Listen to this article
Guy Fawkes seems an unlikely man of the moment. On November 5 a few Britons will burn him in effigy on Bonfire Night, a weakening echo of what was once the Protestant majority’s enthusiastic annual celebration of the thwarting of a 1605 Catholic plot to blow up King James I in the House of Lords.
Yet Fawkes – the plotter in charge of the gunpowder, who died by jumping from the scaffold where he was to be hanged – has been reborn on face masks worn by anti-capitalist protesters across the world.
Most outside the UK (and some inside it) know little of Fawkes or the religious conflicts that bred him. But the stylised mask, with an eerie grin, moustache and goatee beard, has become a pervasive motif of protest against banks and politicians. As an image, parallels are being drawn with Alberto Korda’s famous photograph of Che Guevara.
The masks are taken from the 2006 film V for Vendetta, where one is worn by a lone freedom fighter attempting to bring down a fictional fascist government in the UK. It ends with an irresistible crowd of Londoners all wearing the masks, unarmed and marching on parliament.
The film was based on a 1980s comic book series written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd. The hacker group Anonymous used the masks in a 2008 protest against Scientology and it has spread from there.
Mr Lloyd told the BBC: “We knew that V was going to be an escapee from a concentration camp where he had been subjected to medical experiments but then I had the idea that in his craziness he would decide to adopt the persona and mission of Guy Fawkes – our great historical revolutionary.”
That romanticises Fawkes, who wanted to replace the Protestant monarchy with a Catholic one, which might have been equally repressive: the last Catholic monarch, Mary I, was known as Bloody Mary for burning hundreds at the stake. But then, in the book, you cannot tell whether V is a hero or a madman.
It is among many incongruities in these protests, not least that every time one of these masks is sold – and more than 100,000 a year are sold worldwide – a fee goes to the decidedly capitalist Time Warner, whose Warner Bros arm made the film and which owns the image rights. But then, when a protest aims to close the London Stock Exchange and ends up closing St Paul’s Cathedral instead, the whole thing is pretty weird.
American and British lawyers last week debated in Philadelphia whether Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence was illegal. The Brits said secession was not the proper tool for settling internal disputes. “What if Texas decided today it wanted to secede from the Union? Lincoln made the case against secession and he was right,” they argued.
If right, this raises a few issues. Leaving aside what might have happened in two world wars, would Barack Obama now, like Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, be promising a referendum on independence or financial autonomy? Would George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, have to devise a strategy to boost the colonies’ economy too?
Fear not: the US side won the vote after arguing that under “natural law”, government can only be by the consent of the people and that allegiance is no longer required in face of tyranny. Unsurprising, perhaps, given the venue was close to where the declaration was drafted.
It is time, surely, to ban use of the cliché focus relentlessly – as in “a forensic, relentless focus on growth is what you will get from the government” (David Cameron, prime minister), “right now we must focus relentlessly on those who are struggling” (Danny Alexander, Treasury chief secretary), and “people know that Labour will focus relentlessly on the things that matter to them” (Ed Miliband, Labour leader).
Too werrity by half
Notebook would be pleased, however, if Adam Werritty, whose friendship with Liam Fox led to the former defence secretary’s resignation, lent his splendidly Dickensian name to a new word denoting an inappropriate relationship with a member of the government, as in: “I fear this might look a bit werritty, minister.”
Get alerts on Opinion when a new story is published