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Big Caesars and Little Caesars by Ferdinand Mount review – rogue’s gallery | History books

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One by one, the toxic giants have come crashing to earth. In the last month or so Boris Johnson has quit, Donald Trump has been arraigned on felony charges, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi has died, and even Vladimir Putin looks significantly weaker than he did. It’s sorely tempting to conclude that the chaotic ride of recent years is finally over, and life might return to something more like normal.

But that, according to Ferdinand Mount’s absorbing tour of populist rogues through the ages, would be a rookie mistake. It may be comforting to think of so-called Caesars – a type of leader defined by what Mount calls his (and it’s mostly, though not invariably, his) “relentless egotism, his lack of scruple, his thoughtless brutality, his cheesy glitz” and above all his loathing of democratic checks and balances – as freakish aberrations from a generally orderly norm. But trace the line from ancient Rome to Oliver Cromwell, from Napoleon Bonaparte to modern-day strongmen, and it becomes obvious that they are a regularly recurring phenomenon for which nations just as regularly fall, and from which they don’t recover overnight. “These ill-starred comets,” Mount writes, “leave a long trail of debris.” But they also have something to teach us about stopping the next Caesar early.

Few are better qualified to take the long view than Mount, the sort of Tory who has done everything – run Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit, been political editor of the Spectator – and knows everyone, without feeling the need to go on about it endlessly. He is also the sort of Tory who voted remain, believes in rules-based world order, and writes skilfully enough to get away with comparing Julius Caesar’s public agonising over whether to cross the Rubicon – and thus start a war that risked destroying the Roman empire – with Johnson’s famous writing of two articles on Brexit, one for and one against. (The original Caesar, he argues, never seriously wobbled; he just wanted to suggest that he’d been nobly wrestling with his conscience when in reality he was always going to do what suited him best, ditto our former prime minister. One can’t help feeling the classicist in Johnson might have loved this book, were it not so rude about him.) For conventional politicians, Mount notes, charisma can be a useful communications tool. But in a Caesar’s hands, the ability to dazzle his way out of trouble becomes “a licence to go beyond, to break the rules … he is beyond good and evil, and beyond a lot of other boring stuff too”. The true Caesar, Mount writes, feels “dangerously free”.

Admittedly, one or two of the historical comparisons feel like something of a stretch. But the power of this needle-sharp book lies in the acuity of its observations and in its ability to zoom out and see modern politicians in broader context, bringing something both fresh and timeless to an otherwise well-worn subject. When it first crossed my desk, I wondered if the world really needed another book on the dangers of populism. Then Johnson resigned and unleashed a Trumpian attack on the MPs who found him guilty of lying, and I wondered whether you can’t have too many. Every MP should be made to read its rousing final chapter, on the importance of a properly muscular and sovereign parliament in defending democracies against Caesarism.

For if the five acts he identifies as Johnsonian assaults on democracy – including attacks on the civil service, curbs on the right to protest and bringing in compulsory voter ID for elections, which Mount sees as outright voter suppression – haven’t exactly turned Britain into a police state yet, laws like this remain on the statute book long after their author is gone. Even if the last Caesar refrained from exploiting them fully to his advantage, the next one might not, and history suggests that there is always a next one.

Mount is right; the point isn’t whether Johnson, or Trump for that matter, can successfully come back themselves. It’s that what they represent will always be back, sooner or later, and democracies must be ready for it.

Big Caesars and Little Caesars by Ferdinand Mount is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


One by one, the toxic giants have come crashing to earth. In the last month or so Boris Johnson has quit, Donald Trump has been arraigned on felony charges, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi has died, and even Vladimir Putin looks significantly weaker than he did. It’s sorely tempting to conclude that the chaotic ride of recent years is finally over, and life might return to something more like normal.

But that, according to Ferdinand Mount’s absorbing tour of populist rogues through the ages, would be a rookie mistake. It may be comforting to think of so-called Caesars – a type of leader defined by what Mount calls his (and it’s mostly, though not invariably, his) “relentless egotism, his lack of scruple, his thoughtless brutality, his cheesy glitz” and above all his loathing of democratic checks and balances – as freakish aberrations from a generally orderly norm. But trace the line from ancient Rome to Oliver Cromwell, from Napoleon Bonaparte to modern-day strongmen, and it becomes obvious that they are a regularly recurring phenomenon for which nations just as regularly fall, and from which they don’t recover overnight. “These ill-starred comets,” Mount writes, “leave a long trail of debris.” But they also have something to teach us about stopping the next Caesar early.

Few are better qualified to take the long view than Mount, the sort of Tory who has done everything – run Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit, been political editor of the Spectator – and knows everyone, without feeling the need to go on about it endlessly. He is also the sort of Tory who voted remain, believes in rules-based world order, and writes skilfully enough to get away with comparing Julius Caesar’s public agonising over whether to cross the Rubicon – and thus start a war that risked destroying the Roman empire – with Johnson’s famous writing of two articles on Brexit, one for and one against. (The original Caesar, he argues, never seriously wobbled; he just wanted to suggest that he’d been nobly wrestling with his conscience when in reality he was always going to do what suited him best, ditto our former prime minister. One can’t help feeling the classicist in Johnson might have loved this book, were it not so rude about him.) For conventional politicians, Mount notes, charisma can be a useful communications tool. But in a Caesar’s hands, the ability to dazzle his way out of trouble becomes “a licence to go beyond, to break the rules … he is beyond good and evil, and beyond a lot of other boring stuff too”. The true Caesar, Mount writes, feels “dangerously free”.

Admittedly, one or two of the historical comparisons feel like something of a stretch. But the power of this needle-sharp book lies in the acuity of its observations and in its ability to zoom out and see modern politicians in broader context, bringing something both fresh and timeless to an otherwise well-worn subject. When it first crossed my desk, I wondered if the world really needed another book on the dangers of populism. Then Johnson resigned and unleashed a Trumpian attack on the MPs who found him guilty of lying, and I wondered whether you can’t have too many. Every MP should be made to read its rousing final chapter, on the importance of a properly muscular and sovereign parliament in defending democracies against Caesarism.

For if the five acts he identifies as Johnsonian assaults on democracy – including attacks on the civil service, curbs on the right to protest and bringing in compulsory voter ID for elections, which Mount sees as outright voter suppression – haven’t exactly turned Britain into a police state yet, laws like this remain on the statute book long after their author is gone. Even if the last Caesar refrained from exploiting them fully to his advantage, the next one might not, and history suggests that there is always a next one.

Mount is right; the point isn’t whether Johnson, or Trump for that matter, can successfully come back themselves. It’s that what they represent will always be back, sooner or later, and democracies must be ready for it.

Big Caesars and Little Caesars by Ferdinand Mount is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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