“Remember, Remember” What About the 5th of November?

By Jill Russell

As the rattle of firecrackers and the roar of bonfires reach their crescendo this evening accompanied by the lilting admonition to “Remember, remember, the 5th of November,” one ought to pause to consider exactly what legacy the events of over 4 centuries ago deserve in contemporary thought, particularly as it pertains to conflict and security.

There are likely many areas of inquiry by which the modern relevance of Guy Fawkes could be considered, but this piece will limit itself to a single issue: Does his character speak to the evil of Osama Bin Laden’s inspired plot against the US (and an opening feint against the west generally), where religious differences have come to define patriotisms and allegiances, and a struggle for survival is played out; or, is he the folk hero of the downtrodden?

An international scene dominated in part by the policies wrought in the aftermath of the more recent religiously inspired attack upon the power centres of another nation gives a new resonance to the cause of the Catholic radical Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1603. In comparing this event with the attacks of 11 September (or 7 July, for that matter) I do not mean to push the point too far, but on the matter of how to judge the actors the comparison resonates.

First there is the might which can accumulate behind stifled grievances and perceived injustices. Whether they had dark intent with respect to the colour of English governance in the 17th century, the Catholics of England certainly had reason to despair their social and political position. And while there is no real justification for using civilian aircraft as crude smart bombs, reasonable people can take account of the frustrations and anger that arise out of American foreign policies which seem to diminish the rights and values of other cultures around the globe. As the old saw goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Alternatively, through the prism of religious and cultural confrontations, the historic events from the 17th and 21st centuries offer a cautionary tale on the sources of conflict. One may not go too far in suggesting that modern American or British society has far more to fear from a global struggle with radicalised Islamist than their 17th century forebears faced in the papists. Particularly for Great Britain, the issue of maintaining the proper approach to the religious and cultural other within her shores will certainly shape the future of its domestic security.

Perhaps the hero and villain dichotomy is irrelevant. Whether Guy Fawkes is seen as terrorist or hero is debatable, but in either case it is undisputed that he serves as a model of warning – either of the fury which oppression can unleash or the threat inherent in unreconciled cultural divides. In which case, we are all English today and should certainly “Remember, remember…”

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