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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

AN AUDIENCE IN ATHENS, WILLIAM BLAKE/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Revenge of the Greats

Today, few teenagers learn Latin or Greek. But would we understand the world better if we read and studied classics?

On a blustery evening in November, more than 2,000 people flocked to Central Hall in Westminster, London, to watch a debate between Boris Johnson and Mary Beard about classics. The “Greece v Rome” debate was never supposed to have been that big. When the discussion forum ­Intelligence Squared announced the event in March, it planned for 1,000 tickets at £50 each. They sold out in three weeks. Relocating the debate from a smaller auditorium to the large hall at Westminster, the company released a further 1,200 tickets. When these, too, were snapped up three days later, an arrangement was made to stream the event on Curzon Home Cinema.

Forty years ago, the idea that classics would become so embedded in mainstream culture that crowds would turn out for this debate as if it were a pop concert would have been ridiculous. Latin, already unfashionable by the 1960s, was squeezed out of many schools with the introduction of the National Curriculum from 1989. By the early 1990s, classics was commonly being dismissed as a stale and arcane subject, beyond the reach or interest of anyone outside the old public schools or Oxbridge.

Now all that has changed. For classicists, that the Boris v Beard contest was taking place at all was proof that their subject is thriving. The Greeks invented the agon (contest); the Romans prized oratory above almost anything else. Both Beard and Johnson knew they owed a significant debt to the rhetoric of Demosthenes and Cicero.

This was, in fact, the second chance the public had had in recent months to ponder the merits of two extinct cultures. The Bloomsbury Institute staged its own agon to a full house in October, as the writers Harry Mount and Harry Eyres debated the superiority of Greece (Mount) and Rome (Eyres).

The debates followed a season of Greek drama, talks and 12-hour readings of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, hosted by the Almeida Theatre in London, out of which came a West End transfer for Robert Icke’s version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Plays inspired by the same tragic trilogy were performed in the past few months at Shakespeare’s Globe and HOME in Manchester. On the Roman side, books by Tom Holland, Robert Harris and Mary Beard have become bestsellers.

The mystery is, why now? That Boris, Beard and others have achieved a platform from which to popularise the ancient world can’t be the only explanation for this revival. Tristram Hunt has a thing for Victorian architecture. So far, there’s no fan club for portes cochères.

Although classics also peaked under the Third Reich, the Nazis championed Rome, Sparta and Greek figurative sculpture because they considered them worthy of emulation, rather than as entertainment. Taken to represent the ideals of human virtue and beauty, Greek statues (white, as the original colour paint did not survive) were placed in stark opposition to modern “degenerate” art, which was purged from German museums and held up to public censure at the notorious exhibition of 1937.

The following year, Hitler purchased an ancient Roman sculpture of a discus-thrower, based on the bronze Discobolus of the Greek sculptor Myron, as a gift to the nation. Urging the German people to visit it at the Glyptothek museum in Munich, Hitler spoke of achieving progress “when we have not only achieved beauty like this, but even, if we can, when we have surpassed it”.

A version of the same sculpture went on display at the British Museum in London this year as part of an exhibition dedicated to the Greek aesthetic. “Defining Beauty” provided a showcase – visited by more than 100,000 people – of Greek and Roman craftsmanship, as well as of contemporary thought about the past. In a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Edith Hall of King’s College London challenged the curator Ian Jenkins’s decision to display Persians and Africans in a section of the exhibition tagged “Characters and Realism”, rather than “Beauty”. This division, she felt, carried an uncomfortable echo of Aryanism. But was that to impose too modern a view upon it?

There is a growing school of thought that says that classicists have been too binary in their approach to the ancient world. What if it is never about Greece v Rome? What if the dividing line between Greeks and “other” people – Persians, Africans – was not clear enough for us to value “Greek” beauty or “Greek” anything else so exclusively?

In a debate between Greece and Rome, Boris might delight with his wit and intellectual gravitas. Beard, marshalling the techniques that made Cicero and Quintilian famous, might dazzle with her elocutio (rhetorical style) and glitter-flecked cardigan. But if ­either side gives the impression that the competition stops with Greece and Rome – or, indeed, with Greek and Latin – it runs the risk of being distinctly unfashionable.

***

Many of the people at the Boris v Beard debate had come to the subject through English rather than Latin and Greek. It is fair to say that these languages have suffered tremendously in our time, and are only now beginning to flourish again. After five centuries as a mainstay of British classrooms and self-education books, Latin was already falling out of favour in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when some teachers (not to mention pupils) were heard grumbling about the endless hours of grammar. Thomas De Quincey even cursed the text used to teach Latin at Eton for having caused “more human suffering than Nero, Robespierre, or any other enemy of the human race”.

