I’ve been walking about modern South Leeds thinking about Ancient Rome. Why? Because if we ignore the lessons of the past we are condemned to repeat them.
Classics scholars, public schoolboys, and anyone who’s seen Gladiator, will have some knowledge of the concept of the Roman mob. These weren’t the slaves but were free Romans, sometimes unemployed or under-employed citizens of the great city state. The thing is, the rulers of Rome understood the power of these people in a way that today’s leaders don’t.
The term “bread and circuses” comes from the desire of the rulers of Rome to occupy (or preoccupy) the citizens so that they wouldn’t turn on them. Keep them distracted with the spectacles of the colosseum and keep them fed to ensure they remained passive. Those politicians understood the power of the people. Of course these days we’ve got the X-Factor, football and celebrity magazines to keep us from thinking about how the rule of the Establishment (really just a term meaning “the rich and those who have a vested interest in the status quo”) is a massive confidence trick.
If you want to know what I mean by this, consider the days of the British Empire: a handful of British soldiers and politicians managed to control hundreds of millions of Indians. If the Indians had revolted en masse they could have kicked out the foreign invaders who were stripping their country of its wealth but didn’t because of the trick of appearing much more powerful than you really are.
But the politicos around the world have forgotten what the Romans always knew, that it’s the mob (and that’s me and you, by the way) who hold the real power. Elected power has the veneer of legitimacy but real power resides in the people, even when they use the ballot box to assert it.
A year of voting shockwaves has seen the choice favoured by the Establishment rejected. I’m speaking more of the Brexit vote because it’s still too early to analyse the Trump victory although at first glance it would appear to have some similarities. But the Brexit vote has been analysed and the fact seems to be that the voting split was on grounds of class. And the reason it was a massive shock isn’t hard to guess why. The working class has become invisible.
Take a look at the average daytime TV schedule on the nation’s broadcaster. It’s a mix of antiques programmes, with middle class contestants, property development programmes, with people rich enough to buy extra homes “as a project” or to build their property portfolios, or shows in which people are seeking to relocate house – “John and Samantha have a budget of £750,000”, or my particular bete noire, the programme where a jolly-hockeysticks presenter intercepts people who are about to throw some unwanted piece of furniture, or other broken junk, away at the local tip, takes it from them, hands it to artisan hipster-types and then sell its on to people who have more money than sense at the kind of prices that only people who are above asking the price would ever pay.
The daytime schedule is not aimed at the unmoneyed. If the working class appear at all it is in one of the programmes looking at police procedure, and so the only vision we have of the working class is one of criminality. This is important because in our modern society of social media bubbles, and where work and social life revolve around others just like us, we rarely meet people whose lives are different to our own. In George Orwell’s classic, Down And Out in London and Paris he captured how this lack of knowledge of each other worked against the working class – “He is kept at work. ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.”
The reason that a million bowls of muesli went uneaten on the morning of the 24th June was that the middle class didn’t know who these people who’d voted Leave were. The next shock was that they were entitled to vote.
Almost immediately the fightback began – the middle class began namecalling. The bitter words have been a constant backdrop ever since the referendum. The working class were bigots, racists, too uneducated to vote. The very same people who wept at films about suffragettes suddenly decided that the suffragettes, the unions and even the RAF didn’t overcome the odds to win universal suffrage just so the bloody working class could use it. Fear of the mob was back in fashion.
The narrowness of the victory, the 52/48 split, means that real skill will be required to negotiate an exit that works for everyone. No one really wants an ochlocracy – mob rule – and so the tyranny of the majority must be tempered by the desire to achieve what is best for all. Not something, I might add, that the 48% have always concerned themselves with. Money and location insulated them against the harshest changes that those whose concerns are immediate and local experienced, unheeded, unlistened to, forgotten.
This week I sat down with my son and rewatched Julien Temple’s film “London: The Modern Babylon”. It’s a wonderfully evocative picture of a dynamic, ever-changing city that has absorbed every change, every bomb, every new wave of immigrants, and emerged always better and more bustling than before. London is its people and so is Britain. And the British are whoever live here at any particular moment – you’re not more British if you can trace your family back to the Saxons. All of us who live here and share the bounties and woes of these islands are equally as British.
In the film the voice of Malcolm McLaren, former Sex Pistols manager, can be heard talking about the London Mob. He understood the power of the people. Now we have exercised some small degree of that power and caught the attention of the Establishment once more, we must ensure that our concerns remain top of their agenda. And we want more than bread and circuses.