The Robin Hood myth is the first and often the only political-economic fable we learn. It’s not a children’s story, although it is childlike. It contains the three essential ingredients of grown-up narrative – love, death and money – without being a love story, a tragedy or a comedy. It doesn’t tell of the founding of a people. It’s not a fairy story or a religious myth; it has no monsters, gods or wizards in it, only human beings. It’s not a parable. In place of a moral, it has a plan of action. What does Robin Hood do? We all know. He takes from the rich to give to the poor.
A change has come over Robin Hood. On the surface, he’s the same: the notion of taking from the rich to give to the poor is as popular as ever. But in the deeper version of his legend, the behaviour-shaping myth, he’s become hard to recognise. The storytelling that makes up popular political discourse is crowded with tales of robbery, but the story has been cloven. I can no longer be sure that my Robin Hood is your Robin Hood, or that my rich and poor is your rich and poor, or who is taking and who is giving.
The old Robin Hood, embodiment of the generous outlaw of Sherwood Forest, still occasionally bubbles up, as when the actor-director Sean Penn called Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, head of the world’s biggest supplier of banned narcotics, ‘a Robin Hood–like figure who provided much needed services in the Sinaloa mountains’. This is Robin Hood the ‘noble robber’, in Eric Hobsbawm’s characterisation. In the final edition of his much reworked book Bandits, Hobsbawm bids farewell to the type. ‘In a fully capitalist society,’ he writes,
the conditions in which social banditry on the old model can persist or revive are exceptional. They will remain exceptional, even when there is far more scope for brigandage than for centuries, in a millennium that begins with the weakening or even the disintegration of modern state power, and the general availability of portable, but highly lethal, means of destruction to unofficial groups of armed men. In fact, to no one’s surprise, in most ‘developed countries’ – even in their most traditionalist rural areas – Robin Hood is by now extinct.
Sinaloa state in Mexico, from where El Chapo carried on his business until his recapture by the combined forces of the entertainment world and the Mexican marines, is still fertile ground for belief in the existence of the noble robber in away present-day Nottinghamshire, or Missouri, or Victoria, once homes to the mythical Robin Hood and the real Jesse James and Ned Kelly, no longer are.
Still, if we move out from Hobsbawm’s focus on the social bandit as actual individual, and consider the entire Robin Hood myth, the ideal remains familiar in our outlaw-free world. The myth requires a great mass of heavily taxed poor people who work terribly hard for little reward. The profits of their labour, and the taxes they pay, go to support a small number of lazy, arrogant rich people who live in big houses, wallow in luxury, and have no need to work. Any attempt to resist, let alone change, this unjust system is crushed by the weight of a vast private-public bureaucracy, encompassing the police, the courts, the prison system, the civil service, large property-owners and banks, all embodied in the ruthless figure of a bureaucrat-aristocrat, personification of the careerist-capitalist elite, the sheriff of Nottingham.
Taking from the rich to give to the poor has been, is and should be the way forward for an exploited majority against remote, unaccountable concentrations of extreme wealth and power. One word for it is ‘redistribution’.
Robin Hood is a programme of the left. Robin Hood is Jeremy Corbyn. He’s Bernie Saunders. He’s Yanis Varoufakis. So it used to seem. But a change has come about. The wealthiest and most powerful in Europe, Australasia and North America have turned the myth to their advantage. In this version of Robin Hood the traditional poor – the unemployed, the disabled, refugees – have been put into the conceptual box where the rich used to be. It is they, the social category previously labelled ‘poor’, who are accused of living in big houses, wallowing in luxury and not needing to work, while those previously considered rich are redesignated as the ones who work terribly hard for fair reward or less, forced to support this new category of poor-who-are-considered rich. In this version the sheriff of Nottingham runs a ruthless realm of plunder and political correctness, ransacking the homesteads of honest peasants for money to finance the conceptual rich – that is, the unemployed, the disabled, refugees, working-class single mothers, dodgers, scroungers, chavs, chisellers and cheats.
In this version of the myth, Robin Hood is a tax-cutter and a handout-denouncer. He’s Jacob Rees-Mogg. He’s Nigel Farage. He’s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He’s by your elbow in the pub, telling you he knows an immigrant who just waltzed into the social security office and walked out with a cheque for £1,000. He’s in the pages of the Daily Mail, fingering a workshy good-for-nothing with eleven children, living in a luxury house on the public purse. He’s sabotaging the sheriff of Nottingham’s wicked tax-gathering devices – speed cameras and parking meters. He’s on talk radio, denouncing inheritance tax. He’s winning elections.
This is not a uniquely British phenomenon. The alternative version of the Robin Hood story is heard when left and right clash in Australia, Canada and the United States. An early version was the ‘welfare queen’ legend of America in the 1970s, popularised by Reagan. The ‘welfare queen’ was a mythical woman, usually portrayed as black and swathed in furs, who drove her Cadillac to the welfare office to pick up a dole from the government that amounted to $150,000 a year, tax-free.
