Review: Caesars large and small

Review: Caesars large and small

Robert Shiels commends a new look at the self-invented authoritarian Caesars who present such a clear and present danger to democracy and the rule of law today.

The historic and modern figures identified by Ferdinand Mount as Caesars all operated in the politics of their era although, given some of the personalities and circumstances, they often were themselves the politics of their time.

From Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell through Napoleon and Bolivar, to Mussolini, Salazar, De Gaulle and Trump, there are Big Caesars who set out to achieve total social control, and Little Caesars who merely want to run the state as an agreeable business without the tedium of opposition.

The modern Caesars identified by the author “seem to get along quite nicely without any proper ideology worth the name”. They have operated not on a consistent line but rather with a “shouty sort of nationalism and a carefully advertised hostility to immigrants”.

It is no surprise then that the political career of Boris Johnson and the phenomenon of Brexit feature heavily in the study as a vivid instance of the same phenomenon.

Criticism of the former prime minister in this book is relentless and unstinting, and that alone makes the book worth reading. Boris Johnson is placed firmly amongst the Caesars.

It is telling in itself that a modern prime minister of the United Kingdom should be described in the same book and terms as those who were actual dictators or regarded as such.

The Caesarism under consideration is not an absurd throwback: Ferdinand Mount argues that it is an ever-present danger. The associated actions, almost a central policy, of interrupting and betraying constitutional traditions is the worry, or should be.

From the descriptions of the making of Caesars the reader is drawn to their unmaking, from the Gunpowder Plot to Trump’s march on the Capitol and the ejection of Boris Johnson by his own MPs.

In particular, this book may will serve as an influential summary of recent events in this country, and indicate how modern historians will assess major figures of our era.

The book is a subtle, and at times superficial, mixture of political history (including classical Rome), modern political theory and the practical psychology of those in power.
It is highly commendable, and as it is not a textbook, it ends with a strong defence of parliamentary politics and a thought-provoking support for constitutional government.

Big Caesars and Little Caesars: How They Rise and How They Fall - From Julius Caesar to Boris Johnson by Ferdinand Mount. Published by Bloomsbury Continuum, 304 pp.

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