Any appeal to the electorate that the coalition may once have had seems to be fading fast. If the decision to put VAT on a hot pasty turns out to have been the turning point, the Gang of Four who run the Cabinet have only themselves to blame for not paying enough attention to Plutarch, the great Greek essayist (ad 46–120), whose ‘Tips on Statecraft’ would have kept them straight.
Entering public life not for gain but out of honourable conviction, Plutarch argued, the politician must make it his first task to understand the character of the citizens with whom he was dealing. So he had to start by working with the grain of public opinion in order to win a good reputation and public confidence. Here lifestyle was an important ingredient of a politician’s appeal: ‘It is not just their words and deeds that will be held to account by the public, but also their dinners [got that, Mr Cameron?], affairs, marriage, pleasures and interests.’
That confidence won, said Plutarch, the politician stood a chance of bringing about the changes he thought necessary, but he must also bear in mind that it was always the big picture that counted. Here Plutarch quoted the monarch Jason of Thessaly: ‘Those who wish to do right overall must be ready to do wrong in unimportant matters.’ No, said Plutarch: that was the act of a tyrant. Rather, one should say: ‘Win the favour of people by giving way in small things in order to stand your ground on the big issues.’ If not, he said, you will get a reputation for unbending, unfeeling intransigence which accustoms people to opposing you. Show flexibility, he advised, ‘as we do with errant behaviour in the young, so that we do not lose our authority by constantly banging on and can be firm on matters where it really counts’.
And so Her Majesty’s government solemnly legislates on hot and cold pasties. Only politicians with no comprehension of the British character could possibly consider tinkering with such small, inexpensive, everyday pleasures. If the Gang of Four wants to lose the people — and the big arguments — this is the way to do it.