In a previous column, I suggested that the circumstances of Brexit could be compared with the English Civil War. No one I spoke to when I was last in the UK thought this was far-fetched.
Many were upset by the deep divisions it has caused among friends, families and work colleagues.
History is no crystal ball, but it has a place in political thinking. There are many examples of politicians making decisions which have turned out to be flawed but which might have been avoided by a working knowledge of history. The ancient historian Thucydides wrote the first ever forensically constructed contemporary history (of the war between Athens and Sparta), in the hope that his work would serve as a guide for future generations.
His account of the relationship between the two states in the build-up to their war bears several similarities to the Cold War, which of course did not result in military conflict. Maybe, Messrs Reagan and Gorbachev had read it.
A nod to the past
In the same way, I am struck by how the current political situation in the UK also resembles the last years of the Roman Republic. The fact that the current Prime Minister is an expert on one of the leading players in that period — Julius Caesar — adds to its validity.
While its conclusion is highly unlikely, and the previous column suggests a more realistic outcome, it’s interesting to explore the comparison nonetheless.
Both crave power and are willing to take great risks to attain it and preserve it. Both are fiercely patriotic. Both diluted their patrician backgrounds with a popular image aimed at garnering broader support.
Both found themselves opposed to intransigent political institutions: in Caesar’s case it was the Roman Senate, while Parliament has also given Boris little room to manoeuvre. Caesar’s fellow consul used filibustering tactics to frustrate his colleague’s populist legislation programme by actually claiming that the stars were not properly aligned and refusing to attend the Senate until they were.
The courts also played a role: this was standard practice in Rome, but has now also seeped into British politics.
Caesar became Pontifex Maximus (effectively Mayor) of Rome in his mid-forties, the same age as Boris when he attained the equivalent office in London. Both had a propensity to stray outside marriage, and were unashamed in doing so, although in Caesar’s case, it was much more calculated and political in nature, and in a different moral climate. Both shared a distaste for bureaucracy and for things having to be done in a certain way simply because they had always been done that way. Both were liberal in their outlook and urged people to take more responsibility for themselves.
The comparison is obviously not perfect. Boris is not a general and has no army at his back, while Caesar never had to worry about managing or being answerable to the media. One could, of course, argue that the media is the modern version of the military, the key battlefield on which conflicts are resolved.
Caesar’s chief rival was Pompey, a great man in his own right, with a fabulous record both as a general and as a statesman. Few could say the same about the current Leader of the Opposition in the UK; and there are many other differences besides.
On the other hand, if things turn out as badly in Britain as some are predicting, martial law may be necessary. Dare Boris take that step, assuming he is even in a position to do so?
“The Spectator” recently showed a picture of Boris rolling the dice on its front page. Caesar famously said “Alea iacta est [the die is cast]” when he crossed the River Rubicon and declared war on the Roman Senate, ending an established system of government that had evolved over centuries; and was later told to beware the Ides of March …
Archie Berens is Managing Director at Hanover M.E.