Thursday, 31 October 2019

Boris Johnson - A Pericles for Our Time?


The man who would be Pericles
History can teach, warn and inspire us. If we don't understand the past, how can we fathom today? And as the many times over-used phrase goes, if we don't learn from history, we are bound to relive it.

Our esteemed Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is no exception. He has penned a few histories of varying quality and sometimes at striking odds with his other pronouncements. For example, his Dream of Rome is a deeply Europhile work and the TV version concludes with an unbroadcast peroration where Johnson looks forward with great enthusiasm to Turkey joining an expanded EU as some sort of recreation of the Roman Empire.

But the locus of his historical inspiration is much earlier, and their identity is more than a little instructive as to how the ludicrous occupant of Number 10 views himself as well as his personal hero. For the hay-haired chancer apparently fancies himself as a modern day version of the 5th century BC Athenian leader Pericles, who presided for almost 40 years over what is known as the birthplace of democracy - notwithstanding the exclusion of women and slaves from the "Demos" (citizenship). He keeps a bust of him in his Downing Street office for his visual musings and even quoted him in his first PM phone-in back in the balmy days of August.

On that occasion, as on others, Johnson promoted the idea of Pericles as a cultured champion of democracy and, superficially, you can see what he means: this was after all the man who presided over the construction of the final phase of the Acropolis. This fantastic range of buildings perched above Athens symbolised the city's devotion to the Hellenic gods as well as highlighting its imperial status as the leading power of classical Greece, its powerful navy exporting its form of Peoples' Government to rather reluctant neighbours on the points of their battering rams.

The Acropolis project has echoes perhaps in some of Johnson's own doomed attempts to commission prestigiously wasteful taxpayer-funded initiatives such as the London Garden Bridge that never was or, more recently, to issue a Brexit coin tomorrow morning which has now had to be melted back down. Yet, while Pericles' project was actually completed and substantial parts remain almost two and a half millenia later, when you look at the two men what might initially seem a pompous, facile comparison with the Athenian orator by Johnson actually holds more weight than might be apparent, though perhaps not for the same self-serving reasons.

For as well as divorcing his wife of some years to live with a much younger woman, Pericles had pretty much the same cavalier attitude towards public finance as the PM. On several occasions, he and his associates were accused of wasting Athenian tax money, although there was no charge of inappropriate personal benefit - as a contemporary historian, Thucydides, noted, he was already sufficiently wealthy to not be overly concerned about his own financial gain. Prestige seems to have been the main motivation, and so accusations of unfitness for office would bite all the harder on his noble ego.

By means of deflection, Pericles was happy to launch personal attacks on his enemies and to play to the mob, claiming to be an opponent of the conservative establishment in spite of hailing from precisely that quarter (his noble-born father was an army commander and his mother the descendant of a tyrant) and even using the Athenian speciality of ostraka (ostracism) to exile his key political opponent. Johnson has often cited Pericles' alleged skills as an orator as a personal inspiration, and so it is no surprise that a contemporary of the Athenian leader, the poet Ion, described him as having "a presumptuous and somewhat arrogant manner of address, and that into his haughtiness there entered a good deal of disdain and contempt for others".

All rather familiar somehow.

Similarly, Pericles' introduction of restrictions that limited Athenian citizenship to people who could prove both their parents were Athenian-born smacks of at least the same Tory attitudes towards modern immigration - all the more so as he hypocritically made an exception for his own son by his foreign-born partner Aspasia. His policy of imperialist expansion in the name of spreading democracy again has some parallels with Tory fantasies of "Empire 2.0" floated in the wake of Brexit. Perhaps not so much of a similarity was Pericles' opening up of public offices to less affluent Athenians, while in stark contrast the new electoral identity rules Johnson is implementing for voting seem designed to make it much harder for many poorer people to exercise their democratic rights.

Pericles of Athens
Yet if that is a difference, we need to hope that it is not the only one. For Johnson's hero funded his Acropolis project by embezzling funds from the Delian League, the official term for what was in effect the Athenian Empire. Money was purloined in what Greek historian Angelos Vlachos has claimed was perhaps the largest incidence of fraud in human history and contracts were dished out to Pericles' personal friends to oversee the construction.

He courted further controversy by having a friendly sculptor, Phidias, insert a likeness of himself onto one of the friezes, drawing accusations of impiety. When he finally faced formal charges of impropriety with the public finances, the historian Plutarch claims he provoked the devastating Peloponnesian War to divert attention.

If so, it was a fatal move on several fronts. The war was to vanquish Athens and reduce it to a vassal of Sparta. The democracy Johnson claims Pericles championed was destroyed for good. His hero however did not witness the apocalyptic denouement - as war raged, refugees crowded into the city, creating cramped conditions where hunger and disease became rife. Pericles duly succumbed to plague along with a good number of his compatriots just two and a half years into what became a three decades long conflict.

So let us hope indeed that the comparison is just the fevered imaginings of Johnson's own self-aggrandising hubris. If he is indeed a modern Pericles, inspired by his ancient hero's imperialist adventurism and readiness to sacrifice his country for the sake of his own beleaguered reputation, it is  absolutely imperative that on 12 December he suffers the fate of so many of the classical politician's opponents and is firmly and permanently ostracised from office.

A vote (unsuccessfully) cast in 444BC to ostracise Pericles from Athens.

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