A Most Malignant Gathering

Emperor ClaudiusPrior to his ascent to the throne, the Roman Emperor Claudius was continually underestimated. He had a club foot, a stammer, was prone to nervous fits and was frequently ill; many of his contemporaries dismissed him as a buffoon, maligned and deformed by nature. The causes of his indisposition are unclear: historians have suggested that he suffered from polio, or perhaps Tourette’s or Aspergers. It’s rare, however, that such infirmity has been so beneficial: his nephew, the Emperor Caligula, habitually murdered anyone he perceived as a threat. Claudius was seen as harmless, and indeed, Caligula found him amusing. However, after Rome tired of Caligula’s pestilential and spendthrift reign and the Praetorian Guard, the Emperor’s own protection squad, assassinated the lunatic ruler, Claudius was made Emperor. Apparently freed from the shackles of being considered a fool, his condition improved, and he was one of Rome’s more effective rulers.

As David Cameron lacks sufficient Latin to discern the meaning of “Magna Carta”, I can’t imagine that this lesson echoed in his mind as he watched Boris Johnson speak yesterday. If he knew this history as well as Boris’ biography, he’d perhaps have had much to ponder. Boris knows illness: he was apparently suffered from deafness as a child. Boris is perceived to be a buffoon: he makes ill considered remarks, he looks like a disorganised disaster. When the Olympic flag was handed over from Beijing to London in 2008, Boris’ dishevelled appearance couldn’t have been a greater contrast to that of the pristinely tidy mayor of Beijing. Boris is a source of comedy, perhaps more intentional than unintentional. Furthermore, Boris went out of his way to praise David Cameron’s leadership, which would have been a Claudian thing to do when in the presence of a Caligula. Johnson, who read Classics at Oxford, likely has studied the histories written by Suetonius and Cassius Dio. Perhaps he also consults a copy of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” from time to time as a bit of light reading, and rather like Stalin did in a biography of Ivan the Terrible, inscribes the word “Teacher” over and over in it in lead pencil.

The lesson is clear: be perceived as non threatening, indeed, be amusing, and the path to power may be cut for you by the Praetorian Guard. No doubt the Tory elders look at Cameron and see a man who is failing: the deficit has not been cut by 25% as has been claimed, rather if BBC’s Newsnight is correct, it’s only been slashed by 2%. Britain’s economy is sputtering at best; its continued languishing in recession compares poorly to similarly structured economies like the Netherlands. Cameron’s policies have meant that the benefit bill has gone up, meanwhile capital expenditure, which would provide the infrastructure the country requires, has been slashed. This is rather like a family saving money by not buying their children textbooks for school. VAT has been increased, a regressive levy, which is as costly and ill-considered as Caligula’s tax on marriage. Whenever Cameron speaks, it is clear that he has difficulty containing his impatience and intolerance of any questioning: rather like Caligula, he sees himself at a remove, an elevation, which is beyond such impertinence. Caligula intended to make his horse Incitatus a consul of Rome, Cameron promoted Jeremy Hunt; the parallels go on. The moment of ultimate disaster for Cameron is not yet, but should he continue to falter, no doubt the Tory Praetorian Guard will sharpen up their swords. If Boris did become Prime Minister, the dismantling of the welfare state would certainly continue apace: however, the public would look on and laugh.

Osborne SpeaksThe Tory conference not only provided echoes of one of Ancient Rome’s darkest chapters, but resounded with mendacity of its own making. On Monday, the anniversary of the death of Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister who created Britain’s modern welfare state, George Osborne stated that there would need to be £10 billion more of cuts to the welfare budget. This is in spite of the fact that food banks in places like Bradford are struggling to meet the demands of the truly hungry; Save the Children estimates that 1 in 8 children in the United Kingdom go without at least one hot meal per day. Osborne stated that he would make the rich pay their fair share, but rejected Liberal Democrat proposals for Mansion and Wealth taxes outright. Rather, Osborne tried to turn communities in on themselves, speaking of the worker leaving his home in the early hours, only to note the drawn blinds of a neighbour who was living off of benefits; a thoroughly scripted and unimaginative man, he repeated this scenario not only in his speech but in interviews on radio and television. Note the intent: rather than suggest that the problem might be a financial sector that became addicted to short term profits off of speculative investments, or indeed that growing inequality between rich and poor might be an issue, he suggests instead that the unemployed are the problem, and wholly responsible for their present state. This message is in line with narratives from the likes of the Daily Mail and Sun, which suggest that Britain is plagued with “benefit cheats”. A quick examination of the figures indicates this is nonsense: according to the National Fraud Authority, tax evasion costs the taxpayer 15 times more than benefit fraud, yet this is not pursued with nearly the same vigour. In reality, the scapegoating of benefit cheats is chaff, intended to keep those on lower incomes distracted and divided and thus unable to threaten the establishment. Nevertheless, blaming “benefit cheats” was the easiest, laziest means of appeasing those who take the Daily Mail and Sun seriously.

Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, continued to adhere to base, intellectually stunted narratives on the following day. Tuesday was the anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination by Mark David Chapman: however, Grayling chose this moment to state that the law would be “clarified” so that it would be easier to shoot people. Householders, he stated, will be able to use anything other than “grossly disproportionate” force to expel burglars. As Eddie Mair, the eloquent interlocutor of BBC Radio 4’s “PM” programme pointed out that evening, these cases are extraordinarily rare and even the solicitor who defended Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who was jailed after he shot burglars in the back, felt the present law didn’t need changing. Nevertheless, this legal “window dressing” fits with an easy, lazy narrative that appeals to the Daily Mail’s readership.

Today is the anniversary of the passing of Dame Joan Sutherland, the famous opera singer: apparently it will also be the day the music dies. As I type this, David Cameron is preparing to deliver his leader’s speech: he apparently will not talk of “broad, sunlit uplands” as Churchill did during the darkest days of World War II, nor will he even refer back to his own statement while he was Leader of the Opposition, a demand that “sunlight win the day”. Rather, we are to be told that Britain has no future unless it continues with Conservative rule: if we don’t accept deep cuts, economic stagnation, increased child poverty and a more coarse and unequal society, we have no future at all. William Hague made the case plain on Radio 4’s “Today” programme: we cannot go back, the world is tougher than it was ten years ago. The public ordered roast chicken, all that’s on the menu is thin gruel: we should accept this as the consequence of a changed world and thank the Tories for speaking the painful truth. Meanwhile, they’ll let us shoot burglars and we should despise our neighbours who don’t “pull their weight”. There is no alternative.

A quick look abroad indicates this is nonsense: Iceland, for example, eschewed coddling its wayward bankers. Rather, they jailed them. Iceland reined in its financial industry and is now growing again. France has chosen an alternative strategy: while the full effects of the Socialists’ budget are yet to play out, it’s clear that President Hollande’s priority is to balance the books with more help from the rich rather than unduly burden the poor. To suggest there is no other option is myopic nonsense: there are always alternatives if one has both imagination and courage. At this Conservative Party Conference, a most malignant gathering, it was proven that the Tories have neither.

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