James Meek offered a different account of the Robin Hood story in his recent London Review of Books lecture at the British Museum. Essentially, he argued that the underlying idea of Robin Hood, the apparently progressive notion that “he takes from the rich to give to the poor,” had been captured by pro-austerity politicians and rewritten as a story about the evils of tax.
Meek’s text has now been published by the paper, along with a recording of the lecture. In this post I’ve improvised a little around his argument before adding some reflections of my own.
As Meek observed, stories have a climb a high bar to make it as national myths: “any individual must be able to interrogate their own memory to assemble their own version of the myth.”
Robin Hood clearly passes this test; it’s a story most people can tell, partly because it gets retold constantly. He didn’t mention this, but by my count there have been something like 25 films and television series worldwide about Robin Hood in the past 25 years, each using the story malleably to their own ends.
The idea of the noble robber also runs deep across many cultures, from Pancho Vila (not mentioned by Meek) to his recent counterpart, El Chapo, who turned himself in rather than have to spend more time talking to Sean Penn, to Jesse James in the US. A Woody Guthrie song celebrates the Depression-era outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd, known as the “Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills”. Indeed, the archetype of the bandit is so common that the historian Eric Hobsbawm was able to write, and re-write, a whole book exploring its meaning.
But at their heart, these bandit stories tell the same story: the bandit who is outside of the law because he fights oppressive authority and sides with the poor.
A feathered arrow
At the heart of the Robin Hood story, there are four actors, or perhaps five. First, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the agent of the wicked King John, who has to collect taxes from the people to pay for John’s catastrophic wars. Second, the people, oppressed, scraping by, with not enough money to pay the extra taxes. Third, Robin Hood, the dispossessed Earl of Locksley, now living as a bandit with the band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest. Fourth, the absent King Richard, who would (surely) sort everything out if only he were here. And, perhaps, Maid Marian, described as a “beard” by Meek, but even if not, seems to exist mostly as a plot device.
For Meek, the core story in the Robin Hood narrative is the moment when he ambushes the Sheriff’s coach in Sherwood:
A column on horseback rides in wary silence between the trees. First comes a soldier in chain mail; then a haughty gentleman, dressed in clothes that are at once ostentatious, expensive, and redolent of decadent fetishes; then a cart carrying an iron-bound strongbox, guarded by more soldiers; then the rearguard. A horse rears and whinnies. A feathered arrow is embedded, quivering, in the bark of a tree, just in front of the rich man’s arrogant nostrils. The soldiers draw their swords, but it’s too late; each finds himself with an outlaw’s arrow pointing at his head. The rich man, who turns out to be the sheriff of Nottingham, becomes a snivelling coward, begging his attackers to take the money and spare his life. The strongbox is taken and forced open. Silver coins spill out. The outlaws are about to fill their pockets, but Robin wards them off: this money is for the poor.
Weighed down by taxes
Meek’s argument was that in recent years, the wealthiest and most powerful had stood the myth on its head. By some rapid re-framing, the poor find themselves in the box where the rich used to be.
Suddenly it’s the poor who are “living in big houses, wallowing in luxury, and not needing to work”, while those previously known as “rich” are now instead working hard but weighed down by taxes. Papers like the Daily Mail prop up this new version with tales of people with 11 children living on the public purse. This is not, though, a uniquely British version: like many other stories told of contemporary Britain, this one originated in the United States in the 1970s, with the myth of the “welfare queen,” a story told by Ronald Reagan of a black woman (always a black woman) who drove to the welfare office in her Cadillac wearing her furs to collect her check. In short, anyway, it the poor, not the Sheriff, who are oppressing us, and this version of Robin Hood is on talk radio complaining about taxes.
And it is this story about the world that is being summoned from the deep whenever a politician refers to “hard working people,” a trope that is used by Canadian conservatives such as Stephen Harper and American Republicans such as Mario Rubio – and, perhaps more stupidly, by British Labour politicians who are giving the political ground away to their opponents. But, suddenly, anyone who works for a living, from the Duke of Grosvenor to a zero hours barista, have become the oppressed of the earth. Taxation is a form of “robbery from the hard working peasantry to fund the lifestyles of idle hedonists.”
Suddenly, then, we’re in the land of George Bernard Shaw’s satire on 19th century notions of the “deserving poor” rather than the “underserving poor”. But it’s not being read as satire any more.
