What the Romans knew

The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both.

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Time was running out for Caesar, and it looked certain that he would miss the deadline for submitting his nomination. Naturally everyone expected that he would choose to triumph rather than become a candidate. Pompey had done that; every victorious general in Rome’s history had done it: there was surely nothing to equal the glory of a triumph. But Caesar was never a man to mistake power’s show for its substance. Late one afternoon….when the chamber was almost empty and the long green summer shadows were creeping over the deserted benches, into the senate house strolled Caesar. The twenty or so senators who were present could not believe their eyes. He had taken off his uniform and put on a toga.

Robert Harris, “Lustrum” pp 350, UK paperback edition.

 

Illustration – Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC production, “Imperium”, photo by Ikin Yum

It’s a “this changes everything” moment. In the dying days of the Roman republic, victorious generals were barred from running from political office for ten years after their return from the battlefield. The Senate knew the dangers of allowing charismatic, ambitious and brutal military superstars accompanied by their legions to run riot through the city. Instead, they were offered the ultimate prize of a triumph – a vast parade through the streets accompanied by their prisoners and spoils, and cheered on by the plebs relishing the show.  Any general who broke the rules and came into the city before his triumph had been granted was automatically debarred from having one. Some of them hung around for years waiting for their moment of supreme glory. Even the mighty Pompey accepted the rules.

Then Caesar came along and tore up the rule book. He had no right to wear a toga but he didn’t care. Within a month he had been elected consul and Rome’s slide into imperial dictatorship had begun in earnest.

It’s remarkable that Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy was completed a decade ago. But he’d already had a career as a political journalist and he knew that the mechanisms of regime change have historical precedent. It happens when someone gets strong enough to appeal to the people, condemn thoughtful and principled legislators as an out-of-touch elite, and mobilise the mob. And sooner or later there will be a reckoning, and the elite (who are, given the complicated nature of politics, generally morally compromised to at least some extent), will be told that their rules no longer apply.

Timothy Snyder has written a short but extremely powerful little book, On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, outlining the defining characteristics of this political shift. A key indicator is when the forces of violence protecting the candidate’s personal interests becomes identified with the powers of state coercion and control. Also vitally important is manipulation of the media, creating the climate when myth and symbolism take on their own life and are acknowledged as truth.

Hence the mighty power of the Roman triumph, that intoxicating display of ostentatious wealth and power, a combination of a May Day parade, the Mardi Gras, a reality TV show and a raucous political rally. Hence the Senate’s constitutional resistance to it. The triumph was the nuclear weapon of Roman populism, the gateway to mob rule. It is said that you can have Brexit and the NHS, but not both. To oversimplify somewhat, ancient Rome reached the point where it could have either an empire or a democratic republic. But not both. The pressures built up to the point where they were uncontrollable.

All fictionalised accounts of history have their drawbacks and have to be read with checks and balances in place. They are at best an interpretation of events, and Robert Harris is quite up-front about his use of dramatic licence. Having said all that, the ancient Romans seem to be having a moment right now, for obvious reasons, and Harris’s life of Cicero, told across three epic novels, is a riveting and thought-provoking read. It has recently been adapted into two very long but thrilling plays by the RSC, and I hope very much that a London production is immanent. I saw the plays first, but the experience would have been richer and more nuanced if I had started with the books.

Harris’s Cicero is all the more powerful for being flawed. Feted as the saviour of the Roman Republic after crushing the Catiline conspiracy, he succumbed to vanity and began to believe in his own personal mythos. This led to a series of errors of judgement which ultimately ruined him. All this is told through the devoted but clear-eyed perspective of Tiro, his slave, personal secretary and constant companion. Tiro was a real person – he invented a shorthand system to help him record Cicero’s orations and is known to have worked on a biography of Cicero, now regrettably lost. Harris’s imaginary recreation of it is a masterpiece and will take you deep into the sights, smells, sounds and adrenaline-fuelled chaos of ancient Rome. It might seem both alien and disturbingly familiar.

Ambition forced many men to become false, to have one thing hidden in their hearts, another ready on their tongue, to value friendships and enmities, not accordingly to reality, but interest, and rather to have a good appearance than a good disposition. These things at first began to increase by degrees, sometimes to be punished. Afterwards when the infection swept on like a pestilence, the state was changed, the government from the most just and best, became cruel and intolerable.

