I heard more of the exchange later in the day and improved comprehension didn't really improve the quality of the argument. In the Home Affairs Select Committee, BoJo was vigorously agreeing with the suggestion that somehow the authorities had to make knife crime seem less glamorous with the words "It is moronic, wasteful, and you know, it's not the death of Mercutio."
Simon Hoggart was quite impressed by BoJo's performance in the Select committee. But as a closer reading of the exchange reveals, BoJo's arguments are as floppy and disordered as his hairstyle. For he went on:
It is worth looking at the text ... It teaches us about the bogus glamour and the strong romantic, sentimental feelings that can attach to gang culture.
There's nothing I disagree with in BoJo's second remark but, of course it, doesn't logically follow on from his first, in which he implies that the death of Mercutio is something more elevated and romantic than the tawdry violence of modern knife crime. In his clarifying remarks, he argues precisely the opposite, that the gang culture in Romeo and Juliet is the same as that of modern street gangs, which is why the play can teach us about such things*.
A post in the Liberal England blog agrees with Simon Hoggart and praises BoJo for not being afraid of displaying a little learning, approvingly quoting Simon Hoggart as follows:
Now Boris doesn't quote the classics just to show off. He genuinely believes that the great works of the past illuminate our understanding of the present.
I'm all for a more educated level of public debate, but I think we've been starved of it for so long by the robotic PR-speak of most career politicians that as soon as someone like BoJo breaks the mould by alluding to Shakespeare or Cicero, we get all overwhelmed and go "gor blimey, guv'nor, you're a real toff an' no mistake", without stopping to consider whether the reference to Tacitus or Ovid or whatever actually makes any sense. So for me, the issue isn't the difference between being posh and being educated, but the difference between having a good education and being able to think straight.
For the record, it is the second of Boris' two contradictory statements which I agree with. And although any knife-related death is one unnecessary death too many, the literary/historical parallel does suggest that we don't live in uniquely violent times. After all, in Shakespeare's England and in the Verona he wrote about, youths didn't just carry knives. If they could afford it, they carried swords. Not weedy kitchen knives filched from mum's kitchen drawer, or Stanley knives out of dad's tool box, but dirty great metre-long, specifically designed for killing people, SWORDS. Murderous weapons which were also highly-prized bits of fashionable bling - as the Wikipedia article points out, the very word rapier seems to derive from the Spanish word ropera, stemming from ropa, or elegant dress. A dress sword. A fashion item to die for. Now there was a society with a youth violence problem.
Sometimes the past can teach us, but sometimes, as implied in the first part of BoJo's badly put together argument, distance lends enchantment to the view. Because they aren't here and now, brawling youths with swords do seem a bit more romantic than hoodies with knives. Knights, highwaymen, pirates and other violent members of past societies are romanticised and hollywoodised, morphed into Johnny Depp's roguish pirate captain, instead of teaching that outbreaks of violence have always been with us and have sometimes been a lot worse.
*credit where credit's due - at least he didn't drag in the word "relevant", much beloved of high minded people trying to speak wiv da yoof, innit.