Stephen Arnell

Brexit would have been Flashman’s finest hour

Brexit would have been Flashman's finest hour
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With the 50th anniversary of the publication of George MacDonald Fraser's first Flashman novel, how would Thomas Hughes’ school bully have handled British politics today — and who’s most like our favourite literary cad?

Given recent allegations of sexism and bullying in the Commons, Flash would have found himself at home. If Westminster is a boarding school, Flash would be among the prefects, pushing around the sneaks, sots and brown-nosers, and paying court to those further up the greasy pole. ‘Kiss up, Kick down,’ as they say.

Flash is always at his best in a total fiasco, so Brexit would have been his finest hour. Expert at taking multiple positions, on and off the battlefield, he would have changed sides at least once, and then tipped a cellarful of dirt onto his potential rivals. Sounds like that man of action, and hero of every hour, Michael Gove?

Every successful bully needs a gang of like-minded followers, so plenty of MPs would sign up with Flashman’s crew; Boris Johnson always enjoys a good prank. As for victims, they’d be spoilt for choice. Smug-but-dim Bernard Jenkin would be taken down a peg or two by the Flashman treatment, and Speaker John Bercow could, like Tom Brown in Thomas Hughes’ novel, come unstuck.

Among the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn’s peculiarly passive-aggressive form of politics would present a tactical challenge. Flashman would work his way around that but, with his glorious record of running away, he'd give John Prescott a wide berth for fear of a thumping. The same would go for Neil Kinnock in his prime, who could roundhouse with the best of them. And the late Paddy Ashdown’s SAS training would also have reminded Sir Harry that discretion was the better part of valour.

Flashman is strapping, good-looking, and six feet two inches height. A ‘ladies’ man’ to the waxed tips of his moustache, Flashman is no gentleman at all. In Fraser’s novels, Flashman is persuaded to stand for parliament but, as always, scandal derails him. No female MP or Commons staffer would be safe from Flash’s lecherous gaze and wandering hands. Margaret Thatcher may have initially daunted him, but once Flashman discovered her weakness for ‘pin-up’ boys like oily Cecil Parkinson and vacant John Moore, he surely would have wormed his way into the Iron Lady’s affections. Grand dames like Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams would have been have trickier to charm. Theresa May, as we know, is a stranger to charm.

Despite his primitive sexual attitudes, some of Sir Harry’s political views are almost enlightened; almost, but not quite. He thinks that the American War of Independence was a tragedy that led directly to the Civil War, that 'vile slaughter of the Anglo-Saxon-Norman-Celtic race'. He agrees with Winston Churchill, his fellow Old Harrovian, that had the Americans pre-empted the causes of the Civil War, the United States would otherwise have evolved towards a Canadian-style parliamentary system, with slavery abolished by 1834:

‘Point out that Canada and Australia managed their way to peaceful independence without any tomfool Declarations or Bunker Hills or Shilohs or Gettysburgs and are every bit as much “the land of the free” as Kentucky or Oregon and all you’ll get back is a great harangue about “liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

'It’s understandable, to be sure: they have to live with their ancestors’ folly and pretend it was all for the best, and that the monstrous collection of platitudes which they call a Constitution, which is worse than useless because it can be twisted to mean anything by crooked lawyers and grafting politicos, is the ultimate human wisdom.'

Flashman is a proto-Atlanticist, a visionary of the Anglosphere, so he’s not averse to an intervention here or there. Politically, Flashman is in the vein of Lord Palmerston, whom he admires as ‘Old Pam’, only slyer, like Tony Blair. He’s perfidious Albion, concealing perfidy with a hearty John Bull air. An Empire man when it suits, Sir Harry tends to look down on all races, apart from the aforesaid Anglo-Saxon-Norman-Celts. But he’s no Little Englander; he’s actually an internationalist, a cunning linguist who beds females of all nationalities and whispers sweet nothings in a range of languages.

Some of Flash’s best friends are Afghans. The Scots, however, are a different matter. He regards the Highlanders in particular as semi-savages, though he respected their fighting skills. This loathing stems not from encountering the Victorian parliamentary predecessors of Alastair Campbell or Nicola Sturgeon, but from Flashman’s detestation of his miserly father-in-law, John Morrison, later Lord Paisley. Closer to home, Sir Harry, as an equable Tory, perceives factory workers and the urban poor as akin to Russian serfs in terms of their immiserated lives and almost sub-human demeanour.

Thomas Hughes first brought Flashman to life in 1857 with Tom Brown’s School Days. So the copyright on the character has long expired, leading to a regrettable slew of novels featuring Flashman’s ancestors and descendants in various periods of history. Since George MacDonald Fraser's death 11 years ago, a cottage industry has developed to serve us addicts of the scoundrel’s adventures. Sadly, the homages don’t pass muster — not even Keith Laidler’s Carton Chronicles, in which the dissolute Dickensian from A Tale of Two Cities dodges the guillotine and is revealed to be the bastard son of Flashman's father, Buckley.

An MP features in Flashman’s sole film appearance, Richard Lester’s Royal Flash (1975). Scripted by George MacDonald Fraser, Royal Flash is an enjoyable romp, though Malcolm McDowell’s Flashman is rather too puny for the role. Still, he’s game, and pretty good in the sword fighting scenes. The supporting cast is terrific, too, with Oliver Reed and his Women In Love naked-wrestling buddy Alan Bates,  as well as Britt Ekland, Tom Bell, Lionel Jeffries, Michael Horden, Joss Ackland and Henry Cooper as real-life boxer and parliamentary pugilist John Gully, MP. On Flashman’s urging, Gully beats up Oliver Reed’s condescending Otto von Bismarck. An image for Brexiteers to savour.

The true Flashman of our time is, tragically, not in the Commons these days. Like the fictional Flash in Afghanistan, he’s working on his memoirs in a caravan. In 2011, when David Cameron still had his trotters down, his advisors told him to tone down his Flashman act after Cameron had told shadow chancellor Ed Balls to 'shut up’ and ‘listen to the answer’. And Flashman is certainly no stranger to the rich variety of chillaxing available to the leisured gentleman in the heyday of the Empire. But while Cameron may share some of Flashie's indolence and arrogance, he lacks the rogue’s guile and sheer bulldog bluff. He does, however, share Flashman’s intuitive grasp of the quick exit when battle commences.