Julia Gillard, Henry V and True Leadership

Schadenfreude is a bitter vintage, one I’ve never enjoyed. The ongoing discomfiture of the Gillard government, played out so relentlessly day after day in polls and commentary, therefore gives me less grim amusement than it does some. I would, however, like to relay a small “I told you so” to the Labor Party. If Bill Shorten (and his fellow conspirators) had, as I recommended last year, hit the books and “brushed up their Shakespeare”, they would have realised just how far down Mr Crapper’s nifty invention they had landed themselves. As Julius Caesar details, conspiracy rarely goes down well with either the people or posterity. Continuing to defend, as has Bill Shorten—with poorly disguised asperity, I might add (Mark Arbib, by contrast, has been involved in a much more sensible remake of The Invisible Man)—what the electorate has found indefensible, has definitely “shortened” this government’s odds of removal from office.

As an interested (or rather, disinterested) observer, I can offer Julia Gillard a word of advice along similar lines. Dusting off that high school Shakespeare might do her some good as well. In her case, if she wants tips on leadership, she should be reading closely Shakespeare’s take on England’s great much-mythologised ruler (with Shakespeare as the major myth-maker), Henry V.

Henry V is a long discussion of the notion of leadership and legitimacy—crucial topics in Shakespeare’s England, dogged as it was by religious and political ferment and intrigue. England at that time was, of course, ruled by a female leader, Queen Elizabeth I: single, childless (“deliberately barren” actually), a feisty redhead. Her leadership of the kingdom was seen by some as illegitimately gained (literally so; after all, her parents’ marriage had at one stage been declared void, and she herself therefore illegitimate), but Elizabeth fought a long, but ultimately successful, battle to consolidate her hold on the state; so much so, that the period in which she lived is defined by her rule—the Elizabethan Age. Vigorous, explorative, questing, a bit brash and rough and ready, Elizabeth’s England—despite the many challenges that confronted it—had the reach and vision to make of that foggy little island a major power. By contrast, the Julian Era of Australian federal politics has been a dismal affair. Henry V can tell us why.

Henry V’s reign, like Julia Gillard’s, was itself the product of usurpation—in this case, the messy and very unpleasant shuffling-off by Prince Hal’s father, Henry IV, of Richard II. The legitimacy of Hal’s reign, therefore, was open to question; and, as the unearthed conspiracy prior to embarking for battle in France indicates, questioned it was. Just as in the leafy streets of Canberra, treachery and factional plotting wound their way through the shadowy medieval lanes and close courts of Henry’s London (the air of Elizabeth’s England was, of course, equally thick with plotting and paranoia). Moreover, compared to Julia Gillard, Henry entered his leadership role with little support. (It seems hard to imagine now, but Julia Gillard was once one of the most popular figures in Parliament. The general consensus was that she was the natural heir to the Rudd throne, and that, in the fullness of time, succession would pass gracefully to her.) By contrast, Hal was on the nose. His reputation was shot. Hal had been a wild boy, a seeming nogoodnik who had spent his time in riots and revels with the knaves, pimps and cutpurses of London’s stews (“his addiction was to courses vain, / His companies unletter’d, rude, and shallow, / His hours fill’d up with riots, banquets, sports”). He tweaked the nose of the establishment and skated just on the outskirts of the illegal. When he came to rule, his reign was greeted with anxiety and trepidation. Hal, therefore, had the taint of illegitimacy on two counts: in terms of how the country’s leadership had been acquired, and whether he deserved it and was up to the task. The fact that he went on to become the very glass and model of an English king, against which others would be measured, is an indication of how successfully he bore down these criticisms to became the epitome of strong and admirable leadership. 

So, Julia Gillard is no doubt clamouring to ask, how did he do it? He was tough, you say? Well, yes. The banishment of Falstaff from Hal’s presence at the end of 2 Henry IV, a banishment that is reflected in Henry V in the death of the “fat old knight”, does indicate Henry’s toughness of mind. Moreover, his decisive cutting-off of the plot (and of the lives of the plotters—including his intimate friend, Scroop) and the sentencing in France to hanging of one of his former fellow-frequenters of houses of ill-repute (Bardolph, for theft from a church) are meant to show us that this Henry is no longer the idling wastrel of his younger days. He has become a king, a leader of men, and will make the hard decisions necessary to fulfil that role. So, yes, he’s tough, but his leadership is more complex and nuanced than simple “toughness” suggests (appropriate though the very Englishness of that Old English word is to the theme). Toughness is the quality that a squad of Labor cabinet members, with the rehearsed precision of a synchronised swimming team, have been assuring us Julia Gillard has in abundance. Julia Gillard herself makes sure that she also informs us at regular intervals that she’s tough, she’s tough … as if that were enough. However, if she made her way through that high school Henry V text, she’d find out that, in fact, she’s got it back to front. It’s not Henry’s toughness of mind that makes him fit to lead the kingdom. It’s his dedication to fulfilling his duty to rule effectively that elicits the needed toughness. For Henry, tough times for the nation call forth courage in its service. When Julia Gillard says to us, “I’m tough,” it’s not the toughness that is problematic, it’s the personal pronoun.

