Maybe a bit off topic this one but does anybody else remember the 2015 general election campaign? The Ed-Stone? Cameron rolling his sleeves up and getting pumped up? Russel Brand? #Milifandom? Endless Borgen style TV debates? I’m hoping somebody does because I’m beginning to think I dreamt it all or have slipped into some parallel universe where it never happened.
At the time it seemed like it was never going to end. Endless polls predicting a hung parliament, interminable comment pieces in the newspapers, ancient history being drowned in a sea of politics in my Twitter feed. Yet since May 7th every analysis I’ve seen about why the Conservatives won and Labour lost has managed to completely avoid talking about the campaign, as though it was completely irrelevant.
We’re constantly hearing how the “electorate” (as if that’s some amorphous amalgamated alien life-form that we’ve all been subsumed into) rejected Labour and endorsed the Tories because we didn’t find Ed Miliband’s party credible when it came to the economy. That’s the standard line taken by journalists and BBC interviewers and, apparently, by all of the Labour leadership candidates apart from Jeremy Corbyn. Liz Kendall who’s supposed to be the one who’s willing to “ask the difficult questions” miraculously seemed to have the answer to that one to hand before the results even came in!
If it really is that simple then I can’t help wondering why the economy was so conspicuous by its absence in the weeks leading up to the election. Yes, the Tories did hammer on about “sticking with their long term plan” and Miliband spent a lot of time staring earnestly into cameras trying to hypnotise us into thinking that he didn’t want to borrow more. But these weren’t the issues everyone was talking about. The big issues that I remember hearing most about were whether Miliband could be taken seriously as PM, about letters of support by big business and celebrity endorsements and, most of all, about the danger of Labour teaming up with SNP to form an unholy alliance hell bent on turning Britain into a third-world state. Did none of this matter at all when it came time to the crunch? That certainly seems to be what we’ve managed to fool ourselves into believing.
Of course we’re not really swayed by trivial stuff like whether a man can eat a bacon sandwich properly. When it comes down to it it’s only the policies that matter and we all take a sane and balanced appraisal of what each party’s offering and make our decision purely on the content, don’t we? The trouble with that view, however, is that if it’s true you have to wonder why political parties bother to run election campaigns at all. Think of all the money that could have been saved on those posters of Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket if they had no effect whatsoever.
Sadly, in reality, election campaigns do matter and our political decisions aren’t decided purely on the basis of policy. That isn’t how our democracy works and it hasn’t done for a long time, if it ever did. Instead of politicians trying to win our vote by persuading us of their views – democracy as they would have recognised it in ancient Athens or even in the UK a few decades ago – what we’ve got is democracy by focus group, parties carrying out market research to find out which buttons they can press to appeal to scrape together enough votes to get into power.
New Labour were masters of using focus groups which is one of the reasons Tony Blair was so successful for so long (as brilliantly examined in the third part of Adam Curtis’ film ‘Century of the Self“). It’s also one of the reasons why Jeremy Corbyn seems such a breath of fresh air compared to the other Labour candidates because he is an old-style politician who is trying to persuade us that he’s right instead of being afraid to have an opinion before he’s found out what we all think so he can appeal to the lowest common denominator. And yes, the Conservatives certainly did use focus groups to see how their “SNP scare” strategy was playing out with the voters and must have spent a considerable amount of time and money doing so.
I’ve also still yet to see a convincing analysis of why the polls managed to get the election result so wrong. The “shy Tory” analysis just doesn’t make sense to me because it doesn’t account for why the exit polls did get it right. Surely people would be less embarrassed to admit they were going to vote for a party of dubious moral standing when speaking anonymously to someone over the phone than they would be standing outside a polling booth looking another human being in the eyes where a passing friend might overhear them.
I’d say that the polls were probably right that the result was a far closer call than we now assume it was with hindsight. It might well be that economic competence was an issue but it is naive to pretend it was the only, or even the most important, issue. What happened over the course of the campaign must have had some effect over the outcome. We’ll never know how people would have voted if the election had taken place five weeks earlier but I find it hard to believe that all those polls predicting a hung parliament can have been so far off the mark and think it probably really could have gone either way. And that’s something that’s worth reflecting on for those on both sides of the political spectrum who are peddling certainties about what’s going to happen in 2020.
