The superficial hero-worship of Pericles – as well as other great men through history – is now a well-known element of Boris Johnson’s ever-fragmenting self-constructed public image. The bust of “the first citizen” of democratic Athens, as the historian Thucydides saw him, apparently sits proudly in the Prime Minister’s office at Number 10. It has also been claimed that Johnson often admiringly quotes the speech given by the Greek statesman to honour the dead after a year of war against Sparta.
It is undoubtedly Pericles’ delivery of a “golden age” for Athens is what excites this populist Prime Minister. Indeed, he most likely sees himself as a twenty-first century Periclean reincarnation. But commentators such as Sir Simon Jenkins saw straight through this in an article for The Guardian last year; after all, there are major elements of Pericles’ politics – such as respecting the balance of democracy – that seem to attract little interest from Johnson, especially if this week’s events in parliament are anything to go by.
Take the UK government’s Brexit plans, which are a blatant attack not only on the world’s largest trading bloc but the British democratic system. In particular, Section 46 of the Internal Market Bill gives authority to Westminster to override the various spending powers of devolved administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, if UK ministers judge them to be “directly or indirectly” beneficial to the UK.
Whereas Pericles encouraged Athenians to respect each other in terms of their difference in society, this Brexit Bill exposes how hellbent this government is on centralising power in the one place it respects: Downing Street.
The First Minister stated that it was “enormous power grab”. Adam Price cried that Wednesday was the “day devolution died”. Even Conservatives are nervous. On a Friday evening Zoom call, poor Robert Buckland, the Llanelli-born Justice Secretary, couldn’t face the prospect of addressing questions on the Prime Minister’s determination to maintain the “integrity” of the UK; The Times reported yesterday that he refused to unmute himself when pressed by one MP to explain the legal arguments behind the legislation.
It is particularly fitting that such an abomination of a Bill is debated this week, six years after Scotland voted to remain a part of the UK. For the SNP, 2014 must really seem like ancient history; IndyRef2, once an inconceivable political possibility after the nationalists lost six years ago, now appears a likely event this decade.
The re-awakening of Wales, by contrast, has been more sudden and perhaps more profound. Six months – six days even – has changed the relationship between the traditionally ‘good Brits’ with the UK too.
As well as the verbal assault from Wales’ political leaders toward the UK government, the Internal Market Bill prompted our nation’s last (sensible) unionists to finally depart the frontline of the Welsh political stage.
David Melding – with his printed resignation email to Paul Davies photographed for his newfound following on Twitter – resigned from the Shadow Cabinet shortly after details of the Bill were made public. Subsequently, Melding identified two options that now face Britain: to create a new union that may be able to keep the country together, or the break-up of our four nations into a confederate set of independent states.
With the UK government prioritising its Brexit ideology over the democratic integrity of devolved politics, the latter seems increasingly likely.
What was also telling this week was the failure of Welsh Labour to articulate how it would oppose an assault from the Conservative government. For a quasi-unionist party, Welsh Labour find themselves at the most difficult juncture of the party’s political history: with nationalists steadily gaining ground in the polls, and while the British government becomes more unpopular by the week, it must decide whether to embrace questions over self-autonomy or confine itself to the history books as the leading party of the devolved politics of Wales (c. 1999-2025).
An interesting development alongside the chaos was the Senedd report into more members for the Welsh parliament. A good and well-overdue measure, in my view. Of course, for the Conservatives, it’s again a sign of the Bubble’s tendency to promote bureaucracy rather than the “devolution revolution”. In reality, such calls may be irrelevant for a different reason: that the Welsh parliament continues to be undermined by a UK government that has little to no concern for democracy in our nation. In essence, more members would struggle to impact an institution that is already under attack.
But the change that has happened in Wales recently has occurred outside of the Senedd, and I suspect will continue to do so for the months ahead. Living through the effects of Brexit and particularly coronavirus has started to make the Welsh people reassess their traditional voting patterns and what is really in Wales’ interests. The latest uproar surrounding the politics of the Internal Market Bill is likely to reaffirm in the minds of the indycurious that things don’t have to be this way.
So perhaps Johnson is the reincarnation of his Athenian hero, after all. Although Jenkins points out that the Prime Minister bears a clearer resemblance to his successor, Alcibiades, Pericles had terrible diplomatic skills that culminated in the destruction of Athenian democracy.
The only advice Pericles took, coincidentally, was from those closest to him: primarily his powerful mistress, Aspasia. Actually, the similarities are uncanny. I suppose if the shoe fits, wear it Prime Minister.