Sallust, The Catiline Conspiracy, Chap X

 

How Julius Caesar started a big war by crossing a small stream (National Geographic magazine article)

 

 

 

Why I Love Manchester

manchester-vigil-9-1495564396I am Manchester born and bred. My ties with this amazing place go back several generations and I have always been deeply proud of them. The way Manchester people have responded to the appalling events of this week has made me even more so. Briefly, since so much has been said elsewhere on this theme, I’d like to mention a few reasons why:

  • Community. Guy Garvey said once that we have it in our DNA. It really does feel that way. No big city is perfect, and it would be wrong to idealise, but there is a reason why Manchester people are known for their down-to-earth, practical kindness.
  • Diversity. It’s nothing new in Manchester. Elizabeth Gaskell was writing about globalisation in her novel North and South in the 1850s. We have established, flourishing, tolerated communities from all over the world. When my kids both lived at home it was like the United Nations on a Saturday afternoon in this house. We learned so much together. We continue to do so.
  • Solidarity. It boils down to a healthy defiance. Tony Walsh got it exactly right in his wonderful poem: We won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity. Manchester people don’t expect life to be a walk in the park. Our city was forged in an ethic of hard work. We recognise oppression and injustice and there’s a radicalism that fights back. In the American Civil War cotton workers here went hungry in solidarity with slaves.
  • Scepticism. Throw as much mud as you like, Westminster bubble – we know a thing or two about terrorism up here. The IRA blew up our city centre. Nobody condones that, but we’ve had a strong Irish community here since the 1840s so we’ve had to listen to both sides of that argument. It’s never simple. You can try to reduce it to slogans, but up here we have built-in shit detectors.

And finally, perhaps most important of all:

  • Culture.  Here in Manchester, a new entrepreneurial class forged the Industrial Revolution. They worked bloody hard and many of them came from humble origins. They took on the Establishment and looked them in the eye as equals. And they wanted the things that had been the preserve of the elite – a world-class  university, fine libraries, an international orchestra, culture. So they didn’t whine and say people had had enough of experts. They moved, and shook, and built those things. Today when you walk down Deansgate you see the neo-Gothic splendour of the John Rylands Library. Five minutes walk away from the Arena is the oldest public library in Britain. Manchester has always valued culture. We know the value of poetry, of music, of things that make the soul sing, whether it’s a great goal or Wonderwall.

Hate will not tear us apart. We’ve not idiots, and you can shut up now, Mrs May, because you’re wasting your breath.

 

 

 

 

 

Costa’s Brexit breakfast

I’m a regular at Costa Coffee, mainly because I’m lacto-intolerant and they do a very good soya flat white. But I felt rather depressed by their new summer menu when I popped in this morning. Is it really necessary to label a chicken and chorizo toastie, “Made with British Chicken” and to advertise on your bags that the coffee has been roasted in London? God forbid that we should drink anything foreign!

Have the marketing team come to the conclusion that too much Continental flavour will send their patriots down the road to Greggs?

 

The Divine Leader Does Cornwall

tmcornwall

Even by contemporary (ie, post-2016) standards there is something very worrying about the blatant stage-management of Teresa May’s election campaign. Journalists shut out, forbidden even to film her entering or leaving buildings, get-togethers filled with the Party faithful shamelessly promoted as meet-and-greet sessions, photographs of her surrounded by dead-eyed workers, their expressions a study in guarded neutrality more familiar from pictures of North Korea than beloved Blighty.

Is all this simple control-freakery? I think it’s even worse. I read it as a provocative statement of indifference, even contempt for, the democratic process. I can do what I bloody well like, it says, and you’ll still vote for me because all the other tossers out there are even worse. Go on, grumble about it. It won’t matter a hoot. I can be who I want, say what I like, treat you like utter shit but you’ll come crawling back for more.

And increasingly, even the party affiliation is being airbrushed out – this campaign is about May, it’s a dictatorship in waiting. She is merely the least incompetent option on offer. And our national indifference to our duties as engaged, democratic citizens, has brought us to this. Politics is left to the extremists and those on the make.

