Sunday, July 25, 2010

24th July 2010

Whatever Nato thinks it might achieve in Afghanistan, it is not at all clear that the Afghans themselves are in favour of it.

In a remarkable speech put in the mouth of the Caledonian leader Calgacus before the battle of Mons Graupius in ad 84, the Roman historian Tacitus articulates with extraordinary precision the feelings that many Afghans must have about the American presence today. For ‘Britons’ reads ‘Afghans’, for ‘Romans’ read ‘Americans’ throughout.

‘When I consider the crisis that drives us to battle, I am convinced that the united front you are showing today will mean the dawn of liberty for the whole of Britain. Everyone to a man is here, together. None has ever tasted slavery. Battle for the brave, for us, is the road to glory; for those cowards, it is the only escape-route they have.

‘Whatever the outcome of earlier battles against Romans, our country has never abandoned hope, because we are here — tucked away in her most secret places, the noblest Britons of them all, our country’s last resort. Our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny, we, the last men on earth, have enjoyed the protection of our isolation and obscurity.

‘But the whole of Britain now lies open to our enemies. The lure of the unknown is always, of course, irresistible, and with these Romans, there is no hope of mercy in submission or compromise — they pillage the world, their blind plundering ravaging the land. Greedy if their enemy is rich, they grind the poor under their heel. East and West alike have failed to glut their maw. Rags or riches, it’s all the same to them — they lust after it, come what may. These liars call their robbery, their butchery, their extortion “government”. They create a waste-land, and call it peace...

‘Do not imagine that the Romans’ bravery in war matches their debauchery in time of peace. Look at them, a motley conglomeration of nations — or can you seriously think that those Gauls and Germans and, to our bitter shame, many Britons too, are bound to Rome by genuine loyalty or affection?’

And so on. Romans knew that they would never win over a province without the people — which meant in the first place the local elites — coming onside. So does Nato. Does it know what it is up against?

17th July 2010

Cold cabbage anyway (people didn’t like Brown? No!), Lord Mandelson’s memoirs read like the work of a robot with a dictaphone. Contrast the letters of the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC).

‘I talk to you’, Cicero said to his chum Atticus, ‘as though I were talking to myself’ and in doing so he reveals the man: cultured, liberal and humane, witty and stylish, nervous, vain and indiscrete, but perhaps most of all, ever dependent for peace of mind on the views of others. ‘Think what I must be suffering’ he tells Atticus, ‘when I am considered mad, if I say what is right about politics, servile, if I say what is expedient, defeated and helpless, if I say nothing.’ As a consequence, he spent most of his time vainly trying to determine the course of action rather by advising others—Pompey, Caesar, the young Octavian—than seizing the initiative himself.

He thought hard about principles. In a letter to Atticus at the start of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, he says that, to prevent himself breaking down completely, he is asking himself the following questions: Under a tyranny, should one—remain in one’s country? Try to abolish it, even if one thereby ruined the state? Try to help with words, or war? Brave any danger for the sake of liberation? And so on.

And there are constant delicious observations and dry asides. ‘Now that Tyrannio [his librarian] has arranged my books, the house has a soul’; ‘I see Livia has left Dolabella a ninth of her estate if he changes his name. Good question in social ethics: “Should a young noble change his name to benefit from a will?” We shall be able to answer more scientifically when we know what a ninth amounts to.’ On Caesar’s campaign in Britain (54 BC) and the slaves he will bring to market: ‘I don’t imagine one can expect any of them to have had a literary or musical education’.

Mandelson’s laboured memoirs, written with all the flair of an I-speak-your-weight machine, betray a man without doubts or introspection, without the slightest interest in, let alone insight into, other people, inert pieces in a mechanical game of his own construction. Prince of Darkness? Prince of Dimness more like.

Monday, July 12, 2010

10th July 2010

By sacking Gen. McChrystal for humiliating the Presidential team in a rock magazine, Barack Obama has reasserted the American Founding Fathers’ principle: ‘The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy’. Quite right too: the military must be subservient to (civilian) state control.

The Roman republic collapsed in the 1st C BC because this principle was compromised. That the political top-dogs also led the armies raised the danger, while the nominal ultimate authority, the Senate, could be over-ridden by popular assemblies. As Romans expanded their empire, over-worked troops looked to their generals for a fair reward for service, especially at discharge. Generals, obviously, were keen to oblige. The result was that soldiers owed their loyalty to them and not the state. Power-seeking dynasts like Sulla, who started it all in 88 BC, Pompey and Caesar took full advantage and effectively held the republic to ransom in their own interests. The whole system collapsed.
Ancient Greek democrats, by contrast, kept an iron grip on their commanders. Nicias was one of the elected generals at the time of the proposed Athenian expedition to Sicily (415 BC). In Assembly he expressed his distaste for whole idea. But his opponent, the youthful Alcibiades, whipped up enthusiasm with a gung-ho rant. Nicias claimed the cost in manpower and resources would be intolerable, but only encouraged a confident Assembly even more. Half-way through the campaign, Nicias wrote home asking to be relieved of command because of kidney disease. The Assembly refused. It all ended in total catastrophe.
The point is that Nicias knew, if he disobeyed or failed the people in any way, he was dead meat. In the ancient world, only results counted. So it was usually defeat that ended generals’ careers. But even though he claims still to support McChrystal’s strategy, Obama had no option but to sack him after his idiotic and hybristic public attack. Imagine what the Taleban would have made of it, had he not! Besides, after his abysmal handling of the BP affair, it was a chance to show he was ‘tough’. But what would he have done had he not been lucky enough to have a general as flexible and competent as Petraeus at hand to save his bacon?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

3rd July 2010

Taxes, spending cuts, and a few sweeteners—rather how the emperor Vespasian dealt with his financial crisis when he came to came to power in Rome in AD 69, but less inventive.

