Written on: 10 October 2013.
Above: The Allegory of Good and Bad Government: Part of a fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna.
I first became aware of this remarkable series of frescoes on the cover of a book that I was reading called A History of Western Political Thought by J S McClelland. I was so struck first by the vivid colours and then by the content of the work that I sought to do some research about it and ultimately view them for myself in Sienna. They are by far my favourite frescoes from any period! They are unique in the sense that they represent a secular theme in a religious age.
At a time when the very competence of Government across the Western World is increasingly brought into question, it is useful to reflect on Government in the past. This is not fashionable at the moment, history is not taught effectively in schools, history is being rewritten for political reasons to reflect the needs of the powerful, and education is dominated by an inclination to tell pupils what to think rather than teach them how to think. It could be argued that policy making these days is done as part of a programme of bad government!
In Sienna between the years 1338 and 1339 a series of frescoes were painted by the artistAmbrogio Lorenzetti that are generally known by the title The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. I would like to talk about these frescoes and about Government in the present day. I will examine the frescoes in from the perspective of a person living in the United Kingdom in 2013.
There are two broad themes that run through the frescoes – justice and tyranny. As a person who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s I have seen the transition from good to bad government with my own eyes. In my time I have seen that the powerful have become less accountable and the rest of us less free. Justice has declined and tyranny has risen and continues to rise unabated.
In the fresco representing good government:
“There are many shops, indicating good commerce and economic conditions. The traffic moves peacefully, guild members work at their trades, a wedding procession takes place, and maidens can be seen dancing gracefully…. This fresco shows that if government is virtuous and rules justly, then the city thrives and prospers.” (1)
The post war period was one of general prosperity, many of us remember the economic boom on the 1980’s but look where we are now! We have a fraction of our previous industrial capacity, we have fewer tangible resources, we have no self-confidence as an ancient culture, and we are hamstrung with debt and dependency. Margaret Thatcher decimated our industry, Tony Blair drove the corrosive concept of political correctness to new heights, and Gordon Brown sold most of our gold at rock bottom prices. Decline did not just happen, it was caused… by bad government. I can barely remember when government could be described as ‘virtuous’.
In the fresco representing bad government the viewer is:
“…confronted with a devious looking figure adorned with horns and fangs, and appearing to be cross-eyed. This figure is identified as TYRAMMIDES (Tyranny). He sits enthroned, resting his feet upon a goat (symbolic of luxury), and in his hand he sinisterly holds a dagger.
Below the tyrant the captive figure of Justice lays bound, while the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, and War flank him, and above him float the figures of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory.” (2)
Perhaps the discipline of the Cold War previously allowed our government cling to health because the end of the Cold War was when the rot really began to accelerate. The cockiness of western leaders was palpable and it could be this hubris finally finished off the last vestiges of good government in the Western world. Today we find ourselves in the midst of economic catastrophe, endless war bolstered by “Dodgy Dossiers”, and sleazy politics. We have a deliberately divided society, a dysfunctional press, and a deficit of democracy. Bad government envelops the UK and the Western world and the people are not happy.
We have witnessed the sleaze that afflicted the last years of the Major Government, we have seen the MP’s expenses scandal and the outrageous behaviour of the press that led to the Leveson inquiry. We have a British Broadcasting Corporation that does not seem to understand the concept of political impartiality and a media that is an instrument of the powerful rather than something used to hold them to account. We see David Cameron prior to been in government promising a referendum about the European Union and then denying one once ensconced in Number 10 Downing Street. We now see him promising another referendum – I wonder if he is familiar with the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf?
Our political system has been captured by a political triad (Liberal Democrats, Labour, Conservatives) who take turns at ruling but in effect represent a single set of establishment interests and are really a single party in all but name. Rule by Parliament has been replaced by rule by treaty. The unelected tyrants of the EU Politburo also known as the unelected and anti-democratic European Commission have more power than the MPs that we elected to represent us.
Britain was once a force for freedom and an example of good government to the rest of the world. This good government was based on the continuity of ancient institutions, the rule of law, and equality before the law. These all now lay in ruins! Central pillars of the Common Law like Double Jeopardy have been destroyed and Trial by Jury looks to be going the same way! We have lost our right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and freedom of movement look increasingly less secure.
Tyranny has finally replaced justice and bad government is bringing a thousand years of history and a thousand years of progress to an ignominious end!
The following video from the Khan Academy give an analysis of the frescoes.