I have donated to More United. I hope they manage to make some kind of impact. I suspect that they won’t be able to dramatically change the outcome of this little lot, though I’d love to be proved wrong, but we must keep the flame of resistance alive, the hope of a better way. I know many people out there who are hungering for it. I may not live to see it (I’m 58 and these things can take a long time). But mine was the blessed generation, and anything I can offer to those after it is worth the investment.

Above all, we must not give up hope. People lived through the Holocaust, Stalinism, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, and that in the 20th century alone. Not all of them, but enough to rebuild, and not to lose hope.

 

What English schools will be like 10 years from now

It’s a funny in-between existence, being a school librarian. You’re a semi-detatched member of staff in many ways. A bit like being a governess in a Bronte novel, not quite upstairs but definitely not part of the servants’ hall – you get to sit in a corner, occupied with your metaphorical sewing, and hear a lot of what’s going on, and draw your own conclusions.

It’s generally best not to take sides, at least in public. Not to say anything that could be regarded as political. Social media is fraught with dangers. You observe the harried, basically decent and well meaning professionals around you with a mixture of pity, rage and growing despair. You realise how impossible the demands placed upon them are, how inadequate the resources available. I have seen three or four good people burn out over the last 10 years and need lengthy periods of sick leave. Sometimes they don’t return, sometimes they do but you feel they are only just managing.

I’ve been working with someone this week who is fantastically professional and good at her job, but so overwhelmed that she didn’t realise the school had £600 worth of commission vouchers to spend from previous book fairs. I’ve had to email an overdue letter to the school administrator to print out because there was only one person who could put toner in the school printer and they weren’t around. And the schools I’m working in are pretty good – in fact one was rated outstanding in the last Ofsted inspection.

I don’t think things can carry on as they are, and I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree with that statement. I do what I can, when I can, try to switch off, not to take too much work home, and not burn out. I also work vast amounts of unpaid overtime. None of this is at all unusual. Quite the reverse, in fact.

And here, quite simply, is where I think state education in this country is heading if the Tories win the next election.

The migrants are going home. That seems certain. We will need armies of English people to do their jobs, and it will suit the Government very well if those people are not very well educated. They are not just pushing through education cuts to save money. They want people who aren’t well-informed and won’t rock the boat. In 10 years time, ordinary working class kids will get a part-time education in classes of up to 120, learning literacy and numeracy by rote on-line. The software to facilitate this will be written by large multinational corporations, removing the need for experienced and qualified staff, at least in theory. That is just as well, because anyone who enjoys teaching and wants to do it well will find it soul-crushing to work in such a system, rapidly burn out and go elsewhere. This is already happening. Even those who stick around are likely to lose their jobs because, once experienced, they will be replaced by cheaper NQTs.

Academy chains are the ideal vehicle for this type of industrialised education. They are outside LEA scrutiny and will find it straightforward to replicate their soul-destroying formula, providing the basics at minimal cost and with minimal interference. There will be notable exceptions, places of innovation and passion, but most of these will be the preserve of the middle classes.

The only hope of escape will be top-up classes in everything else – science, arts, drama, basically anything other than the 3Rs. These will all be chargeable to parents. There may be some patchy scholarship-type provision financed by charities. But for most kids, that will be an impossible dream. As will a university education.

Anyone aspiring to a decent secondary education will have to get into a grammar school or go private. Kids don’t need GCSEs to empty bed pans or pick potatoes and strawberries. So why pay for them? Libraries and school trips will only give them ideas above their station. Special needs children will either have sharp-elbowed and determined parents or end up in institutions.

Far-fetched? I wish it was. But all the signs are already there. I can’t see any other way that the current trajectory of educational provision can end. I’m just glad that my kids are old enough to miss the worst of what is to come – although, as it happens, they could both well end up as teachers. And I hope to God I’m wrong, but unless young people wake up to what is happening and get out and agitate, protest and vote, I don’t hold out very much hope for the future.

 

Labour’s Education Dogma

The Labour Party’s new proposal to fund universal free school meals by charging VAT on school fees shows that the triumph of populist ideology over common sense is not limited to right-wing parties. I normally have a lot of respect for Angela Rayner but this piece of Corbynite dogma is both unfair and ineffective.

Not everyone who sends their child to a private school is a wealthy oligarch. The collapse of mental health services for children and the hollowing out of support staff by repeated rounds of education cuts mean that state schools are intolerable for a growing number of pupils. Even a special needs diagnosis is no longer a guarantee of the daily support that allows a vulnerable child to feel safe and confident in a pressured school environment. Many parents on modest incomes make huge sacrifices reluctantly to send such children to independent schools. They see their child falling apart and who can blame them?

