Over the last four centuries, a lot of traditions have become associated with the 5 November. Fireworks. Bonfires. Burning Catholics in effigy. As a child it was one of my favourite times of the year. Even today I much prefer it to the Americanised Halloween rubbish we get now, and not just because I’m an anti-papist who could never convincingly dress up as a sexy anything.
Over the last ten years, though, another tradition has attached itself to this date. A certain right-wing political blogger was an early adopter, back when the British left was still in the ascendancy and he could convincingly pretend he wasn’t a member of the establishment. Since then the Guy Fawkes mask has become the symbol of left-wing anti-government protests far and wide, including hacktivists Anonymous and the Occupy Movement. Today the internet is seemingly full of comments like this one (which dates, strangely, from August):
Remember Remember the 5th of November….. The last man to enter parliament with honest intentions….. pic.twitter.com/ppixuVOL8B
— a nobody (@tyler_durdenkds) August 22, 2015
Right. No. This is utter bullshit, based not so much on a misreading of history as on a complete ignorance of it.
Guy Fawkes was many things, but one he emphatically wasn’t was a freedom fighter. Fawkes had actually voluntarily fought for the Spanish empire in its Eighty Years War against Dutch independence – hardly the action of someone who fights over-weening government power wherever they may find it.
The reason the Gunpowder Plotters decided to take down the government of King James I & VI was not because they were opposed to government oppression. The Plotters were kind of okay with a spot of government oppression, actually: they just thought that the oppressed Catholics should be the ones doing it.
To that end, they decided to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament. This would knock out the king and most of his ministers, and open the way for nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth to become puppet queen of a new Catholic regime, backed by the mighty Spanish Empire. (Incidentally, the fact they wanted to supplant the regime, not destroy it, makes Guido Fawkes a painfully good name for that libertarian blog.)
Fawkes wasn’t even the plot’s leader: that was Robert Catesby. The only reason Fawkes himself is the one who became most associated with the plot is because he was the poor mug who got lumbered with the job of guarding the barrels. When the plot was discovered, he was the one forced to explain how it was he came to be shiftily loitering next to 20 barrels of gunpowder, holding a packet of matches.
The Gunpowder Plotters weren’t freedom fighters at all. They wanted to replace an oppressive Protestant regime with an oppressive Catholic one, and were willing to commit mass slaughter to do it. In other words, Guy Fawkes was a religious terrorist, and not even one of the most important ones. He was the Jacobean equivalent of one of the minor characters from Four Lions.
So how is it that he ended up as a symbol for those who think themselves freedom fighters? The Guy Fawkes mask is worn by a crusader against government oppression in Alan Moore’s 1980s comic strip V for Vendetta, so it’s tempting to blame him and his artist David Lloyd.
But that isn’t very fair. In the comic, the character of V may be fighting the government; but he’s also very clearly a terrorist, and his ideology is no less terrifying than that of the rather banal fascist regime he’s fighting against. If anyone’s to blame it’s the people who filmed the graphic novel in 2006, completely missing Moore’s point and turning V into a heroic martyr for freedom.
At any rate, the result of all this is that we’ve ended up with a world that celebrates a semi-competent religious fundamentalist as a freedom fighter, and where people give money to big corporations to buy copies of his face.
Well done, anarchists. Well done on never reading a fucking book.