The classical eye

The classical eye

Ancient brainfade: politicians of the past also had trouble trying to be ‘just like us’

Which football team do I support again? Andy Rain/EPA

David Cameron prompted considerable amusement over the weekend after indicating he supported West Ham United – supposedly, he’s an Aston Villa fan. The incident joins a litany of other inevitable stories of politicians trying to pretend they’re just like the rest of us. The more they come across as “ordinary blokes”, the belief seems to be, the more we’ll trust them to put our interests first.

Meanwhile, the media has fun spotting cracks in the facade. It’s an impossible game to win at, as shown by the story of Ed Miliband’s kitchens. Having been filmed in his kitchen (because what could be more “normal” than drinking tea with your wife in the kitchen?), he then gets criticised for having a shabby kitchen, and then mocked when it emerges that he in fact has two kitchens, and the other one is much nicer.

Similarly, we recently learned that Nick Clegg gets briefed on who’s who in the pop music world. If he doesn’t know who Ellie Goulding is, we’re encouraged to think he’s out of touch, but if he’s briefed, he’s desperate for approval. The irony is that the most “ordinary” position for a middle-aged man would be to have no clue about who their kids are listening to.

The only one with any skill at pretending to be “normal” is Nigel Farage, whose persona as a pint-drinking straight-talker greatly contributes to his popular appeal.

Classical counterparts

These stories reveal a lot about our expectations of politicians: we want them to be down-to-earth, but we’re suspicious if it goes too far (what sort of person doesn’t aspire to a nice kitchen if they’re on a good salary?). This tension as to whether politicians should be “like us” or not isn’t new. In classical Athens, the birthplace of democracy, we find the same issues.

Athenian politicians didn’t have to run for office, since public appointments in Athens (with the exception of military generals) were made by lottery rather than election. However, in a direct democracy where politicians put proposals directly to the people, popular appeal was of enormous importance. Indeed, the masses could vote to exile any politician who became too unpopular, a process known as ostracism.

Ancient conservatives like the historian Thucydides complain about the rise of demagoguery during the fifth century BC, and point the finger in particular at the politician Cleon. Cleon was an Athenian Nigel Farage: someone who based his success on playing the popular card. He presented himself as a straight-talking man of the people, and gave crowd-pleasing speeches. He criticised intellectuals and other politicians for being too clever by half, and claimed he represented the views of the man in the street.

But like Farage, who is privately educated and made his money as a city trader, Cleon’s “humble background” was part of his political persona. Although his family made its money in trade rather than being “old money”, he nevertheless came from an extremely wealthy background, and was by no means representative of the typical Athenian. We’re told that he was bullish and played to the crowd: the later historian Plutarch describes him as making rabble-rousing speeches where he shouted and slapped his thigh. The ancient sources mostly present Cleon as unpleasant and dangerous, but we need to take this with some scepticism, since it probably reveals more about the extent to which, like Farage, he threatened the establishment.

The Athenian Boris

At the other end of the scale was the politician Alcibiades. Unlike Cleon, Alcibiades came from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Athens: in modern terms, he’d have been born on a country estate and gone to Eton and Oxford – where he would certainly have been a member of the Bullingdon Club.

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure, 1791.

Yet unlike Cleon, Alcibiades made no attempt to pretend to be an “ordinary guy”. In fact, he took the opposite strategy and liked to draw attention to himself with flamboyant displays of wealth. We’re told of his luxurious lifestyle and his sense of entitlement: for example, when he wanted some interior decorating done, he allegedly imprisoned a famous painter inside his house until he’d done the job.

You might think that in a radical democracy, this would be a dangerous strategy, but the Athenians were fascinated by him. Alcibiades was attractive precisely because he didn’t pretend to be “like us”. He offered a flamboyant alternative to the run-of-the mill politicians and a sense of authenticity – you might not like him, but at least he wasn’t trying to pander to public opinion.

Perhaps the best modern analogy for Alcibiades would be Boris Johnson. Unlike Cameron, who unsuccessfully tries to act like an ordinary “Dave”, Boris makes no attempt to hide his privileged background and loves to use Latin tags. He cultivates an air of eccentricity and is famously prone to gaffes. The result is that people find him refreshing – and he has surprising appeal among voters who don’t normally vote Conservative. Recently there’s been talk about Boris being the Tories’ “secret weapon” and building on his popularity to gear up for a leadership challenge. But Boris needs to be careful, since Alcibiades came undone in the end. His maverick persona meant the Athenians didn’t trust him and he died in exile.

As these ancient examples show, the personae adopted by modern politicians are nothing new, as they tread a fine line between appearing more-or-less convincingly “ordinary” and maverick and out of touch. None of these personae (“ordinary Dave”, “man of the people” or “posh twit”) is without its risks, but we’ll see on May 8 which one convinces most this time.

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