There’s a wonderfully neat counterpointing of scenes before the climactic battle of Agincourt. In the French camp, as the wee hours of night wear slowly away to the coming battle morning, the Dauphin and his courtly cronies trade boasts and insults—professing undying love of their horses, attesting to the beauty and brilliance of their armour, and snorting in derision at Henry and his “fat-brained followers”, who would if they “had any apprehension … run away” from what the French anticipate will be a rout. Meanwhile, back in the land of the less self-indulgent, in the English camp the Chorus tells us Henry goes forth 

and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen …
A largesse universal like the sun,
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night. 

Henry then borrows a cloak and in muffled guise as a common soldier goes out to meet his men—men who, despite their discussion with Henry of the anonymous “legs and arms and heads, chopp’d off in battle” which are the brutal and bloody consequences of war (particularly of the medieval sort), are not anonymous. Shakespeare gives us good solid British yeomen, with minds of their own and a right to their opinion. And where the French would have more conversation with their horses than with their men, Henry engages in a serious and morally significant discussion with them that touches on the notion of a just war and the nature of responsibility for the immortal soul. Following which, a deeply reflective—and very solitary—Henry kneels down on the muddy earth, humble before his God, to beg that his family’s sins (the unpleasant dispatching of Richard II) not weigh against England. Like opposite images, Henry and the Dauphin (“Hyperion to a satyr” perhaps, to quote another thoughtful Shakespearean royal) are set against each other in our estimation, and it is Henry’s humility, his lack of self-regard, his concern for his men, that weigh most tellingly in his favour.

Simply put, Julia, it’s not about him, whereas in your case, it is always about you. This is not to suggest that Julia Gillard is selfish or self-serving. I don’t think she is. (In fact, by and large, Australia is well served by its politicians on both sides of the House. The vast majority are decent men and women trying to do what they think is right.) However, politics for her has, I think, a personal resonance. I’m not going to indulge in psychologising (pace David Marr on Kevin Rudd). What I will say is that the nature of her engagement with the political process has come to colour the national discussion. It has become “all about Julia” (her style, her voice, her bloke, her ex-blokes, her atheism, her ear lobes, her dog; At Home with Julia was queasy-making, but merely reflected the nature of the problem), and we are all diminished for it. 

This was brought home clearly in the speech on climate change that Julia Gillard made at the National Press Club in July. Remember, it was the one where Julia Gillard told us about being a shy kid. I’m not hostile to discussion of climate change (sensible and rational debate can only be a good thing). I’m certainly not hostile to the PM. However, as speeches go, this one was a right clunker. Here we have a topic which (even if one didn’t go down Kevin’s “great moral challenge” road) is being presented to us as being of national significance—and we are being asked to contemplate Julia’s schooldays? As I listened to the speech, I realised that it was the accumulation of personal references (“I”, “me”) that was so grating. Okay, Julia, have you got that Henry V handy? Check out Henry’s inspirational speeches to his army, such as the one before Agincourt: 

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother … 

There’s a simple message here. When speaking to the nation, you speak as the nation. Even if a personal pronoun is used, it is in terms of the larger theme. It’s never, not ever, not once, about you. 

Here’s a little thought experiment. Let’s imagine Henry V observing to a court full of nobles, visiting dignitaries and state servants that he wasn’t interested in foreign affairs. Nope? Okay then, try Elizabeth I. Still not getting a clear picture? Let’s update a little. At the moment, as I write this, the octogenarian Queen Elizabeth II is in Perth attending the CHOGM conference. How about her? No, folks, no luck there. In fact, it is inconceivable, isn’t it? Leaving aside the questionable judgment involved in making such a statement while representing your country at the “court” of a major regional and world power, the fact that Julia Gillard aimed so unerringly for the doggy-do on her first world airing reflected her compulsion to tell us just how she felt about it all.

As our thought experiment indicates, this has nothing to do with Julia Gillard being a woman—Elizabeths I and II share the same interesting condition. It has everything to do with an inability to understand the nature of leadership. And it’s not as if the Labor Party is short on leaders of stature. Irrespective of political affiliation, in Australia, the land of the fair go, the aspirations inherent in Labor’s yearning towards the Light on the Hill speak to us all (most on the Right would merely disagree on the path needed to get Australia closer to national betterment). Politics may be partisan, but real leadership lies in putting that process to national purpose. One of the currents of our time is a disillusionment with party politics. In the lead-up to the last American presidential election, for example, idealistic young voters lauded Obama’s apparently “non-partisan” approach. These same young voters are now disillusioned. Obama, they say, is just another Democrat. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding on their part of the democratic process. The problem is not that Obama is a politician. It is that he is not a real leader. Great leaders don’t transcend politics (the agora—the beating political heart of democracy—is, after all, where the battle for truth is fought). They transcend the narrow boundaries of self.