The earlier emperor Nero had poured gazillions into military campaigns and the construction of a fabulous palace (the ‘Golden House’) for himself. The great fire of Rome in AD 64 burned another vast hole in the accounts. But Vespasian was a man suited to the task ahead. He was of humble origins, simple tastes, hard-working—he rose early—and with a good sense of humour (on his death-bed he observed ‘Good heavens! I do believe I am turning into a god’). It is not clear that Mr Osborne shares these winning characteristics.

Vespasian’s first move was to sell off some imperial estates and nearly double taxes in the provinces. Those were the days... . Then he cut the consultants by making himself censor. This gave him power to get the best deal from juicy revenue-raising options: leasing out public property, selling off the right to collect taxes in the provinces, and letting out contracts for public works.

He knew where to make the pips squeak. He identified provincial governors known for their greed, promoted them to encourage them to become even greedier, and then hit them with charges for extortion. His ‘sponges’, they were called: ‘he put them in to soak, then squeezed them dry later’.

But there were sweeteners too. Vespasian was aware of the needs of the poor. He encouraged people to take over and rebuild ruined houses themselves if the owner did not come forward. When an engineer offered to haul some huge columns up hill mechanically, Vespasian declined, saying ‘I must always ensure the working classes earn enough to buy food’. And he started the Colosseum too.

Perhaps his most striking revenue-raising ploy was to tax urine (used to clean woollens) from the city urinals. When his son Titus complained, Vespasian handed him a coin from the day’s proceeds and said ‘Does this smell bad, son?’ ‘No, father’ said Titus. ‘Strange’ said Vespasian, ‘it comes straight from the urinal!’ He was determined to prevent money just leaking away. One for Mr Osborne next time, perhaps.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

12th June 2010

The newspapers are turning up the heat on government proposals to raise capital gains tax from 18% to 40%. From powerful business factions to starving pensioners, howls of outrage echo across the pages. A success, then, for the coalition: getting the newspapers to do the scare-mongering for you is a very efficient way of gauging public opinion.

The only way the ancients could do this was in secret. The greatest sculptor of the Greek world, Pheidias, needing the reassurance of public approval, hid (we are told) in his studio and listened to the comments. In AD 16, Germanicus, the popular adopted son of the Roman emperor Tiberius, was on campaign in Germany. Wishing to test his troops’ readiness for battle, he dressed himself in an animal-skin and, like Henry V before Agincourt, wandered among his soldiers to ascertain morale. Tacitus reports that he heard nothing but praise for himself and a determination that ‘the treacherous, treaty-breaking enemy must be offered up to vengeance and to glory.’ They were.

But how serious will the CGT outcry become? In Rome, threats to the corn-supply always brought the crowds out. But riots rarely got out of hand. The reason was that the emperor was generally credited with a commitment to improving the lot of the people, in his own interests as much as theirs. In other words, the crowds took it for granted that they had a right to protest, but more as a way of reminding the emperor what his duty was to them rather than fomenting genuine revolution.

So in 23 BC, Augustus responded to a food crisis by buying grain with his own money and distributing it to a quarter of a million people. In AD 19, when there were riots at the excessive rise in the price of grain, Tiberius imposed a maximum price, compensating merchants for it at the same time. In AD 51 a bad harvest created a grain shortage. With only fifteen days’ supply left, Claudius sent for grain in the middle of winter. Luckily, the weather smiled on him.

An intelligent coalition will make the same sort of measured response to the capital gains tax outcry. So there, there, dears. Calm down. We know exactly what is going on. The government is merely testing the waters of public opinion before, as it were, putting its foot in it.

19th June 2010

There is something infinitely depressing about the ways university vice-chancellors talk about their desperate plight in the face of cuts. Not only does none of them seem to have the faintest idea what a university is actually for anyway; they also do not seem to realise the implications of their demands for vast increases in fees.

In the ancient world, education was a service, not a right, provided by individuals, not the state, for a fee. Its purpose in what one might call the ‘higher education’ sector was, for the most part, to serve the children of the elite by providing them with the skills required for a successful elite career, i.e. in law and/or politics. That meant what we now call ‘communications skills’, i.e. rhetoric—the capacity to make a persuasive case.

Since the future of the family was at stake and fees for the best teachers could be very high, parents and pupils took a keen interest in the value for money that they were getting. Rich families regularly threatened to withdraw their children if they were not making the expected progress. Students made a habit of cheating. Palladas reveals that students gave him copper or lead coins instead of silver, while others stayed for eleven months and then, to avoid paying the full 12-month course fee, promptly changed teachers. Other students pleaded poverty, often because they spent tuition fees on drinking, gambling and sex.

The pressures even on good teachers were severe. Libanius, who seems to have made a decent career out of teaching, laments his inability to discipline pupils: ‘we know from experience that it is not without danger to ourselves that we chastise’. Further, he has to account to everyone—students, parents, even grandparents—and if he is not able to make ‘gods out of stones’, he will be the one to blame. He feels like ‘Sisyphus in Homer, who battles with a rock’ that he is trying to push up hill, only for it to roll back down, again and again.

What was a private service for the few has now become, thanks to the welfare state, a public ‘right’ for the many. If that public ‘right’ is now withdrawn because the state can no longer afford it—and that is what vast fee rises promise—those who pay for it will treat it very differently. V-Cs should be careful what they pray for.