Axe the Ministerial Cars

 red boxMinisters don't fear being recognised, they fear not being recognised or being confused with someone  
Sometime in the next 18 months, people are going to be groping for ways to sum up what was so wonderful about the new Tory government. They will be trying to convey just what it was about the new Cameron administration that gave everyone that feeling of minty freshness. Why, they will say, was that long-delayed election like jumping into a lovely mountain stream on a hot summer day? In these days of financial hardship, there will be a huge media appetite for those small symbolic acts that somehow defined the ethic of the nation's new masters. Everyone will want to see which sacred cows are slaughtered, which vested interests are taken on, which received wisdom is scrapped. So today I take as my text some gloomy reflections by the late Alan Clark MP, who wondered quite what he and his fellow government ministers were doing with their lives, sitting in the back of their ministerial Rovers and contracting brain cancer while talking on their mobiles to their mistresses. As ever, Clark had a point. If George Osborne wants to create a new aroma for the incoming Tory administration – that hates, hates, hates wasteful public spending – then he should pick up his axe and chop the ministerial car.   Continue reading Axe the Ministerial Cars

Ancient Greece : Themistocles

(Original of August 26, 2009, revised November 16 by 'The Other Pericles')

Boris Johnson has spoken of the contribution a knowledge of the classics can make to understanding our own times. In the modern political world — as in the ancient — the same theme is played out again and again … with the same characters : political leaders that let power go to their heads and then pay the price (although that price is oft paid in larger measure by those they lead). It’s not all bad news, however, for Greek history is also full of inspirational stories.

Over the next few weeks we shall post a series of small articles on the ancient Greek world, a phase of human history from which we can still learn.

For other posts in the series see the Index.

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The fleet of triremes

Themistocles was an Athenian general and politician, who had fought at the Battle of Marathon in 490 (unless otherwise stated or implied by the context, all dates are b.c.). Unlike most leaders of his day, he was not of noble birth but drew his support from the lower classes. Realizing that, if the Persians attacked Athens again by land, they would be practically insuperable, he resolved to defeat them by sea and persuaded the Athenians to build a fleet of triremes.

Designed for close combat and constructed from soft woods — mainly pine and fir (the latter being preferred for its lightness) with larch and plane used for interior parts — the trireme had the advantages (over the Persian ships from the Levant) of speed and manoeuvrability.

A common tactic was for the trireme to brush along the side of a bigger ship, snapping off that vessel’s oars and rendering her immobile. A trireme could ram an enemy ship like a guided missile but was expensive to build. In 484, however, a vast amount of silver was discovered in the mines at Laurium. This would normally have been divided equally amongst all Athenian citizens, as indeed advocated by Aristides, but Themistocles wanted the money to build his navy.

To tell the Athenians bluntly that this fleet was needed to repel the Persians would have caused undue disquiet ; Themistocles therefore dissembled : he played a complex bluff -– saying that the ships should be built to defend against their local rival, the small island of Aegina, rather than the Persians. It was a mark of his skill as a politician that he persuaded the Athenians to build the greatest naval force in Greece.

Xerxes plans revenge

King Darius of Persia had died ; his son Xerxes, who had vowed to avenge the Persian defeat at Marathon, assembled a mighty army, rumoured to number two million men (Herodotus reported 1.7-million ; recent scholars suggest a figure closer to 200,000 ; an overwhelming force none the less). In 480 news reached Athens that the Persian army was marching on Athens. Terrified Athenians turned for advice to the Oracle at Delphi.

The message from Apollo was not encouraging : the battle “would bring death to women’s sons” ; only “the wooden wall” would save the Athenians.

Amid increasing desperation in Athens, as the Persians rampaged across Thessaly, burning, looting and generally laying waste, Themistocles alone stayed calm, arguing that the “wooden wall” signified the wooden sides of his fleet of triremes ; the population should leave Attica and leave defeat of the Persians to the navy.

This seemed a perilous course ; it certainly demanded courage and a good deal of trust from every citizen : aware of the superiority of the Persian land forces, they were to abandon their homes with the object of drawing the enemy in to a naval encounter.

The Persian army duly advanced in to Attica and overran Athens, destroying the temples on the acropolis and killing any remaining defenders.

Themistocles’s plan

Meanwhile the fleet of the Persian king, Xerxes — at perhaps 1,200 vessels almost thrice that of Athens — was stationed in the Bay of Phaleron (sc. off the Piraeus, the port of Athens).

It might be mere fable, perhaps even of Themistocles’s own devising, or one conjured up by Herodotus but a story grew up that Themistocles had sent a servant to the Persian commanders to feed them false intelligence ; they were taken in and immediately sent their warships into the strait of Salamis, the perfect place for an ambush.

There the Athenian navy lay in wait : when the ungainly Persian warships entered the channel, the Greek triremes inflicted a memorable defeat upon them, some 200 enemy ships being destroyed. The Persian navy broken, Xerxes, who had been watching proceedings from a throne overlooking the sea, fled. The Greeks had won a stunning victory against the odds.

Themistocles is rejected

In ca. 471 the people turned on Themistocles. Despite all he had done for Athens, he was now unpopular, perceived as arrogant and even suspected of taking bribes. His response — reminding his fellow citizens of all they owed him — served only to aggravate them and he was ostracized.