This is something that that other gutsy redhead, Queen Elizabeth I, understood. Over the period of her reign, Elizabeth became England, the embodiment of the nation and the state. As the Virgin Queen, she dedicated herself to the national purpose, eliding personal and political in a truly masterful fashion. We tend not to expect quite so much of our politicians (if Julia Gillard had asked us, marriage and children might not have seemed so problematic), but dedication to the larger purpose is essential to gaining national respect and allegiance.

Shakespeare’s Henry V provides a close examination of how that respect and allegiance are deserved and earned. Starting with the reputation of being a fribble to whom the Dauphin could—most unwisely—send a “treasure” of tennis balls as a calculated insult, Henry became the king he needed to be. The times called forth the man. Henry genuinely was up to the task, and acted with a humility represented to us through the filter of his Christianity. Henry, as his soliloquy makes clear, is humble before God.

God dominates Henry V, at least on the English side. (There is a notable absence of awareness of God in the French camp. They vaunt, they boast, they self-aggrandise. Ah, don’t the English love trashing the French! No wonder the French don’t do Shakespeare.) Henry is the model of a Christian king not because he sees himself as fighting the good fight, but because he recognises his insignificance in the presence of the divine, in the face of something larger than himself and the kingship. Great ones must kneel before God, each as a man (or woman) answerable for the sins of their own soul. Henry’s “countryman”, the passionately Welsh Welshman, Fluellen, approvingly observes in his manful prose: 

By Jeshu, I am your majesty’s countryman, I care not who know it; I will confess it to all the ’orld: I need not to be ashamed of your majesty, praised be God, so long as your majesty is an honest man. 

To which Henry replies “God keep me so!”, giving the virtue to God—as he does the English success in the battle: 

O God! Thy arm was here;
And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all …
Was ever known so great and little loss
On one part and on th’other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine! 

Shakespeare puts before us a Henry who is an honest man, a decent bloke who doesn’t have tickets on himself (his charming next-to-final scene with Princess Katherine, where he plays clueless klutz in plodding schoolboy French to her broken English, is designed to remind us of such), but there is a tragic irony in those last scenes that Shakespeare’s Chorus shares with us at the play’s end. Despite the hopes for a better future and Henry’s speech to Katherine that their child will usher in a new age for their greater world (symbolised by the anachronistic reclaiming of Constantinople, which had not fallen in Henry’s day), it was not to be—and Shakespeare’s audience knew it (apart from anything else, the Chorus helpfully points out in a nifty piece of product placement that “oft our stage hath shown” the catastrophe which was the reign of Henry VI, thereby no doubt advertising most effectively those hugely popular pieces in the troupe’s repertoire by—surprise, surprise—their hometown boy, Will Shakespeare). The reign of Henry VI was a disaster in which not only was all that Henry V gained lost, but mismanagement “made his England bleed”. Where Henry V’s Christianity informed his sense of duty and responsibility, Henry VI’s faith involved a disengagement from political process that, in the end, led to the dislocation of that political process. His was a kingdom of which “so many had the managing” that they managed it into bloody civil war.

It seems that is Henry VI rather than Henry V from whom Julia Gillard has been taking handy hints. Shakespeare’s use of the parliamentary setting in the unfolding of Henry VI’s story highlights the plotting and factional negotiation that poisoned the state and was symptomatic of the weak leadership that precipitated civil war. The absence of genuine leadership created a vacuum at the heart of the state which, as it so often has throughout history, culminated in tyranny, in what was essentially a “dictatorship”—the rule of Richard III (Ian McKellen’s fine fascist-type portrayal in the 1995 film makes the link quite clearly).

As in the case of Henry VI, it is Julia Gillard’s very strengths which are her weaknesses. Chosen because of her collegiate managerial style, her ability to negotiate and compromise, Julia Gillard has compromised herself out of the esteem of the nation.

So, Julia, what recourse? Let’s get back to that copy of Henry V which you have undoubtedly unearthed by this point. This is what a leader looks like. You don’t have to do the medieval pudding-bowl haircut. You don’t have to suit up and go to war. You do have to convince us, the nation—from groundlings to great ones—that you understand and are capable of the sacrifices that leadership makes upon those who “wear the crown”, that you are prepared to serve the greater national purpose, to speak not as yourself but for us, articulating (as Paul Keating might say) that national narrative.

If I could advise you, at this point in your government, it is the Chorus’s speech at the end of Henry V that reads most tellingly for you. As the Chorus points out, Henry V’s reign was short, as I suspect yours might also be: “Small time, but in that small, most greatly liv’d / This star of England.” Henry V, particularly as represented to us by Shakespeare, served to change the way the English nation conceived of itself. Shakespeare’s Henry V genuinely can provide you with the glass and model of leadership, if you make it so. Move beyond the small, the narrow and the personal. Live greatly, Prime Minister Gillard. The choice is yours.

Rob Nugent, who wrote “The Ides of June: Or, Why Bill Shorten Should Read Shakespeare” in the September 2010 issue, will have further pieces on Shakespearean themes in Quadrant next year.

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