Bloomsbury (2023) 304pp £20 (ISBN 9781399409681)

In this wonderful book we have a new Cicero for our times, a full-throated assault on autocrats old and new. Ferdinand Mount is no outsider, of course: he worked for Selwyn Lloyd and notably for Margaret Thatcher, and counts David Cameron as family. But his critique of ‘Caesarism’ is all the more compelling for that: he’s able to drill down forensically into the way each of these autocrats won and held the power they did.

He begins with Cromwell and Louis Napoleon, both serial dissolvers of Parliaments but skilful in their public relations, and bigged up by later biographers and historians. Yes, they governed efficiently and raised morale, playing to yearnings for misremembered harmony and a golden age, but as M. reminds us, underneath they were as brutal as they come.

What shouldn’t surprise us is that would-be Caesars don’t spring from nowhere. Civil war, tribal strife, border issues—all sorts of opportunities help them choose their moment but some succeeded only after numerous attempts. Portugal had 45 governments in 16 years before the long rule of Salazar; De Gaulle offered himself to the nation at least three times before his successful take-over.

Along with good timing, M. identifies at least two other keys to power. Charisma mattered far more than good looks (Franco, Mussolini and Churchill were short in that department as well as in stature), and especially the ability to play back to it an audience’s resentments, and therefore to get away with breaking the rules. Julius Caesar, we remember, flattered the Senate then broke into the Treasury.

And, pace Plato, they cultivated the art of the noble lie. Deliberate falsehoods helped persuade people to obey them. Machiavelli was bedside reading for, amongst others, Henry VIII, Charles V, Louis XIV and Hitler. Putin fibs heroically to his people. Trump took shameless lying to new heights or depths, telling his supporters literally thousands of porkies along the way.

M. takes us through some of the juicier coups and attempted coups. The Gunpowder Plot and Cato Street Conspiracy here, the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich (1923), Mrs Gandhi’s so-called Emergency in India (1975), and, of course, the march of Trump supporters on the US Congress in 2021.

But, like Cicero, he has always another target in his sights. In chapter after chapter he cannot resist coming back to Boris. The charge sheet is long and furious, and like the best of the Philippics, enjoyably overdone: the new press suite at No.10, his ‘Five Acts’ (Brexit, devolution, immigration, judicial review, voter ID—were they really more offensive than any of Blair’s?), firing Permanent Secretaries, diluting the Ministerial Code, and, presciently enough, lying to Parliament (M. wrote before the conclusive party-gate report).

These are nonetheless important warnings for our times: dozens of autocrats have seized power since the fall of the Soviet Union and the so-called ‘end of history’. Many started out as good democrats in liberal democracies, feted by the West, but slowly caught the autocratic bug, as we’ve seen in Turkey and Brazil. Pace Acton, they find that power is delightful but absolute power becomes absolutely delightful. Even removed from office, some autocrats can still threaten: both Trump and Johnson are out for the moment but by no means over.

Some absolute dictators get away with it, fewer still die in their beds. But autocratic leaders at least in democracies are accountable to Parliaments and public. True enough, most don’t succeed in the end. The Third Reich lasted twelve, not a thousand, years. De Gaulle had ten before his reforms were voted down. Johnson planned ten but survived just three. Autocrats who grab parliamentary power by semi-democratic means are still answerable to it. Boris was indeed a shocker but the House of Commons he abused brought him down in the end.

But M.’s big point, in this splendid treatise, is that bringing them down has a cost. It often damages the constitutional fabric in the process: unless we keep it in good repair, paying proper attention to parliamentary procedures and conventions, it may be easier for the next shocker to succeed.

 

Sir Michael Fallon
Defence Secretary 2014-17