Ancient and modern

How Boris’s Roman predecessors took back control

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

The Tories, allegedly a ‘one-nation’ party, are currently imposing Brexit on a divided nation. As a result, some Tory MPs will vote against Brexit, effectively abandoning the party. This raises the question of political values – the question being, what happens after Brexit? Romans faced the same problem when the republic collapsed (27 bc) and Augustus became emperor.

The Roman historian Tacitus, looking back at those events some 140 years later, summarised how Augustus achieved supreme power: he charmed the army with bonuses, the people with cheap corn, and everyone with the beguiling pleasures of peace. He then gradually took over the functions of the senate, the magistratus (officers of state such as consuls and praetors) and the legislature, all nullo adversante (‘with no opposition’). So ‘in this altered world there was no more of the fine old Roman way of doing things. Political equality was a thing of the past. Everyone waited on imperial orders’.


But republican commitment to ancestral values did not disappear overnight. An emperor who did not want the reputation of tyrant had to be accommodating. He would be wise to nod to republican values such as openness to consultation, accessibility, liberality but self-restraint, respect for gods and fellow citizens, temperance, traditional attire, modesty, justice, and so on. Nero (however fruitlessly) was given Seneca as an adviser, the epitome of the old Roman Stoic; Trajan’s reign was praised by Pliny the Younger for demonstrating ‘the republic still exists’.

However tyrannically the PM exerts pro-Brexit control over every aspect of government, he does so because he respects the will of the people. But with Britain out, the PM, no longer needing to play the tyrant, can go back to being the wishy-washy liberal he is. This brave new world will require brave new one-nation thinking (and a brave new post-Brexit cabinet?) and the Tory values of capitalism, private property, private enterprise, lower taxes, sound money, the free market, choice and rolling back the state — all consistent with liberal provision of public services — will be needed more than ever. The PM will rise to that challenge. And what values will the stranded Tory rebels espouse then?

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