That knowledge of Latin used to be prerequisite for studying at the top universities, including Oxbridge, helped to fuel its elitist image. In her 1933 memoir, Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain described vividly her attempts “to tussle, often lacrimoniously, with mathematics and Latin” in preparation for her examination to read English at Somerville, Oxford. Had she been applying in 1960, she would have been relieved of the strain, because that was the year in which both Oxford and Cambridge dispensed with Latin (or knowledge of it) as an entry requirement for non-classics candidates.

This decision was thoroughly in tune with the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s. Latin lessons were still heavily dependent on old-fashioned grammar drills, which had less obvious purpose in the modern world than the more hands-on approach of the vocational subjects. In 1960 it was decided that Latin would no longer be obligatory at O level.

The next great blow to the languages came with the Education Reform Act 1988, when Kenneth Baker was secretary of state for education and science. This law brought in the National Curriculum, which ring-fenced ten “core” and “foundation” subjects to fill much of the weekly timetable in comprehensive schools; Latin was not one of them. The classical subjects had to compete for attention against several other non-core subjects in the few periods left available.

Between 1965, when Harold Wilson was in his first term as prime minister, and 2000, entries for Latin A-level fell from 7,901 to 1,237 and those for classical Greek from 1,322 to fewer than 200, with state schools enduring the most precipitous drop.

“The Greeks had far more words to play with than Latin,” said Boris Johnson during the debate at Central Hall, “including rhaphanido-o [to insert a radish in the anus], which was something involving a vegetable, and they had all those wonderful short words . . . how did the Romans manage without ge [‘well, then’]”?

It is shocking to learn how few now can read those brilliant words of Greek. Across all schools in England last year, there were only 253 entries for classical Greek at A level. Latin is faring better, partly because measures to modernise the subject have been in place for longer. After the crisis of the 1960s, and under the aegis of two new organisations, the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT) and the Cambridge School Classics Project (CSCP), Latin lessons were thoroughly transformed. Pupils began to study Latin using lively textbooks including a series peopled by an affable banker named Quintus Caecilius Iucundus and the various members of his household, who spend their daily lives in triclinio (in the dining room) and in horto (in the garden). There is far less emphasis now on reciting verbs and on prose composition. At the beginning of this decade, I worked for JACT as an executive officer and trustee, and watched as the numbers of pupils taking up Latin rose steadily.

Approximately 50,000 pupils now start to learn the language every year, with the number of non-selective state schools offering the subject even higher than that for independent and selective state schools combined – 553, compared to 515. In the region of 11,500 pupils take the Latin GCSE in England and Wales, and in England last year there were 1,285 entries for Latin A-level. Where it has been harder to recover the numbers is at A level in the state sector.

Most young people in state schools now study classics in quite another way. Indeed, if the new popularity of the ancient world owes something to the number of people exposed to the languages at school, it also owes much to the rise of ancient history and classical civilisation as subjects in their own right. In 2013, 3,580 state-school students took these subjects for A-level – far more than those who opted for Latin or Greek.

The truth is, these pupils often have little choice. To work in the state sector, teachers usually require a qualification such as the PGCE. Currently, owing to a lack of staff able to teach it, the classics PGCE is on offer only at Cambridge, King’s College London and Sussex universities. There are 46 places in total. The number of classics teachers retiring each year often exceeds the number being trained. Part of the appeal of classical civilisation and ancient history is that they can be taught by staff from the English and history departments, because no Latin or Greek is required. The thinking is that some classics is better than none.

Much has been invested in this so-called democratisation of classics. When OCR (the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA exam board) threatened to discontinue ancient history as a stand-alone A-level in 2007, there was a huge protest outside parliament. But it is not quite the coup that it seems. Anyone who wants to go on to teach in a university classics faculty is likely to come unstuck if he or she lacks proficiency in both Latin and Greek. Departments depend on their junior staff and doctoral students for language teaching. As things stand, the next generation of classics scholars is likely to be drawn predominantly from those who have had the opportunity to excel in the languages. The legacy of the Boris v Beard debate may just be the most important thing about it, because a percentage of the ticket proceeds will go to Classics for All, a new charity dedicated to introducing Latin and Greek to comprehensive schools.

***

The drive against elitism in classics education has helped to shape a new acceptance of the importance of the ancient world. There were nothing but murmurs of agreement and support when Boris Johnson praised Greece for having given birth to “people power” – meritocracy, democracy – and Beard attributed to Rome the beginnings of the debate we are still waging over the limits of civil liberty. No less egotistic than Homer’s heroes, we happily impose our lives upon those who came before us, in the hope of affirmation. Studying the Roman Republic is no longer seen as a self-indulgent exercise, but as a means of understanding how precarious political alliances can still be. Archaeological museums pose a fun challenge to the idea of modern progress by displaying Roman colanders, cake-pans and ladles that could come straight out of the Lakeland catalogue.