Today, the key signifier is the phrase ‘hardworking people’. With this expression, right-wing politicians embrace the entire spectrum of employed people with property, from a struggling small-time café owner with a bank loan to Britain’s richest beneficiary of inherited wealth, the multibillionaire Duke of Westminster (who does have a job, looking after his money), and class them as peasants, put-upon smallholders clawing a living from the soil in the face of the sheriff’s cruel
Here is the former Conservative chancellor, George Osborne:
We choose aspiration. This budget backs the self-employed, the small business owner and the homebuyer. We choose families. This budget helps hardworking people keep more of the money they have earned.
His then boss, David Cameron, criticising Labour in Parliament:
They met with a bunch of migrants in Calais, they said they could all come to Britain. The only people they never stand up for are the British people and hardworking taxpayers.
In characterising ‘hardworking people’ as the conceptual poor, no matter how technically rich they might be, rightwing polemicists evoke a class of people who are not hardworking. Why are they not hardworking? We are invited to speculate. Perhaps they are lazy. Perhaps they came from a poor country, attracted by the bounties and luxury houses the government offers foreigners. Perhaps they are pretending to be ill, or bred improvidently, or failed to prepare for their retirement. Anyway, they don’t work hard enough, or didn’t when they were younger; but instead of being punished for this, they’re rewarded by the government with lavish
benefits. They are idle, they are well-off, and they live off the hard work of others: thus are those who would once have been counted among the poor transformed into the despised rich.
It’s this medieval notion of taxation as robbery from a hardworking peasantry to fund the lifestyle of idle hedonists that maps directly onto the version of the Robin Hood myth that conservative and right-wing populist parties want to promote. This is what Osborne was getting at when he tweeted with the hashtag #hardworkingpeople and said: ‘Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?’ When he did this he was positioning himself as Robin Hood; the welfare state and the unemployed as the rapacious Anglo-Norman aristocracy of thirteenth-century England; and all those who think they pay more in taxes than they get back, be they shift workers or billionaires, as the peasants who feed them. In Pity the Billionaire: The Unlikely Comeback of the American Right, Thomas Frank describes a similar process in America: ‘The conservative renaissance rewrites history according to the political demands of the moment, generates thick smokescreens of deliberate bewilderment, grabs for itself the nobility of the common toiler, and projects onto its rivals the arrogance of the aristocrat.’
A socialist Robin Hood – one whom the myth does not provide – would tell the sheriff he doesn’t want his money, but his power. He wouldn’t be fobbed off with a box of silver coins: he would demand control of the system. Rather than destroying taxation, he would shift the burden from the poor to the rich, and spend the revenue for the common good. But as Hobsbawm tells us, while the noble bandit may be generous and chivalrous, he’s a lousy socialist:
Insofar as bandits have a ‘programme’, it is the defence or restoration of the traditional order of things ‘as it should be’ (which in traditional societies means as it is believed to have been in some real or mythical past). They right wrongs, they correct and avenge cases of injustice, and in doing so apply a more general criterion of just and fair relations between men in general, and especially between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak. This is a modest aim, which leaves the rich to exploit the poor [and] the strong to oppress the weak.
We’re a long way from the return of the literal outlaw to Nottinghamshire. But we need to remember the insight given our ancestors when they saw through the illusion of the Robin Hood myth, when they saw that the strongbox of silver coins wasn’t just money stolen from each of them individually, but power robbed from them collectively, and that they needed to wield that power collectively as much as they needed their money back. For sure, freedom to choose is a grand thing, and the market will try to help you exercise it. With a bit of money in the bank, a middleclass family might choose to send their child to private school, provided by the market; but that same family can’t choose to build and maintain a universal education network by itself, and the market won’t provide it. With money, you can choose to buy a car, and the market will provide it; but you can’t choose, all by yourself, to build and maintain a universal road network, and the market won’t provide it. To make and keep universal networks requires the authority of the state, an authority that has been absent; and it’s hard to see where that authority might come from if the people don’t find a way to assert their kingship.
The question posed by Brexit, and more widely by the rise of white nationalist populists, from Trump to Putin, is what 'people' and 'king' should mean in the twenty-first-century world.
This essay is an edited excerpt taken from Dreams of Leaving and Remaining by James Meek; a masterly portrait of an anxious, troubled nation. Out now.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
The anatomy of Britain on the edge of Brexit, by Orwell Prize–winning journalist.
Since Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, the nation has been profoundly split: one side fantasizing that the referendum will never be acted upon, the other entrenched in questionable assumptions about reclaimed sovereignty and independence. Underlying the cleavage are primal myths, deeper histories, and political folk-legends. James Meek, “the George Orwell of our times,” goes in search of the stories and consequences arising out of a nation’s alienation from itself.
In Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, Meek meets farmers and fishermen intent on exiting the EU despite the loss of protections they will incur. He reports on a Cadbury’s factory shut down and moved to Poland in the name of free market economics, exploring the impact on the local community left behind. He charts how the NHS is coping with the twin burdens of austerity and an aging population.
Dreams of Leaving and Remaining is urgent reporting from one of Britain’s finest journalists. James Meek asks what we can recover from the debris of an old nation as we head towards new horizons, and what we must leave behind. There are no easy answers, and what he creates instead is a masterly portrait of an anxious, troubled nation.