“He’s much less powerful than he used to be” – that was Ed Miliband’s assessment of Rupert Murdoch when asked about press regulation in that Russell Brand interview. It was no secret that The Sun, Murdoch’s top selling UK tabloid paper, together with much of the right wing press were waging a drawn out and viciously personal campaign against the Labour leader. A week before the election The Sun urged its English readers to vote Conservative, its Scottish readers to vote SNP, a seemingly schizophrenic strategy considering that David Cameron was hammering on about the SNP being the biggest danger facing the UK while Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly told us how she wanted nothing more than to “lock the Tories out of Downing street”. But it was a strategy deliberately calculated to stop Labour from winning. I can’t help wondering how Miliband must feel about what he said to Brand now that his dreams of becoming prime minister have ended in an unplanned holiday to Ibiza and in Rupert Murdoch getting exactly the election result he was hoping for.
It is hard to be sure how much influence the press had over the outcome of the election and I’d find it very depressing to think that it was Murdoch “wot won it” but the very fact that British newspapers – of all political persuasions – try so hard to steer their readers to vote a certain way should alert us to a fundamental reality of the nature of power in our democracy: to understand where power lies it is not enough to look merely at the workings of our political institutions. In the UK questions of power are not decided solely through elections, debates in the houses of commons or cabinet meetings; lobbying groups, personal connections, public opinion, public knowledge, the media and countless other factors all play an important role. Figures like Rupert Murdoch also remind us that it is often difficult to draw a distinction between “power” and “influence” and to decide where one begins or the other ends. These problems are not unique to Britain. They are surely a feature of any complex society and, as such, they are problems that any historian faces – ancient historians included – when they want to explore the workings of power in past societies.
Both the Greeks and Romans were well aware of the potential tension between “influence” and “power” and of the ways in which there could be a mismatch between the theoretical government of a state as expressed in its constitution and the political reality. In the 5th Century BC Thucydides, talking of the leadership of Athens by Perikles, said that the city was “a democracy in name but in reality the rule of one man”. The first Roman Emperor Augustus on the other hand could make the bold claim in his “Res Gestae” – an autobiographical text summing up his career and erected posthumously outside his mausoleum – “I exceeded all in influence, but I had no greater power than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy.” The question of what we are to make of these passages has, unsurprisingly, attracted considerable attention from modern scholars.
Many historians have disagreed with Thucydides’ assessment of Perikles’ influence in 5th century Athens and have argued that the city really was a radical democracy where power for all the most important decisions was truly in the hands of the people; the citizens were, after all, free to vote against Perikles’ proposals in any of their regular assembly meetings and did, once in his career, chose not to re-elect him as one of the city’s ten “strategoi”, or military generals. On the other hand, it’s hard to get away from the fact that Perikles really does seem to have been the driving force behind Athenian policy for nearly three decades, which has led other scholars to argue that Thucydides words must contain a grain of truth.
Augustus’ statement on first consideration looks less problematic. Many of the institutions of the Republic had, officially been left in tact by Augustus, following his emergence as the victor in the last of a succession of civil wars, and his tremendous personal influence was certainly extremely important in ensuring that his will was enacted. Elections continued to be held for key magistracies, for example, but Augustus put forwards the candidates so that the people could obligingly vote for them. The powers bestowed by the individual magistracies that he held were also, one for one, little different to those bestowed on other men who held the same titles as colleagues at the same time.
A key difference, however, was that while magistracies were usually held individually and temporarily Augustus held several at the same time – or at least held the powers associated with certain magistracies – and held these powers in perpetuity. By monopolising control over the army – also achieved through institutional means – he was also able effectively to quell any dissent. What we see here then is a cunning subversion of pre-existing Republican institutions to bolster up the his one man rule. Still, disentangling Augustus’ powers from his influence (Latin: “auctoritas”) and deciding which played the greater role in making him the first Roman Emperor is still a tricky issue.
