Just give me a second while I shuffle through my rolodex of potential column subjects. I’ve already flicked past ‘B for banking’ and ‘L for Lords reform’, and while my fingers did freeze momentarily over ‘M for me,’ they’re keeping on going. Ah, here, this is more like it: ‘R for Robin Hood’. What better way to introduce myself to ConservativeHome readers than by discussing the outlaw who has been one of my heroes since I first saw The Adventures of Robin Hood (the one with Errol Flynn, 1938) on television one Christmas, almost two decades ago? Yes, the rolodex can be retired for another week now.
So, Robin Hood. Before we start, be assured that this is not some sort of bad joke that ends with the punch line "and that’s why we should tax the rich at 95 per cent". Rather, I’ve always been surprised at how easily Robin Hood’s name has been usurped by the Left for their own fiscal causes — and how unthinkingly, too. The politics behind his legend, it seems to me, are much more complicated than simply taking from the rich to give to the poor.
On this, it’s worth considering a story that Ed Balls told the Times’s Anne Treneman back in March. "The first time I can remember crying, I must have been 5 or 6," quoth the Shadow Chancellor. "I’d gone to see the Disney version of Robin Hood and there is a point where the rabbits have saved up all year to give the little rabbit a gold coin for his birthday and then the Sheriff of Nottingham comes in and says 'I’ve come to collect the taxes.”'And he takes the gold coin!" That Robin Hood then compensated the rabbit with a bow and arrow only made the fledgling Balls blub even more, apparently. "It was still the case that the other rabbits had saved all year and then their opportunity to deliver for the little rabbit had been ruined."
Which is a peculiar point for someone like Ed Balls to make, not least because many on the Right would glean something similar from this cartoon parable. The bow and arrow (aka, tax credits or universal benefits) is all very well-meaning, but might it be better if the Sheriff of Nottingham (a.k.a: the state) didn’t take so much gold in the first place?
In truth, drawing political lessons from legendary stories is like grasping at fog with your bare hands. Robin Hood has, after all, been many things throughout the centuries. In the Fifteenth Century ballads — such as the Little Geste of Robyn Hode and his Meiny — he is a much more violent, mischievous figure than we are used to now, whose concern for the poor is incidental at best. But, for all his malleability since, there are some themes that were established in those early tales and that have persisted since. For one, Robin always stands athwart corrupt, overweening officials. For another, he is loyal to the King. And neither of these makes him necessarily a champion of the Left. Indeed, even as the idea of Robin the Redistributor has taken hold, there is a strong case that he wouldn’t be redistributing were the poor allowed to keep more of their hard-earned. Robin Hood could be our most famous low-tax campaigner.
And it is not just a matter of taxation. Taking Robin Hood as we know him now, Compassionate Conservatives might approve of his determination to help the least well-off. Nassim Nicholas Taleb might be taken with the small, flexible ‘n’ punkish set-up of the Merry Men, and their close relationship with the local environment might in turn interest Roger Scruton. And then there’s the thread of civil disobedience that runs from Robin Hood through to Henry David Thoreau and Charles Moore . There is certainly cause to talk about a Robin Hood Conservatism, which incorporates these elements and more. As it happens, they’re what I hope to concentrate on in my writing for this site.
But there is also a more humdrum reason why I mention Robin Hood now. The fact that he has been so easily adopted by the Left is symptomatic of the Right’s long-standing presentational problems. Some of the most telling polling that you will see in this parliamentary cycle was highlighted by Stephan Shakespeare a few weeks ago: the Right is more often associated with words such as ‘rich’, ‘greedy’ and ‘posh’, whereas for the Left it’s generally ‘caring’, ‘progressive’ and ‘fair’. There are also countless other polls to suggest that the Conservatives themselves are still seen as a party of, for and by the rich. It seems that the cuts have only quickened the idea that there are so many Sheriffs of Nottingham in government, and few Robin Hoods.
Of course, action is more important than perception — and, with its welfare and education reforms, this government is doing more than most for the least well-off. But there are times when David Cameron and George Osborne could still do more to help their own cause. Even within the coalition, Nick Clegg has practically been handed a freehold on the moral justifications for deficit reduction. It was the Deputy Prime Minister who first properly emphasised the perversity of blowing money on debt interest payments instead of on, say, schools and hospitals, and he has spoken incessantly in terms of ‘our children’ and ‘social mobility’ ever since. And while Messrs Cameron and Osborne have breathed similar lines, they are more likely to talk drily about interest rates, bond markets and mortgage payments. As one Lib Dem put it to me recently, only half-joking, ‘Why do we portray ourselves as the nice ones? Because we can.’
Mr Cameron has shown that he can do crusading, particularly in his 2009 conference speech — but it is all too infrequent to my ears. Both in rhetoric and in deed, he could benefit from something that ought to come more naturally to the Right: a Sherwood state of mind.
I hope ConservativeHome readers don’t mind if I finish this column, and future columns, with a handful of recommendations for further reading, watching and listening. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and is meant to be more introductory than anything else, but I offer it in the hope that you’ll make recommendations in return (either in the comments section or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org). Fact is, politics springs from a thousand disparate sources — both agreeable and not — and I enjoy tracking them down.
1) The Adventures of Robin Hood, by Roger Lancelyn Green. Not the 1938 film, but a book — available in lots of different editions — that is a great departure point for all things Robin Hood. It was written for children, but like all of Lancelyn Green’s work it’s very elegant and not one bit patronising. It’s also done much to shape how we view Robin Hood today.
2) The Adventures of Robin Hood. Still not the 1938 film, but the British television series that was made in the 1950s, starring Richard Greene. I think Robin of Sherwood might be the better series, but this is more classical. Besides, a few of its episodes were directed by the-man-who-would-probably-be-my-chosen-Mastermind-subject, Lindsay Anderson.
3) Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked, by David Baldwin. A snappy attempt to extricate the history from the legend.
5) Green Philosophy, by Roger Scruton. A recent reminder that conservation is part of conservatism, and that there are conservative ways of conserving, so to speak.