In yesterday’s Grauniad, Martin Kettle turned to the Roman Republic for an anti-Brexit blueprint:
Those of us with only a smattering of knowledge about the ancient world know one thing about Cato the Elder. During Rome’s long wars against Hannibal, Cato ended every speech in the senate with the same words: “Carthage must be destroyed.”
“Brexit must be stopped” is unlikely to last as long as Cato’s catchphrase has managed to. But it focuses the mind. Those who think Brexit must be stopped are not the majority. But they have a case and a cause, and they are right. So how might stoppage be achieved?
Be clear whom you need to be talking to, play the long game and keep chipping away (“Remember Cato”); “the prize is immense – and Hannibal was not defeated in a day.”
Classical Allusion Fail Klaxon! Wrong Punic War; by the time Cato embarked on his relentless campaign to wipe Carthage off the face of the earth, Hannibal had been dead for decades. Moreover, while Kettle’s point about keeping up the pressure on public opinion may have some validity, the ends to which Cato dedicated his efforts suggest a different comparison might be more appropriate.
Carthage had been soundly defeated, and was no longer any sort threat to Rome, but Cato’s ideological obsession led to him to keep banging on about it; at first to reactions of bemusement and exasperated head-shaking, but gradually the drip of poisonous propaganda did its work and the discourse shifted, resulting in a completely unnecessary war that destroyed Carthage but also (according to many contemporary commentators) irretrievably discredited and damaged Rome itself.
Remind you of anything? We could even see Cato’s party trick with the Libyan fig (“DON’T GIVE A FIG? If a piece of fruit can make it to Rome in three days, how soon before we’re overrun by bloodthirsty barbarian rapists?”) as analogous to Johnson’s stream of fruit-based lies about the European Union and its alleged threat to British bananas – it may have seemed like a joke at the time, but too late we realised how the core of the idea had become embedded in public discourse. Carthage will always be a threat; the EU is the enemy of our sovereignty and prosperity. And so this is where we find ourselves…