a man of principle; he opposed Apartheid when the right called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, supported gay rights when that was loony left, protested against Chile’s brutal General Pinochet when Margaret Thatcher entertained him in London. Perhaps it is his authenticity in part that lay behind his overwhelming election to the Labour leadership twice. Perhaps Corbyn’s rather diffident manner and his failure to communicate effectively will be put to one side now that the election campaign is underway, and he channels his inner Percy Blakeney.

Or perhaps not. Against the current Tory government, which has implemented the horrendous rape clause and family cap, denying child tax credits to third and subsequent children unless they are the result of coerced sex, many decent English people will feel they have little choice. Another fictional character, Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed spin doctor of the political satire “The Thick of It,’ apparently runs a Facebook page. He posted after the election was announced that he would support Labour: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a leader and his party is a joke, but I’d take a mixture of incompetence and morals over an effective and vindictive shower of bastards any day, and I’ve no doubt in my mind that he will lose miserably but at least I’ll be able to look myself in the eye whilst brushing my teeth.”

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *