Entertaining Boris Johnson
Or rather “Boris Johnson entertains”. For the Member for Henley came to the Classics Faculty today to give a seminar called “The Love of Classics” (his choice of title, not ours). BJ read Classics at Oxford – and is one of the keenest supporters of the subject we have. “Love” is hardly too strong a word.
Our idea in inviting him was to get him talking Classics to Classicists. This wasn’t to be a lobby on tuition fees, or university funding. No-one even mentioned Patrick Mercer who was being ejected from the Tory front-bench practically as we spoke. This was all about Rome.
My verdict? Well, it is only in a fit of madness that I would find myself actually voting for this endearing toff (even if I did live in Henley). But he passed this particular test pretty well. To put it another way, I ought to hate the guy – but, in fact, I cant help but think that he’s rather a good thing.
That’s not to say his Classics -- still less the practical politics -- were faultless. The idea that some new Council of Nicaea (a repeat of Constantine’s attempt to deal with Christian disagreements in 325) might be a way of solving current clash of civilisations was frankly dotty; and anyway, as someone pointed out to him, the Council of Nicaea itself hadn’t been an obvious success. And in general BJ’s view of the Romans was a touch too cosy for me: true, he made no bones about the violence that underpinned Roman imperialism; but he lingered rather more lovingly than I would on the advantages of Roman civilisation and, in particular, on Rome’s “generosity” in extending full citizen rights throughout its empire. Not an initiative that was followed by the British, he points out.
On the other hand, his questions about the “identity politics” of modern Europe were worth taking seriously. He talked about this in his book-of-the-tv-series, The Dream of Rome. Basically his idea is that we should think of Europe as lying within the boundaries of the Roman empire, and using the traditions of ancient Rome as its unifying cultural mythology. This is where much of our debate came. Could Greco-Roman culture really sell itself as a cultural glue for the Mediterranean basin and beyond? Or was it – at least, for the Islamic countries of North Africa -- forever tainted as a symbol of Western exploitation and imperialism? And where were the lines to be drawn. If the boundaries of the Roman empire bring Turkey into the European club (as BJ urges – pointing out, memorably if not wholly relevantly, that 15% of British fridges come for Turkey), then what about Israel?
Right or wrong on his Classics, BJ rose smartly to the spirit of the occasion. I began to understand why he has so many unlikely supporters – from middle-aged academics to twenty-something feminists and card-carrying Socialist Workers. It’s not just that he has a knack for a funny performance (though calling me “Professor Mary” throughout tickled the students no end). More to the point, I think, is that he doesn’t stand on ceremony (BJ just came and went on the train – and was, all in all, a lot less trouble than your average academic grandee). He seems to be prepared to take risks in what he talks about. He is happy to say he’s wrong (as he did several times this evening). And, for all the foppery, he’s very clever. It seems an absolute world away from the defensive party line of the Blair front bench.
Of course, I’m not quite as naïve as I sound about this. You don’t need to have learned much about classical rhetoric to know that casual informality can be as careful and contrived a pose as the most elaborate formality. And, as a friend pointed out later, David Cameron and co have found the admission of error a clever way to the people’s hearts (which is not likely to last when they actually form a government). For all I know BJ spends hours each day planning his next piece of clever and outrageous spontaneity or witty apology.
All the same he does a lot more for me than Hazel Blears.