Gordon Brown, classicist

Did the Prime Minister bungle the classical allusion at the end of his Citizens UK speech?

I blogged on The Staggers on Monday about Gordon Brown's remarkable speech, which ended with an allusion to Cicero and Demosthenes:

When Cicero spoke to the crowds in ancient Rome, people turned to each other when he had finished and said: "Great speech." But when Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece, people turned to each other and said: "Let's march!"

Someone called Jack Cunningham (not that Jack Cunningham, surely?) left a comment on the blog suggesting that Brown had in fact bungled the classical allusion, and that the correct comparison was not between Cicero and Demosthenes but between Aeschines and Demosthenes. It turns out there's been quite a bit of discussion among classicists in the blogosphere about this. There's a detailed exploration of the provenance of the story over at the blog Heresy Corner, where someone luxuriating in the title "The Heresiarch" starts by noting (and this is something I'd forgotten) that Brown has invoked Cicero and Demosthenes before: "at Michael Foot's funeral, in a Time magazine article about Barack Obama, at the 2008 Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops, even at a gay/transgender rights conference at Downing Street two years ago." He goes on to suggest that the anecdote continues to circulate in several distinct versions:

Demosthenes led the Athenian opposition to the rise of Macedonia under Philip and then Alexander, a policy that, given the reality of power in the second half of the fourth century BC was almost suicidal to his native city. Suicidal it would probably have been had his fellow citizens done as Gordon Brown asserted they did. On those occasions when the Athenians did march with Demosthenes they usually suffered catastrophic defeats. More often, though, they listened, cheered, and then paid heed to more cautious voices.

But where does the story come from? It's unclear. The version quoted by Brown has been sourced to a 1906 book about rhetoric William Jennings Bryan, where it is attributed to "someone". Bryan adds, "the difference being that Cicero impressed himself upon the audience, while Demosthenes impressed his subject upon them." But the anecdote exists in several other versions, too. Sometimes Demosthenes is replaced by Caesar - which makes more sense, given that Cicero and Caesar were contemporaries. But that would change the meaning to a contrast between the man of action and the man of words.

Alternatively, a version attributed to advertising mogul David Ogilvy contrasts Demosthenes with his greatest rival Aeschines, who may not have been as memorable a speechmaker but who proposed a more subtle accommodation with Philip's expansionism. The story may in any case be a modern summation. A favourite among business gurus, it's most often attributed to the advertising mogul David Ogilvy. And it ignores the fact that the Athenian citizenry often sided with Aeschines. In 343 BC Demosthenes accused his rival of taking bribes from the Macedonians and at the subsequent trial made one of his greatest speeches, which Bury described as "a triumph in the art of sophistry". Aeschines was acquitted.

Passing classicists are invited to leave their views on the question in the comments below.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.