The Greeks and Romans were also no strangers to the idea of outsiders trying to exert influence over the internal workings of political constitutions. Throughout the Peloponnesian War, which pitted Greek against Greek as the coalitions led by Athens and Sparta struggled for pre-eminence in the Aegean, both of those powers attempted to detach cities from their enemy and win them over to their side by installing governments of citizens favourable to their rule: in full acknowledgement that this is a gross-simplifcation – Athens tended to favour democracies, Sparta oligarchies. Toward the end of that war the Athenian government was itself overthrown temporarily and replaced by an oligarchic government of 400 upper class men who had been promised by the Persian King that he would donate funds to their cause on the condition that they ended the democracy – an investment that I am sure many modern non-dom CEOs could relate to.
In the event Athenian democracy was restored and Sparta won the war, herself making use of Persian financial support, and an even narrower oligarchy was installed at Athens who became known as the Thiry Tyrants because of their brutal and violent oppression of their opponents. Understanding configurations of power at the local level, therefore, often requires taking account of complex outside influences, thereby complicating further the task of working out who was really in charge in a given state at a given moment in time.
For Roman Greece, assessing the balance of power and influence is arguably an even thornier problem because of the nature of the evidence, which mainly comes from inscriptions. Cities throughout the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire tended to describe themselves in their official documents as democracies yet it is clear enough that small cliques of elite families monopolised key political positions such as magistracies and seats on local councils and were honoured with statues and other rewards for using their wealth to bestow benefactions – of grain, festivals, buildings etc. – on their communities. The prominence of these elite benefactors has been enough to persuade many historians that these so-called “democracies” were, in actual fact, “oligarchies” run by, and for the benefit of, these elite families. Political assemblies of citizens might still have met but their business consisted mainly of finding ways to honour these benefactors instead of debating issues of real importance. And what important issues were left to debate now that these cities were under the control of an empire and no longer free to wage war on one another? This largely pessimistic vision was for a long time the consensus view regarding the Roman period polis.
Recently, however, the tide has begun to turn and certain historians have begun to challenge this vision arguing that the Roman period poleis has suffered unfairly by comparing it to Classical Athens. They have stressed that even in Classical times no polis had as radical a democracy as Athens, where all male citizens could meet regularly to debate the issues of the day and were chosen by lot to occupy key magistracies. Many cities even then had been ruled by oligarchies and Athens itself, as an imperial power, severely limited the political freedom of around 150 Greek cities that it effectively ruled over. In Roman times, such scholars argue, the business of honouring benefactors was an effective means of choosing the men most suited to governing the local city and that important business did still have to be decided upon locally – management of the food and water supply, organising the religious festivals that were the lifeblood of civic life and choosing ambassadors to send to Rome to secure imperial favour. Inscriptions honouring benefactors were not displays of sycophancy but rather a way of advertising the power of the polis to decide which men (and more rarely women) were deserving of such honours. Such scholars have also drawn on passages in key literary sources that describe civic assemblies to argue that the level of participation in political life on the part of ordinary citizens remained high and that such meetings were characterised by a lively level of debate.
One of the key problems to do with Roman Greece is, therefore, that using exactly the same evidence, scholars are able to argue for two very different visions about where power was concentrated and where the dividing line between power and influence lay in the poleis of that time. The reason for the problem is easy to appreciate – if it is hard working out where power lies in our own society it is extremely difficult when the evidence we have is extremely patchy and largely concerned with one facet of political behaviour. If only we had transcriptions of what was actually discussed at political assembly meetings or lists of attendance figures then our impression might be clearer. Sadly we don’t. Faced with the enormous ambiguity in the evidence the debate seems to have become deadlocked with both sides defending their position yet doing little to convince their opponents.
The debate above all illustrates that “democracy” is a relative concept. I’m not sure that I’ve really completely made up my mind about where power lay in the Roman period Greek polis but if I generally find myself more sympathetic to the optimistic view that these were “real democracies” it’s perhaps because I’m largely pessimistic as to the extent to which power in our modern democratic system really is in the hands of the people. “People power” is, after all, the literal translation of the ancient Greek word. Even if power effectively was in the hands of the oligarchs in these cities, however, their rule still depended on a level of interaction with the rest of the population, which I would argue is unparalleled in pre-modern times. That in itself makes the question of how power operated in the Roman period polis a question worth asking.
