Thursday, July 14, 2016

Boris and Incitatus

The appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary has led several people to trot out the oldest of old chestnut stories as a means of comparison with an appointment which the speaker wishes to denigrate - the legend that the Roman Emperor Caligula considered appointing or actually did appoint his favourite racehorse Incitatus as a Senator or Consul.

(Postscript December 2016  - and people are still trotting out the same comparison without any sign of actual thought on the subject nearly six months later.)

This is one of the stock insults used in political discourse in Britain - if you enter the words "Caligula's horse" into the search field on the Hansard Website you find forty results over the past forty years. Nearly all of these are references by various honourable members, including Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wyatt, Tony Banks and Peter Lilley, to the legend that Incitatus was made a consul. Nearly all these references are used to attack someone's appointment by comparison.

Before Boris Johnson the people whose appointments were compared to the alleged elevation of Incitatus ranged from Michael Heseltine to a Deputy Governor of the Bank of England.

Although I am positive that the response was made, the search capabilities of the internet are not infinite, and sadly I have been unable to trace the quote to remind myself whose such comparison about what appointment was described in which newspaper as "rather unfair - to Caligula's horse."

I have been checking what is actually reported in one of the two sources for the story - "The Twelve Caesars" by Suetonius.

Nobody can claim to be other than ignorant of the origins of our civilisation who has not read three books about the ancient world: "The Histories" by Herodotus, which is the oldest and the first known work of true history, Thucydides' "History of the Peleponnesian War" which is  the most objective, and Suetonius's "The Twelve Caesars" which is the most entertaining.

Suetonius, writing about eighty years after the reign of Gaius Caligula, records the following about Incitatus:

"To prevent Incitatus, his favourite horse, from being disturbed he always picketed the neighbourhood with troops on the day before the races, ordering them to enforce absolute silence. Incitatus owned a marble stable, an ivory stall, purple blankets and a jewelled collar; also a house, a team of slaves and furniture - to provide suitable entertainment for guests whom Gaius invited in his name. It is said that he even planned to award Incitatus a consulship."

So the older of the two original sources which record the story of Gaius Caligula's horse does not state that the horse was actually ever made a senator or consul, just that it was sometimes rumoured that the Emperor had planned to make such an appointment.

Some historians have suggested that Caligula may have threatened to have Incitatus made a consul or senator, not because he actually intended to do it, but as an insult to the Senate, implying that an animal could have done their jobs as well as they did.

I can certainly understand why the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary has not been received with rapture in Brussels or other EU capitals and I gather that there has also been carefully restrained laughter in the United States and similar responses in some other capitals.

Boris is, however, the latest in a very long line of extremely clever English toffs who pretend to be buffoons. He spent much of his eight years as London Mayor - a job in which he had real achievements - building a reputation as a serious politician. That reputation was damaged in the last two months but now he has been trusted with high office he urgently needs to repair it.

I would remind those Remain supporters who have been complaining bitterly that all the people who led the "Leave Campaign" then fled the field and left others to pick up the pieces that Boris's appointment appears to be part of a three pronged strategy by Mrs May to make Leave supporters responsible for implementing Brexit.

It is not reasonable to, in consecutive weeks, scream blue murder about the fact that the people who  campaigned successfully for the "Leave" vote all appeared to decline any responsibility for implementing the decision they campaigned for, and then scream equally loudly about the fact that the new PM did in fact persuade three prominent "Leave" supporters to accept important roles in implementing that decision.

If it proves impossible to deliver all the things which "Vote Leave" promised during the referendum campaign, the fact that three leaders of the Brexit campaign have been entrusted with the negotiations will make it much harder for Team Brexit to build a "stab in the back" myth and claim that the votes of those who backed Leave have been ignored or betrayed.

This strategy might or might not work, but it is almost certainly the best one Theresa May could have adopted. In this context the appointment of Boris as Foreign Secretary may not be as foolish as some people have suggested.

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