If we really want to hammer elitism in education, it would make more sense to tackle the scandal of elite public schools being able to tax-dodge by defining themselves as charities and, of course, to call our Teresa May’s obsession with grammar schools for the divisive vanity project it is.

But I don’t just have issues with that side of this policy. I’m not sure free school meals for all are the best way to improve outcomes across the board either. Many of the children who would be entitled to them don’t like school meals, don’t want them and don’t need them. When the Liberal Democrats introduced the policy for KS1 children alone many schools struggled to upgrade their kitchens and recruit staff for the growing numbers – a situation that labour shortages post-Brexit is unlikely to make any easier.

It is undoubtedly true that far too many children arrive at school too hungry to behave themselves and concentrate in lessons. But a more effective way to help them would be to fund a nationwide network of breakfast clubs. That would help children who haven’t eaten properly since their free school meal the day before. Schools that have introduced breakfast clubs have seen significant increases in attendance and improvement in the behaviour and learning of their most disadvantaged children. They are an incentive for parents with otherwise chaotic lifestyles to get their kids into school, and can be introduced quickly and easily as part of wraparound care provision.

If Labour really want to tackle deprivation and its impact on children’s learning chances, this would meet the goal far more effectively than school dinners for the middle classes.

 

MLS and the Capita connection

I visited Peters Educational Booksellers at their huge warehouse in Birmingham yesterday – an absolute feast for anyone who loves to be let loose in what may well be the country’s largest children’s bookshop. I was interested and impressed to talk to them about the ways that they are increasingly taking the burden of book selection and processing off the shoulders of school staff, which can only be a good business move in these days of vanishing school librarians. They employ ten librarians who read and review every single book that comes in. I think they’re doing a great job at a reasonable price, and they’re nice, helpful people too.

I did, however, pick up one piece of information that worried me. For some time I’ve noticed a decline in the quality of service and technical support offered by Micro Librarian Systems. It’s still a good product of its type, probably the national brand leader, but they seem far more interested in flogging Reading Cloud to me, which would bump our sub up to an unaffordable £700 p.a. per site, than providing reliable day-to-day support on anything that isn’t sales-focussed.

Last year it took us literally months to import student data onto our system via SIMS, which should have been a straightforward process, and one we were paying a fee for. I also hit a brick wall when I tried to negotiate a joined-up cataloguing solution across our three school sites. I appreciate that in the case of pupil data there are safeguarding issues, so fair enough, but an integrated book catalogue would have saved us considerable amounts of time and money.

If MLS move to Reading Cloud being their default offering – something they publicly deny but which seems increasingly likely, my Trust will be faced with a formidable annual subscription of around £2K . I do not see how that can be sustainable in the current political climate.

I mentioned all this to a well-informed person in the industry who told me that Capita have recently taken over MLS, and suddenly a lot of things made sense.

Frankly, I wouldn’t want Capita anywhere near my organisation. They have a worrying record of screwing up outsourced data management contracts. Beloved by Tory state-shrinkers everywhere, their record over the last few years has included NHS IT disasters, the notorious outsourcing Barnet Council and links with ATOS. They already control the SIMS system used by many schools to manage their pupil data, and they are involved with Home Office deportations.

Some time ago it was reported that the Home Office were putting pressure on schools to inform on pupils whose parents might be illegal immigrants. Many parents refused to co-operate. If Capita are already running SIMS, whether the parents or teachers are on board is a moot point.

So information on the books borrowed by the children at the three diverse schools where I work is now directly linked to a company that helps to implement illegal and inhumane deportation policies, sometimes affecting people who have built productive lives and family relationships here lasting decades, and find themselves plonked in Singapore without a penny to their name. No doubt their “management solutions” also facilitate the decimation of public libraries in Barnet and elsewhere.

I don’t think I feel particularly comfortable with that. At the moment, short of recruiting an army of volunteers filling in index cards, I don’t see what option I have other than to continue with MLS until we decide they are unaffordable. But I can’t help hoping another serious player in school library hosting comes on the scene soon, and that hopefully they have a better track record on ethics.

Perhaps Peters could look into it.