To consider how power operates in 21st century Britain we need to look beyond elections and political parties to take account of the role played by the media and advertising in shaping opinion and to account for the potential influence of public figures like Rupert Murdoch and even Russell Brand. The same is true for the Greek city of Roman times. The honorific monuments that the poleis set up could be seen everywhere in public spaces such as marketplaces, gymnasiums, theatres and bathhouses – they educated people into the political realties of their time in the same way that The Sun, the BBC News, or Twitter do today. Looking at the impact of these monuments on the urban landscape – as opposed to merely analysing what the inscriptions inscribed on their bases have to say, which is where the emphasis in previous research has been – is, I believe, a useful way to move beyond institutional politics and to think about where power and influence in these cities really lay
It’s been a few weeks now since I posted anything here. I’ve been busy: trying to finish the book version of my PhD thesis (it’s getting there), studying for a German exam (I took it on Wednesday), preparing for a trip to Greece (I arrived yesterday!) and carrying on gathering evidence for my database on public monuments n Roman Greece. Apart from all that I’ve also allowed myself to get rather absorbed in the twists and turns of the never-ending election campaign: watching the debates – or the reality TV-shows David Cameron allowed us to have instead of debates – reading commentaries in the newspapers and avidly studying the polls trying to predict how any workable government is ever going to emerge from the messy situation we’ve arrived at. A big part of my research is to do with the nature of power in the ancient world and following the election closely has got me thinking a bit more about how power works in our own society.
What fascinates me most about the way the battle for Number 10 has played out over the last four weeks is just how far removed it all is from the way that the democratic process in theory is surely supposed to work. In theory we’re supposed to be faced with a choice of politicians and parties trying to persuade us that their policies are in the best interests of the country so that we can decide who we want to vote for. Instead the whole thing has taken on the character of an excruciatingly intricate game of strategy with each of the players trying to outmanoeuvre their opponents to gain the minutest of advantages. It’s clear that neither Labour or the Conservatives are really playing for a majority by this stage and there’s been a lot of speculation in the media about possible coalition arrangements once we get our inevitable hung parliament.
It seems to me, however, that the real stakes of the game are about a term that’s been thrown around a lot over the last few weeks but hasn’t really received the scrutiny it deserves, “legitimacy”. We don’t have any constitutional rules to cover the likely outcome of next week’s election and by precedent any government that can survive a vote of confidence in the Houses of Parliament would in fact be legitimate. However, Cameron and Miliband know that whatever other obstacles they might face in trying to put together a coalition, or in governing as a minority government, they are more likely to be seen as ‘legitimate’ by the public if they can achieve one, or ideally both, of two magic numbers – the most seats in the Houses of the parliament and the largest share of the popular vote. And to achieve that end various strategies have been deployed – information is withheld from the electorate, bribes are offered, all sorts of underhand tricks are resorted to. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of our two main parties is more guilty on that score.
Maybe it is naïve to hope that power should be contested on the grounds of ideas but I believe that ideal is at least worth striving for and this election is demonstrating how pitifully small a role the clash of ideas actually is actually playing in deciding who gets the keys to Downing Street. Even in last night’s Question Time, there was no real debate, no real discussion. The politicians predictably ducked and weaved, changed the subject, repeated well-worn platitudes and gave very few actual arguments that might change anybody’s mind – about anything. But even the questioners, much lauded in the press for their aggressive hard-line approach, weren’t open to discussion – they weren’t really asking questions in the hope of hearing answers. They were baying for blood and out to savage whichever of the leaders they personally disliked the most.
I find it very hard to believe that at this stage in the election there can really be as many undecided voters out there as there are supposed to be. I made up my mind who I wanted to vote for weeks ago and if the Question Time audience is as representative as it is supposed to be the Great British public are even more opinionated than I am. It’s almost as though we don’t want any real discussion of the issues anymore because we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that that isn’t really what matters in determining power in our democracy. We’d rather be steered by kneejerk reactions to Ed Balls having the gall to point out that that note was meant to be a joke (of course it was meant to be a joke as even David Cameron knows. Whether it was a funny joke is a different matter) or to David Cameron forgetting what day the election was on.
