Socialist Worker

Michael Rosen: ‘Hold thy bloody hand’

From Shakespeare to the debates over Iran’s nuclear programme, there’s a history of hypocrisy from our rulers, says Michael Rosen

Issue No. 1944

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

In Shakespeare’s play King Lear we see the old king speaking some incredible sanity just at the moment that he appears to be going mad. He is having visions and sees “the great image of authority” as a “dog obeyed in office”.

He calls out to a vision of a judge to stop whipping a prostitute, because he sees that judge longing to “use her” for the same thing that he was whipping her for:

“…hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind
for which thou whipp’st her.”

There seems to be a notion of justice going on here. You can’t have judges punishing people for crimes that they would be party to. It’s one of the planks of bourgeois revolutions often expressed in the idea, “No one is above the law.”

But then Lear goes on to describe the corrupt world he is living in, now that a new order (his daughters and their husbands) have taken over – “The usurer hangs the cozener” – meaning, the person who extorts money through high interest rates hangs the street cheat.

Ah, a class analysis seems to be emerging! “Through tatter’d clothes small vices appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.” In other words, small crimes show through tatty old clothes, but rich fur clothes hide everything.

And he finishes by saying that if you’re rich you can cover your crimes with a shield of gold and the great “lance of justice” will break against it, but if you’re poor all you have is the protection of rags, so even a straw thrown by a pygmy will pierce them. Again, there’s a saying for this, “One law for the rich, one law for the poor.”

So both in Shakespeare and in a couple of common everyday expressions we have a sense that behind that great abstract word, the law, there is inequality and injustice.

Anyone who watched the recent documentary that showed how the singer Kirsty MacColl died saw how she was killed by a speedboat owned by one of the richest men in Mexico, so no proper inquiry will take place.

And of course, our left Foot, Paul, was forever exposing cases like this over here. The usurer will go on hanging the cozener as long as we have a society based, in part, on usury.

We rely on civil rights lawyers, such as Gareth Peirce, to fight for the law to be what it always claims it is – fair for everyone.

Meanwhile, the same word – the law – is bandied about on the international stage.

As Margaret Thatcher sent troops off to the Malvinas (the Falkland Islands) she told us she was upholding the “rule of law”. Behind every intervention in the Middle East there are lawyers who are squeezed hard enough that they will say that killing thousands of people is absolutely legal.

Good luck to the journos beavering away to show that Blair was so worried that he was about to embark on an illegal war that he didn’t even risk following the procedure that always gives people like him the right result anyway.

I won’t be around to see it, but we can be 100 percent certain that when they open up the papers on this one in 50 years time, people will see that the whole thing was rigged. Too late then to have saved all those lives, and too late then for more people to have seen that we are ruled by liars and crooks.

But it’s not that hard to see what’s going on. It’s one law for the richest countries and a different one for the poor ones.

Take bombs. We have the extraordinary sight of countries who have collected hundreds of bombs telling other countries that they can’t have any.

The US, Britain, France, China and Israel, their pockets stuffed with bombs and missiles, stand about wagging their fingers and tutting because Iran and North Korea might have the capacity to make a nuclear device – rather like the way in which some teachers used to beat the hell out of us for having been violent.

But how did Israel get all of its bombs? A few scientists experimenting in the desert? Of course not. Completely illegally, they acquired the expertise and the uranium probably from a mixture of the old South Africa, France and who knows what underground routes that originate in the US.

But that’s OK because it’s “our” bomb. Iran’s bomb would be illegal because it would be “their” bomb. To misquote Lear, the bomber hangs the bomber.

Just the same with armies of occupation. Britain occupied Ireland for hundreds of years. Israel has occupied the West Bank for decades, the US and Britain occupy Iraq. Turkey and Britain occupy Cyprus. These are all good, legal, nice occupations.

Syria occupies Lebanon and that’s a horrid, illegal occupation. The occupier hangs the occupier.

I’m not going to justify either Iran’s bomb or Syria’s occupation, but there’ll be nothing resembling peace in the world if the rich countries whip the poor countries for the same crime that they themselves commit.

Even a mad old king in a Shakespeare play would have seen through that one.

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Sat 26 Mar 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1944
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