Big Caesars and Little Caesars
What do Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, President Xi and even Boris Johnson have in common? The answer according to Ferdinand Mount’s new book is that they are all modern incarnations of an age-old phenomenon, the Caesar. Mount does not offer a precise definition of a Caesar but they are a readily recognisable phenomenon as ‘they all operate along the same spectrum’. ‘It is,’ Mount writes, ‘admittedly a huge spectrum: the Caesars range in intensity from overblown bully boys and con artists to mass murderers of unspeakable wickedness.’ Big Caesars and Little Caesars is also Mount’s credo, an erudite and readable distillation of the experiences of a life patrolling the borders between journalism, history, literature, and politics. He will be talking about the book to the Sherborne Literary Society on 24th July; it promises to be a fascinating and enlightening evening.
Caesars in essence are rulers who consciously subvert the accepted political and constitutional conventions of their polities in order to achieve and then perpetuate their own grip on power. They are not confined to any one age and ‘may pop up in any country and under all sorts of political and economic circumstances’, something the book’s scope certainly reflects. Mount’s Caesars range from Catiline – ‘a Jeffery Epstein of the first century BC, with added violence’ – and Julius himself in ancient Rome to Boris Johnson, taking in Oliver Cromwell, Mussolini, Hitler, Salazar, de Gaulle, Mrs Gandhi, and many others along the way.
The coup is an essential characteristic of the Caesar, big or little. It can bring the Caesar to power - as in Julius’s crossing of the Rubicon - or convert an incumbent ruler’s position from one which depends upon the vagaries of democratic consent to one which is unchallengeable – as in the case of Hitler. Mount wonders aloud at Oliver Cromwell’s posthumous reputation: why does the man who violently overthrew Parliament in a coup to install himself as a dictator warrant a statue in so prominent a position outside the Palace of Westminster? His answer is that time and the polish of revisionist history – a process started by Thomas Carlyle – has cemented Cromwell into the English pantheon: ‘His military dictatorship had become an integral - and valued – part of our island story.’
Just under half the book is devoted to the stories of six failed coups. As Mount says, ‘most coups fail’ but by examining the failures we can see more clearly how the successful Caesars make it and, by extension, how they can be stopped. Mount’s failed coups are a mixed bag: the Catiline Conspiracy, the Gunpowder Plot, the Cato Street Conspiracy, the Beer Hall Putsch, Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency, and Donald Trump’s March on the Capitol. The causes of their failure can be grouped under five distinct headings: Force, Intelligence, Eloquence, Lawfulness, and Diligence with good old bad luck hovering over all of them. Taken together, they are ‘a set of techniques for seeing off a threat to the civil peace’ rather than ‘a blueprint for long-term governance.’
For all the variety of Caesars, big and little, ancient and modern, adduced by Mount, it is the dishevelled, blustering figure of Boris Johnson which casts the longest shadow over this book. Mount is a lifelong conservative – he headed Mrs Thatcher’s No. 10 Policy Unit and was Political Editor of <i>The Spectator<i> – and a fervent believer in the principles of liberal parliamentary democracy but makes no effort to conceal his contempt for Johnson. <i>‘By an amazing series of coups, by turns daring, fluky and near-illegal, this improbable Prime Minister had become lord of all he surveyed, including hundreds of Tory MPs who had never liked him and still did not trust anything about him, except his unique ability to win elections.’
Mount’s case against Boris Johnson – that is, why he regards him as a Caesar – begins with the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election. This document proposed reforms of the British political system which had the ‘unabashed intent of strengthening the Tory hold on power’ and which, collectively, added up to ‘a systematic challenge to our system of parliamentary democracy as it has evolved over several centuries.’ What Mount calls the Five Acts, which received the Royal Assent in the spring of 2022, were all ‘intended to increase government control in one sphere or another: over Parliament itself, over elections, over the courts, over immigrants and over public demonstrations.’ Mount likens them to the notorious Six Acts of 1819 which marked ‘a low point in British liberty.'
Eventually, as we all know, Johnson was forced to resign. ‘There has,’ Mount writes, ‘been no more humiliating exit in British political history.’ ‘He was thrown out because – let us use his own demotic here – he was a shocker, a rotter, a stinker.’ His successor, Liz Truss, ‘was widely known to be mercurial, dogmatic and not very bright’ but ‘she was only a Boris Johnson tribute act.’
The stories of the Caesars, successful and unsuccessful, long- or short-lived, stand as cautionary tales for proponents of democratic government. Mount describes Johnson’s administration as ‘the ripest example of bad governance in Britain since the war.’ Nonetheless, this is not a pessimistic book but ‘a hymn to vigilence’. To preserve our hard-won, long-held liberties, we need to be constantly on our guard against Caesarism. This engaging, learned and civilised book should be in all our pockets as we keep watch on the bastions of freedom.