Shabby rich men
The most intriguing part of the lecture was Meek’s short history of taxation. Britain’s first income tax was introduced by Robert Peel in 1842, at just under 3% on incomes over £150 per year (approximately equivalent to something over £100,000 today) to enable him to remove tariffs on various foods, a redistribution that the Conservative Party didn’t forgive him for. In 1908 the Liveral Lloyd George introduced means-tested pensions, paying for them by adjusting the taxes paid by the 12,000 richest people in the country. “If there are amongst them”, he said, “men who grudge out of their riches a fair contribution towards the less fortunate then they are very shabby rich men.”
The increase in taxes after World War 1 was partly driven by the need to pay off war debts. But in general, tax rates on the rich were highest in the United States. “For almost fifty years in the middle of the 20th century, the era Americans commonly consider their golden age of prosperity and power, the wealthiest among them – fewer than 1 per cent – were paying federal income tax at an average rate of 81 cents on the dollar.” The reason this was politically possible was, according to the French economist Thomas Piketty, because of a belief that the rich were responsible for the Depression, and because of a concern that without high tax rates America would become as class-bound as “Old Europe.” When George Harrison sang, in Taxman, “There’s one for you, nineteen for me,” he probably had America to blame for his 95% marginal tax rate on top earnings.
One of the mysteries of the present age, then, is how the rich managed to escape blame for the current crisis, when it was driven by the finance class every bit as much as the crisis of the 1930s. But part of it is probably the long ideological assault on social democratic ideas since the mid-1970s, when, of course, Britain reached the high water mark in terms of equality.
The assault on tax was part of that. Meek reminded us that all sections of society now pay less tax than they did in 1977—except for the poorest 20%.
In 1977, the least well-off fifth of households paid 37 per cent of their gross income in direct taxes (like income tax) and indirect taxes (like VAT), against 38 per cent for the richest fifth. In 2014, the tax take from the poorest group had gone up to 37.8 per cent, while the taxes paid by the richest had gone down to less than 35 per cent.
The tax take underestimates the effect. The poorest are also more likely to be gouged by privatised utilities. Meek positioned a set of “universal networks,” including energy, water, transport and even housing that society deems essential such that people should have access to them at all times. Following privatisation these monopolies are more expensive for the poor. Health and education are also universal networks, and just about remain free at point of use, but the process of what he called “autonomisation” via Health Trusts and educational Academies make these networks ripe for financialisation as well.
The bandit, as Hobsbawm implied in his book, is essentially a pre-modern figure, living in the spaces left by an underdeveloped state. In most countries, bandits essentially disappeared as the state became more centralised, although they do reappear when the state’s influence contracts. (As in Mexico, for example). Conversely, equality reached its height (as in Britain in the ’70s) when the state was at its strongest.
Although Meek didn’t explore this in his fascinating lecture, it does open up a line of argument that says that rather than being inevitable, globalisation was a political strategy by the holders of capital to deal with what they saw as too much equality. The level of panic in the mid-to-late 1970s is hard to credit now. But the effect was that they set about weakening the state. On this argument, globalisation was a social construct rather than (to take some of the competing narratives) an inevitable effect of technological or economic change.
Sedition and treachery
A second reflection is that when James Meek speaks of national myth being available to “any individual”, he is, in a way, using the languge of “open source”, that the “source code” of such myths is open to us all. And open source code can always be “forked“.
And when you look at the history of the Robin Hood myth, it took around two hundred years for the idea of explicitly “giving to the poor” to emerge in versions of the story. Fifteenth century references to Robin Hood are longer on his being an outlaw or even an itinerant felon who has no livelihood. In 1605, Robert Cecil used the name of Robin Hood to associate the Gunpowder Plotters with sedition and treachery. One reading of Meek’s account is that it is just the powerful reclaiming a preferred narrative.
The limit of the Robin Hood myth is that, because he is a pre-modern bandit, there is essentially nothing political about his acts of robbery, even if the poor benefit from them. Bandits, as Hobsbawm observed, make lousy socialists. And of course, in many tellings of the story, it requires the return of King Richard – the good King – to restore order and harmony to the land. It took a later generation of proto-modernists, the English Parliamentarians of the 17th century, to realise that it was in ourselves, not in our stars, that we were underlings, and to put on trial, and then execute, a King for treason.
Randen Pederson’s work can be seen on Flickr