In the 1st century AD, Roman politics effectively ceased to exist. After Augustus’ total victory in the civil wars of the late Republic, power and the exercise of power became a dynastic game – with control of the army and the enormous financial patronage of successive Emperors holding sway over Rome’s institutions. Decisions were made in the palace, behind closed doors, granting the great women of the Imperial household (Livia in Augustus’s time and then Agrippina in Nero’s) unprecedented influence over the Empire’s affairs.
The ruling Roman aristocracy decayed. Young men of high birth still competed for rank and title on the cursus honorum – the hierarchy of public offices – and the Senate still sat and deliberated over matters of note, but it did not exercise discrete power. Senators lived in constant fear; a glance out of place, or a misspoken word could lead to execution, which would leave their family disinherited of their ancestral properties.
If condemned to execution, a Senator could take the honourable route out. Whereas we have only one word for self-killing, suicide, a medieval bastardised word, the Romans had over 200, each expressing a form of death that held its own kind of honour and status i.e. death by the sword was a better way to go than hanging.
The world at large still went about its business – Roman armies conquered new lands, and trade boomed across the Empire, but in elite circles, a stale atmosphere set in. The Neronian period’s greatest poet Lucan and at one point a drinking companion of the boy-Emperor Nero, begins his epic poem Bellum Civile, an insane mock-historical account of Rome’s civil wars, with the plaintive lament: “Bella geri placuit nullos habitura triumphos?”. That translates: “Why did Rome choose to wage wars that could win no Triumphs?”
The substance of politics had indeed become mere wind – in its place, paradox takes over, “wars with no Triumphs” – Triumphs were the ultimate prize for war-making in the Republic, the sign of a young leader on the make, but they didn’t matter anymore in the Empire. Why bother competing for prestige in the eyes of others when the Emperor always has the final say? Lucan’s poem is full of suicides. Some characters steal themselves from the event; some die in fashions that are great and terrible; others are pathetic; still more die in mockery and anger – all of it for no real purpose.
So, dear reader, what has all this to do with Boris Johnson, and his antics in Parliament last night? Well, it is an indication of where politics turns when things stop happening. We should have had a general election in January when Theresa May’s only policy, her Withdrawal Agreement, failed to get through Parliament, because, unless a general election changes the make-up of Parliament and as long as the anti-no deal majority continues to squeeze the remain and leave camps in the Commons, making it tricky to see how a second referendum or a managed withdrawal or a no deal outcome happen, nothing changes on the fundamentals.
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Boris’s address and his comments in the debate were made from a similarly impotent position. He is stuck with the 2017 make-up of Parliament and a majority of -43. He cannot call a general election because of the wretched FTPA and must beseech the leader of the opposition, or the smaller parties in opposition, to trigger it for him.
Politics has been in stasis now for over a year. Brexit has not been seen to be done; and we haven’t chosen to remain in the European Union instead. London is bustling away. Trains come and go. And yet, it is as if the functions of politics, at the heart of our moving world, are sealed off, like a great, big photograph. And what an image it is!
Brexiteer MPs who repeatedly refused to vote for Brexit. MPs of all stripes who cannot vote for a treaty that they asked the government to negotiate. Opposition MPs who cannot stand their own leader. Conservative MPs who cannot stand the Prime Minister. And at its centre is the Prime Minister himself, his central policy unworkable, his manner vain, contemptuous, and cruel, whose instincts are those of a demagogue.
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