And if power in this country isn’t determined through discussion and disagreements over ideas the election is also making it abundantly clear how many other individuals, groups and forces do exert an influence on the whole process. Newspapers pursue an openly partisan agenda. The tabloids are of course the worst offenders, bombarding their readers with propaganda designed to tell them what to think and make them vote for the party that will best serve the interests of the moguls who run them. But even the broadsheets openly take sides in a way that would be unthinkable in the Netherlands, where I lived for fifteen years. And then there are of course the comedians, columnists, the Twitterati who’ve been courted, attacked or ostentatiously ignored over the last few weeks and who undoubtedly exert at least some subtle influence over the ways their followers and readers think.
Finally, and I believe, exerting the biggest influence of all over the political process are the various means by which everybody concerned is trying to predict everybody else’s behaviour. First there are the focus groups that the parties employ to try to devise tactics to achieve a maximal increase in their share of the vote for minimal effort (and if you want a powerful argument for just how pernicious a force focus groups are for modern democracy I highly recommend the Century of the Self films by Adam Curtis). Then there is the unending succession of polls, which seem to have arrived with daily frequency throughout the entire time the coalition has been in power, polls that I find deeply irritating and strangely addictive at the same time.
The first problem with our obsession with polling as I see it is that the polls themselves can play a big role in setting the terms of the debate through the types of questions they ask. A question like “which party do you trust more to manage the economy?”, when asked as often as it is cannot but reinforce the idea that the “economy” is the one issue above all others that we should be most concerned about. Asking the question “which leader do you think would make a better Prime Minister?” in no small way contributes to the increasingly presidential style of our politics. But an even bigger problem with the polls ask is what happens when everybody constantly knows – or at least believes they know – exactly how much support each party can count on. That, together with the constant analysis of the polls in the press, is arguably the biggest reason that the progress of all our political parties has become deadlocked and has barely shifted in weeks. Having arrived at what seems to be some sort of natural balance none of the parties are willing to take any more than the most minimal risks to upset that balance for fear that their opponents will be the ones to gain by it.
To return to my metaphor of the election as a game he whole thing reminds me very much of a very public chess match I once saw by the seaside in Greece. Two old men were playing on one of those enormous boards where the pieces are all waist high, surrounded by groups of other old men shouting them on as if they were at a football match and giving warnings about both players’ game plan. When spectators are shouting “Watch out for the bishop!” and “He’s three moves from checkmate!” it’s no wonder that the players become agitated – as these two men most certainly did – and no wonder that our politicians are doing the equivalent of moving their kings back and forth behind a solid row of pawns waiting for their opponents to make a mistake.
I can’t help wondering what Athenian democracy would have looked like if the Classical Greeks had had opinion polls. They didn’t need them, of course, because theirs was a direct democracy where citizens voted themselves on the issues of the day, with civic magistracies filled randomly by a sort of lottery, and only a few elections for the most important positions. They did, however, still have politicians, men who were more active than others in steering the course of policy. If ComRes or Ipsos Mori had been around at the time of the Persian Wars then Themistokles would still have been deliberating as to whether he should cautiously propose evacuating the city as the Persians poured over the walls and massacred the citizens. The story of what did actually happen is in Herodotus (or 300: Rise of an Empire presumably. I haven’t seen it) but even without knowing the story I think you can get my point.
Imagine how exciting the current UK election would be if polling was prohibited for the period after parliament has been dissolved. We might then have even less of an idea than we do now what next Friday holds in store for us. But we’d probably find our politicians were taking the risks that would give us a more decisive result than the one we’re almost certainly facing. Having only briefly mentioned the ancient world here, in a future blog post I want to talk a bit more about the nature of power and influence and in particular why working out who had power is one of the biggest problems and most controversial issues for understanding Roman Greece.
I’m actually in Greece at the moment, as I mentioned near the beginning of this piece. I will be travelling around over the next week visiting some sites and museums for my project. I’m also hoping to find time to write some shorter posts about some of the things I see and will definitely be posting some photos on Twitter. So watch this space!