UK Election 2019: A Tale of Cato and Caesar

Alasdair Keith 11 December 2019
Image Credit: Wikipedia

‘Are you Cato or Caesar?’

It may come across as a somewhat pretentious question but it’s nevertheless a good one. Indeed, I’d argue it’s actually the most important question you could ask when trying to gauge somebody’s politics. Far better, for example, than, ‘Are you left or right?’ or ‘Are you a globalist or a nationalist?’

I’ve been asking people this question for years. There used to be a good balance between the two answers but in recent years I’ve been disturbed by the increasing number of respondents, whether from the left, centre or right, who answer ‘Caesar’.

Gaius Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome from 49-44 BC, was one of the most famous men in history. His arch-enemy, Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (or Cato the Younger), is perhaps less well known. A long-term senator, his stubbornness, immunity to bribery and well-documented moral integrity put him on a collision course with Caesar as the latter began to amass ever greater power. Following Caesar’s successful march on Rome and a series of military defeats, Cato killed himself, preferring that over life under a dictator. For this reason, Cato is seen as the last great defender of the Roman Republic.

There were clear philosophical differences between Cato and Caesar.

Cato aligned himself with the Optimates in the Senate, a conservative faction dedicated to upholding the Roman Republican system, whereas Caesar was part of the Populares, a faction set up to provide relief to the urban poor. Ironically, Cato, when in power, quadrupled the grain dole (a key platform of the Populares) and he did so without seeing the need to compromise the Republican system. Caesar, by contrast, seems to have aligned himself with the Populares merely as a pretext to justify his increased accretion of powers. Far from helping the poor, in bringing down the Republic he ushered in an era of notoriously cruel and arbitrary rule (think Nero or Caligula).

All of this has relevance to today’s politics. We’re living in an age where the democratic ideal is coming under increasing attack. Many of all political stripes have begun speculating that it may be better to have a strong-man leader (Trump, Erdogan, Duterte) or an unelected, technocratic government, such as what we saw imposed on Italy.

“Many of all political stripes have begun speculating that it may be better to have a strong-man leader (Trump, Erdogan, Duterte) or an unelected, technocratic government, such as what we saw imposed on Italy.”

In the UK, it’s hard to tell which party best upholds the democratic tradition.

In recent years, they’ve all been guilty of dictatorial tendencies. The Conservatives have just elected a leader who appears almost singularly immune to the truth and around whom a cult of personality has developed (by the way, his name is Al Johnson – Boris is just a stage name).

On the other side of the divide, the Labour Party has turned its back on its traditional working-class base (particularly over Brexit) under the mistaken assumption that they know what’s best for the poor over and above what the poor actually think themselves. Indeed, this has parallels with Rome. The irony of Caesar was that he justified his seizure of power by claiming an affinity with the poor, despite coming from a patrician family. Cato, meanwhile, who had aligned himself with the traditionalists in order to defend the Republic, was himself a Pleb (and at one stage of his career was even the Tribune of the Plebs). The current Labour Party has to be very careful that it does not transform into a movement neither of the poor nor for the poor, whilst somehow convincing itself that it is both.

I must stress that this article is not an attack on left or right-wing politics, and far less an endorsement of centrism. It’s an argument in favour of democracy against dictatorship and technocracy. Clement Attlee pursued a radical left-wing agenda during his tenure as British Prime Minister and yet no one can accuse him of behaving like a dictator. Likewise, when Churchill lost the 1945 election – a stunning result which nobody expected – he simply and honourably stood down.

Meanwhile, Guy Verhofstadt recently addressed the Liberal Democrat conference here in the UK (a self-proclaimed centrist addressing a room full of self-proclaimed centrists) and openly endorsed the subversion of British democracy and the genesis of a new European Empire. He was cheered to the rafters. Centrists are certainly not immune to dictatorial tendencies.

Indeed, it’s time we stopped referring to those supposedly centrist politicians (mainly Liberal ‘Democrats’) who wish to overturn the largest political mandate in this country’s history, without recourse even to another public vote, as moderates. On the contrary, they are political extremists, perhaps the most ardent Caesars of all.

As a general rule, we should be vigilant against all those who wish to subvert our democracies, whether they come from the right, centre, or left. And we shouldn’t assume that our tribe, whether it be Tory, Labour, Lib Dem or other, is immune from the tendency to Caesarism over Catoism. Please bear that in mind when you cast your vote at this general election.

The future of our democracy may very well depend on it.