Updated: Feb 4
It’s only been a couple of days, but the results of Britain’s most recent General Election are starting to sink in. A Tory landslide, the likes of which haven’t been seen since 1987, has given unmitigated power to arguably the most right-wing government Britain has had in living memory. Dark times lie ahead.
But rather than try and vocalise my despair in this post, I’d like to take a moment to consider the role Classics has played in British politics in recent years. A week before the election, infamous bigot and Tory self-parody Jacob Rees-Mogg (a.k.a. the Haunted Pencil) composed this tweet. It’s his version of the Tories’ exhausted slogan ‘Let’s get Brexit done’, with a classical twist.
Online, JRM was roundly mocked for the tweet. My favourite responses include ‘Twattus maximus’ (@sarf_london) and ‘Fuckus Offus’ (@nickgrizzles), though a special commendation must go to colleague and Actual Classicist Nathaniel Hess who composed his own ‘Catullan invective’ for JRM and left it in the replies for Latin readers to enjoy.
Of course, this is not the first time JRM or those in his milieu have attempted to weaponise their supposed knowledge of Classics for political gain. JRM is known for his affection for apparently obscure historical references, and Boris Johnson’s speeches are routinely littered with references to Greek mythology. Historically, this is nothing new: the ruling classes in Britain have long fetishised knowledge of Graeco-Roman antiquity, and used it to draw direct lessons on how they should govern.
For the ruling classes, Classics is no longer a prerequisite for exerting authority; I suppose it has been largely supplanted by PPE at Oxford. Yet a number of upper-class men still feel they might gain something by dropping a gratuitous reference to the Odyssey, or posting a Latin composition worthy of Google translate on Twitter. I don’t think they’re doing this because they think Classical texts will show them how to rule—they are not taking electioneering advice from Quintus Cicero or rhetorical advice from the real Cicero—but because they believe the performance of Classical knowledge will assert their dominance over their competitors, and society at large.
And to a certain extent, they’re right. The figures are a little obscure, but there are around 600 non-selective, state-funded secondary schools that teach Latin to at least GCSE in Britain, which is around 14% of them. In the year 2000, this number was much lower, at around 100 schools. The numbers for Ancient Greek are even smaller; and at the upper end, there is only one non-selective state school in the whole country that offers the subject at A-level. There is some small recompense in the form of Classical Civilisation, a subject offered by a broader set of schools that covers Classical themes without the language component. In 2018, Class. Civ. A-level was sat by more students than either Latin or Classical Greek. Nevertheless, what’s clear is that the vast majority of the electorate have never had the opportunity to be educated in Classics at all, let alone the 6+ years of Latin and Ancient Greek a prep+public school education can provide.
For this reason, any classical reference, however inane, is designed specifically to impress upon the majority of the population that “this man is more educated than me.” And despite the blowback these politicians receive for their classical chicanery, it seems to work. A noxious concoction of classism, racism and misogyny means that these men are consistently perceived as intelligent and intellectual, despite the emptiness of their rhetoric. They can blunder and bluster their way through interviews and debates, safe in the knowledge that, just as Achilles tore his way through the Trojan hordes and laid the path to victory for the Achaeans, a vague and poorly-formed classical simile will bail them out.
Beyond the realm of personality cults, it’s not that the public actually enjoy these spurious displays of erudition. If anything, as the replies to JRM’s tweet show, it’s the kind of behaviour we love to hate. But at some level, a semblance of authority is cultivated. That’s how, following the BBC’s prime ministerial debate, a YouGov poll found that Jeremy Corbyn won on “Who is more in touch with ordinary people” (57%-29%), but Boris Johnson still won on “Who is more prime ministerial” (54%-30%). Corbyn’s issues of image and performance notwithstanding, the fact that such a result is even possible shows that on some level, the British electorate responds positively to the domineering public schoolboy persona. The fact that Johnson epitomises historic issues of class in Britain, and uses his knowledge of Classics—such as it is—to trumpet his privilege, doesn’t seem to put voters off. The final result in the election is the excruciating manifestation of this cognitive dissonance.
I can’t say I’m entirely sure as to why this strategy works on the British electorate. I suppose I could point to the entrenchment of class discrimination in politics, or the historic dominance of Eton-Oxford types in parliament that continues to this day. I could argue that by sheer numbers, these men have so shaped our psychological prototype of what a Prime Minister is that the very description ‘prime ministerial’ implies an expensive suit and a public school drawl.
I don’t think it’s worth dwelling on. The electorate will do as it pleases. But we have to be aware that, like their ancestors before them, this generation of Johnsons and Rees-Moggs will continue to misappropriate knowledge of Graeco-Roman antiquity to further their nefarious agenda. We can’t bury our heads in the sand; Classics is as relevant and devious a force in politics as it ever was, and it isn’t going anywhere. The question is, as classicists, many of whom abhor the hateful politics of these charlatans, what do we do? Can there be a classical ‘force for good’ in British politics?
My answer is the same as the one Socrates gave to Polus when asked whether he thought Archelaus, son of Perdiccas, was happy or not: οὐκ οἶδα, ὦ Πῶλε. [“I do not know, O Polus.” Plato, Gorgias 470e.] But pro Iuppiter, efficiamus aliquid.