Saturday, September 4, 2010

28th August 2010

Will the Coalition fall apart, as Lib Dems not in government attempt to bring their influence to bear on policies ‘for which they were not elected’? If the Cameron-Clegg relationship is anything like the Roman patronus-cliens relationship, it is unlikely.

All Roman political big shots surrounded themselves with political supporters in the shape of voluntary ‘clients’, but the relationship between the two was not symmetrical. The reason is that, while the cliens offered the patron political support, the patronus in return controlled access to vital resources and services which his cliens was not in a position to get himself—legal, financial, social, military and so on.

The problem was that the resources and services which any cliens might so desperately need at any stage were themselves available in only limited supply. So it was impossible for the *patronus* to do the business for everyone. This may seem to strike at the heart of the system (why should a cliens stay with someone who did not deliver?), but far from being a weakness, it was its great strength, and the source of the patronus’ power. Since resources were limited, and the patronus alone controlled access to them, the only hope the cliens had was to hang in there, fingers crossed. So the satirist Juvenal complains that, for all your services to a patronus, you’ll never get even a dinner out of him, and if you do, it will be toadstools and a rotten apple.
In other words, as the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (late 1st C BC) shrewdly saw, the relationship was in fact a means of social control—keeping the lower orders in their place. Being in a position of dependency on the great patron himself, clientes spent most of their time grovelling at the master’s table, grovelling all the harder the less they got thrown.

Clegg is in a position of debilitating weakness. The purpose of politics is to hold power. He can achieve that only as cliens to a larger party; and then only if there is a hung parliament. So the Lib Dems have far more to lose than Cameron does. Better the devil you know.

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