Reading Julius Caesar may help Mrs May

A heading from the London Times last Monday read “Brexit-weary Britons long for political strongman”. It was the result of an opinion poll carried out by the Hansard Society, where some 54% of respondents agreed that Britain needed a strong rule-breaking leader. This, of course, raises the whole question of Mrs May’s leadership of the present Conservative government. How other conservative prime ministers dealt with situations where the Tory party spent bitter years of internal conflict came to mind. The Duke of Wellington and the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 and Robert Peel and the repeal of the Corn Laws in the late 1840s were two. It seems that when the conservatives disagree among themselves, all hell is let loose. However, my mind went back to antiquity when two other leaders tore the Roman Republic asunder, which ultimately resulted in the downfall of the Republic: Pompey the Great (106-48 BC) and Julius Caesar (100-43 BC).

Both of these men, Pompey and Caesar, wanted to become the first men of Rome and did so in turn. Both men came from the military into the political arena. Pompey was an outsider, the son of a famous rich and successful general, Pompey Strabo. On the death of his father, young Pompey became immensely rich. Strabo had been one of the dictator, Sulla’s, leading generals. Caesar, on the other hand, was a penniless ‘blue blood’, the son of a middle ranking Roman officer. Caesar’s immediate model was his uncle, Gaius Marius (157-86 BC), who had been consul seven times. Caesar great idol was Alexander the Great. Pompey had little time for learning while Caesar was something of a scholar. Pompey entered the army as a high ranking officer at 16 years old while Caesar had to prove his worth when he enlisted.

Caesar was a detailed person, who had the ability to generalise and visualise the future from general details. He then turned these visualisations into successful military and political strategies. Caesar received most of his information from his spies listening to the gossip in cheap wine houses, in the military camps, and from those in middle political positions. He had access to the liberal senatorial class as well. Pompey, on the other hand, relied on information mainly from one source; the conservative senatorial class (the ‘boni’).

Another striking difference that comes to mind is that Pompey had a different relationship with his troops than Caesar had. Pompey kept apart from his troops and mixed only with his officials, but he paid his legions handsomely. This bought him a superficial loyalty. Caesar was known to be hard and fair. But it was his personal behaviour that bought him their loyalty. He openly shared their discomforts, like walking and talking to his troops on their long marches instead of riding in a carriage or by horse. He slept with them in the open in all weathers and ate the same food with them.

Both men became strong military and political leaders. Pompey’s downfall was his lack of vision, his lack of interest in detailed intelligence, and moreover his inability to formulate any offensive strategies. He just stuck to one formula. Caesar’s eventual downfall was due to his arrogance and pride in not listening to the good advice of his senatorial colleagues especially after he became dictator.

There are many styles of leadership, and much has been written about the subject. Mrs May’s circumstances are, indeed, completely different from those of Pompey and Caesar, but if we look closely at her behaviour we can see one similarity. Commentators have told us she doesn’t like mixing socially with her party colleagues, and she refuses even to take tea in the tea room, never mind visiting the bar in the House of Commons. Her principal flow of information comes through the whips, as anything else she regards as unreliable gossip. Like Pompey, who relied alone on the ‘boni’ for information, she has limited channels of communication.

Like most British conservatives, Mrs May most certainly thinks of herself as a pragmatist. But she doesn’t seek a middle line between extremes. Instead she sticks to her ‘deal’ and just changes her tactics time and time again to get her Brexit deal over the line. Currently she has agreed to negotiate with the Labour Party, while still maintaining her red lines. To date she has refused any compromise on these ‘red’ lines. Perhaps failure to get her deal through Parliament with the support of her party will change this. Alongside this stubbornness to change, she lacks the personal warmth and collegiality with her party colleagues that Julius Caesar certainly had his troops and colleagues. Because of this stubbornness and her aloofness she doesn’t have the trust of those she leads. Irrespective of Caesar’s arrogance and pride, his legions trusted him and remained loyal. It was the jealous ‘boni’ and his arrogance bought about his downfall. Mrs May should relax and read some poetry, like her Attorney General does, and read the life of Julius Caesar to learn how to communicate with her colleagues.

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