Potsherd - Themistocles smaller An ostrakon bearing the name of Themistocles

He went first to Argos but, when he learnt of the Spartans’ wanting to pursue him over a matter of their own, he fled to Asia Minor, eventually entering the service of the Persian King Artaxerxes and being made governor of three satrapies. He lived there much honoured by the King, dying in ca. 459. (His death is ascribed by Plutarch, writing in the late-first century a.d. — so, nearly six-hundred years later — to suicide but by Thucydides, a meticulous historiographer writing in the same century, to natural causes.)

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Exam Grade Inflation

great exam resultsCalling all conservatives! Attention please, all you reactionaries and nostalgia-merchants, and anyone who thinks the past knocks spots off the present. This is the season of exam results, when the papers are full of happy backlit pictures of girls in summer dresses receiving the news of their Stakhanovite performances at A-level and GCSE. This is the week when dyspeptic Right-wing columnists and politicians traditionally denounce these scenes as a sham, when lovely hard-working teenagers run crying from the room because some miserable old git has told them that an A-grade these days isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit. The question before us is whether or not humans are capable of stunning improvements in individual and collective performance. When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, he was thought to be a prodigy. Now, more than a thousand men have pulled off the same feat. If our physical faculties are capable of such rapid improvement, surely the same applies to our brains. Faster, higher, stronger. Why not cleverer? Continue reading Exam Grade Inflation

Ancient Greece: Phidippides

See an illustrative video clip here
PhidippidesBoris Johnson has spoken of the value of the classics in understanding modern politics. For example, in the popular press, as well as in the classics, the same theme is played out again and again:  political leaders who let power go to their heads and then pay the price. There are many other parallels, but Greek history is also full of inspirational stories. Over the next few weeks, we will be posting some incidents from Greek history that still have lessons for us today.    
  THE FIRST MARATHON RUNNER  
In 490 BC, Athens was under attack by the Persians, led by King Darius.  The world’s first democracy was under threat of extinction.  The vastly outnumbered Athenians desperately needed the help of Sparta’s military base to help fend off the attack. With danger imminent, the Athenian generals sent Phidippides, a professional runner, on a two-day 140 mile run over mountainous terrain to Sparta to ask for help.
Phidippides’s brave effort was in vain - the Spartans would not come until the Moon was full, due to their religious laws.  Phidippides had to run back to Athens with the terrible news that the Athenians would have to fight alone. The small Athenian army, vastly outnumbered, with Phidippides, marched to the Plains of Marathon.  They launched an amazing surprise offensive thrust, and by the end of the  day, 6,400 Persians lay dead on the field while only 192 Athenian soldiers had been killed.  The surviving Persians fled, hoping to launch an attack by sea, and Phidippides had to run another 26 miles to carry news of the victory to Athens and warn them of the impending naval threat.  He had already fought all day in the battle. Phidippides pushing himself to the limits of human endurance, reached Athens, delivered his message and died of exhaustion. Sparta came to the aid of Athens and the Persian threat was overthrown.  Centuries later, the modern Olympic Games introduced a “marathon” race in memory of the brave Athenian runner who gave his life to deliver his message.

Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia

A7  The bicycle thieves
"The Bicycle Thieves"

Boris Johnson tells us more about the Cycle Friday campaign, which was launched today.

Everyone knows I'm a mad, fundamentalist cyclist - and although more people are cycling in London, there are still many who don't. As I peer down from the 8th floor of City Hall, I see all those people toiling away in their cars, inching slowly across Tower Bridge, when they could be on a bike. Whether it's Monday, Wednesday, or Sunday I tend to go by bike but, although it is safe and getting safer, I fully appreciate that some people find it a little daunting at first. I have succeeded in persuading many of my staff to take it up, and always watch in wonderment as they edge nervously onto Tooley Street absolutely convinced the end is nigh. But after a few times, they are soon zooming past me. In a bid to convert more Londoners to the cycling cause, today I launched Cycle Fridays. For the next few weeks, every Friday, there will be a series of bike convoys led by experienced riders who will be on hand to guide novice commuter cyclists into central London. For a full list of the routes, click here. Those joining the rides will be greeted by ride marshals from the London Cycling Campaign and will be given a basic bike check and useful cycle maps before getting on the road. Additional drop-off points can be agreed so that riders can get as close to their destination as possible. The first Cycle Friday will take place on Friday 14 August, and they will continue every Friday until 2 October. Continue reading Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia

Did Gary McKinnon find Vulcans in Cyberspace?

A2 Venus 
We should be protecting Gary McKinnon, not catapulting him across the Atlantic,   argues Boris Johnson. Since it is now obvious that the British state is about to commit one of the most  protoplasmic acts of self-abasement since Suez, and since the clock is now ticking to the moment when Gary McKinnon, 43, will be taken from his home in north London and put – if necessary by force – on a plane to America, it is time to pose the question everyone seems to have ignored. Leave aside, for the moment, the morality of exporting the Asperger's sufferer for trial in America.  Can I ask, what is the point of having a trial at all? I simply do not understand what proposition is to be so expensively tested in this American courtroom. Gary McKinnon is accused of hacking into American military computers. He is charged with roaming around the cyberspace of the Pentagon, and leaving such insulting spoor as “your security is cr-p”. He is accused of guessing passwords, and trying to view secret photos of unidentified flying objects in Nasa databanks. All this will be put to him in court by some brace-twanging prosecution counsel, as though it were the crux of the matter. And yet Mr McKinnon has never denied it. He has always said that he hacked into American military computers, and that is because he earnestly believes that there is a conspiracy between Uncle Sam and Big Oil to cover up the interception of alien craft that are running on some kind of renewable energy. For all I know he may be right. Continue reading Did Gary McKinnon find Vulcans in Cyberspace?