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19 April 1999

If Blair is Caesar, who is Brutus?

Stephen Dorrell advises the PM to re-read his Shakespeare, and ponder the lesson that mighty rulers

By Stephen Dorrell

The success of Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth has rekindled public interest in England’s golden age. But our continuing fascination with Elizabethan England and our respect for Shakespeare’s dramatic genius is sometimes in danger of blunting the sharp edges of his political satire.

Shakespeare was as much a social commentator as an entertainer. He used Julius Caesar to parody the court of Elizabeth, but politics is a timeless activity and many of his barbs still find their target today as surely as they did in 1599.

Tony Blair is no more a Julian tyrant than Elizabeth was (though both Blair and Elizabeth adopted a “Caesar cut” hairstyle). But that is not the point. Like all satirists, Shakespeare hit his mark by exaggerating a basic truth.

The play was written at a time when Elizabeth was all-powerful. She had closed the House of Commons because it refused to raise taxes and was gradually drawing more and more power into her own hands. She increasingly saw herself as the personification of the nation state. Just as Caesar was contemptuous of the pettiness of republican politics, Elizabeth had become impatient with the obstruction of the House of Commons.

The contemporary parallels are obvious. Parliament is being bypassed and ignored, cabinet members are not involved in or consulted on decisions, and the Prime Minister’s views are clearly the defining political influence in his government.

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But Blair’s exposed position within the power structure of the Labour Party is his principal weakness. He should remember that the true hero of Julius Caesar is not Caesar but Brutus. It is Brutus’s deliberations and decisions that most hold our inter- est and resonate today. A man of great probity and integrity, he slew the dominating personality of his age. To preserve the republic, he committed the most undemocratic act of them all – murder.

Opposed to Caesar’s machinations to make himself dictator, Brutus reluctantly came to the conclusion that the way to preserve the greater good was to compromise his principles. It is this dilemma that must resonate within the Labour Party today.

There must be many members of the Labour Party who support the Labour government, but who have grave reservations about the actions and policies of new Labour. Soon they will have to resolve their own dilemma: should they support the government, many of whose actions they vehemently oppose, or should they act against their leader and hold true to their personal beliefs?

Caesar failed to appreciate the feelings of his supporters and alienated his loyal and principled backers. Some politicians will plot and manoeuvre in any circumstance – “lean and hungry men” like Cassius – but it is when loyal lieutenants, such as Marcus Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all”, lose patience with the leadership that coups succeed. Ask Geoffrey Howe.

Who is the modern-day Brutus? Like Brutus, Gordon Brown and John Prescott both have a political constituency outside the leader’s court, and are regarded as principled men powered by the most honourable of motives.

As Blair departs further from the principles of his party he will increasingly alienate people like Brown and Prescott. Brutus was central to the success of the conspirators – by alienating him, Caesar would be signing his own death warrant.

The lesson of Julius Caesar is surely that regardless of how popular, charismatic or powerful leaders may appear, their hold on power is always tenuous and relies to a large extent on the support of those around them. Leaders who see the pursuit of power as an end in itself will isolate themselves and make themselves vulnerable to attack.

Tony Blair should perhaps remember this during his next cabinet meeting.

Stephen Dorrell MP was secretary of state for health in John Major’s government. He will be speaking at the “Speak-shaker” event, hosted jointly by Charter 88 and the Globe Theatre, at Middle Temple Hall, London, on 21 April. Ring 0171-401 9919 for tickets