The Trojan War has lived on as the touchstone of human experience. The Homeric epics continue to draw us back into the debate, not so much between war and peace as between the two parts of the self. Achilles, the most formidable Greek warrior of them all, could place great store by his own sense of worth and the “meritocratic indignation”, as Johnson brilliantly put it, of having to bow to the authority of an inferior man – but when his comrades were falling around him, we now wonder, what sense was there in pursuing glory? The very survival of Homer’s epics is yet testament to the immortality of the fallen. The “catalogue” of men who fought in the Iliad was the equivalent of the modern war memorial.

The ancient sources, so temptingly scanty and malleable to interpretation, appeal as much to military strategists as they do to authors and screenwriters. At the start of the Cold War, the then US secretary of state, George Marshall, read the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, convinced that the events of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens were worthy of review in those unprecedented times. Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is still studied at many military academies, including West Point, the Command and Staff College of the US marine corps, and the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Recruits at some army and naval colleges are encouraged to study what the text has to say about strategic leadership, garnering support in a protracted war and the impact of biological warfare. The “Melian Dialogue” is considered particularly important, containing as it does the Athenians’ justification for conquering Melos in what was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the late 5th century BC. Whether Thucydides should be taken as an exemplary model is another question entirely.

Also known to have studied Greek military texts are Colin Powell and David Pet­raeus, whose fall from grace in 2012 after the revelation that he had leaked classified information to his mistress has often been couched in Sophoclean terms. It did not go unnoticed at the time that “Petraeus” was the name of a centaur, a half-man, half-horse figure of Greek myth, renowned for his sexual appetite.

Performed in translation, the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides continue to provide a powerful lens through which to examine modern conflicts. In a recent book, the director Bryan Doerries describes his work with Theater of War, a travelling drama collective that performs Sophocles’s most intense explorations of the psychological impact of war, Ajax and Philoctetes, for US soldiers and veterans. In Amman in 2013, a group of female refugees from Syria performed a version of Euripides’s Trojan Women. Here in London, the Almeida Oresteia took its cue from the Iraq War. If the truths of Greek tragedy are often more penetrating than those in the history books, it must be because they prove their strength by emerging so remarkably intact from the emotional, sometimes irrational, situations out of which they are born.

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The new classical revival is joyous, but it is one grown in no small part out of tragedy. We are in a better position now than we were 50 years ago to understand why there is nothing arbitrary about the links that modern playwrights, novelists, scholars and strategists draw between ancient Melos and modern Syria, or Greece and modern Iraq.

“I’m afraid in many ways the Romans were bastards,” Boris Johnson said, conceding that, for all their valour, the Greeks ultimately succumbed to Roman brutality. “The fact is all ancient cultures were horribly brutal by our standards,” Mary Beard said, accepting his point that the Romans carried out public floggings, punishment of adulteresses, and the sacking of Corinth in 146BC, when their legionaries looted Greek sculptures and “used priceless pictures to play chequers on” (a paraphrase of the Greek historian Polybius). Horribly brutal, but sadly familiar.

Palmyra now lies in ruins. The site in modern Syria, an erstwhile Roman province, was once a trading post between East and West. On its magnificent sculptural relief panels were men dressed in a combination of Greek and Persian clothes. There was Hellenistic and Roman architecture, precincts dedicated to Phoenician, Aramaean and Mesopotamian gods.

A new exhibition on Egypt at the British Museum, “Faith After the Pharaohs”, has been carefully curated to illustrate a similar point. In the pages of manuscript and fragments of fresco lies evidence of the fruitful possibilities of syncretism and coexistence between the pagan worlds of antiquity, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. If a survey of classical history seldom offers such a rosy picture, these artworks and texts still provide a crucial space to debate what it means to
value one culture at the expense of another.

While not doing down the achievements of the Greeks and Romans, we are no longer in a position to forget that the “East” wasn’t just at the mercy of West, waiting to be brain-drained or reduced. It has, in short, become deeply unfashionable to conceive of “classics” as the history of the West. There is considerable interest now, for instance, in recognising the influence of Persia (modern Iran) on “Greek” culture. It is telling that the Oxford classicist and Byzantinist Peter Frankopan chose to begin his “new history of the world”, The Silk Roads, with the rise of the Persian empire, not Greece. We are, after all, seeing again the importance of the networks through which Greece and Rome both flourished and declined.

It is and always was about more than Greece and Rome. The Greeks enjoyed assimilating the ideas of their neighbours. The Romans led the way when it came to granting asylum. Their inclusivity and magnanimity in awarding citizenship to people as far afield as our own remote shores seemed to be what swayed the audience to give Rome 56 per cent of the vote in November at the London debate. Whether unconsciously or for the pure thrill of it, thousands of years after Greece and Rome first made the world that little bit smaller, we are finally doing something to repay the debt.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” and “The Poems of Catullus: a New Translation” will both be published on 28 January by William Collins

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special