Otto English is the pen name used by Andrew Scott, a writer and playwright based in London.
LONDON — In AD 39, as Rome plunged into a political and financial crisis, Emperor Gaius decided to build a bridge. The emperor, better known as “Caligula,” loved building things. Since seizing power two years earlier, he had spent billions of sesterces on temples, amphitheaters and a massive statue in honor of his horse. But in that hot summer of AD 39, he decided to top it all.
The 5-kilometer-long pontoon bridge would sweep across the Bay of Baiae and sock it to his critics. Boats and slaves were appropriated. So many grain ships were repurposed that the food supply dried up and people began to starve. Questions were asked of his sanity, but the emperor was determined to “get the bridge done.”
By mid-summer, it was completed and on a sweltering hot day, Caligula mounted his horse and rode flamboyantly across the construction before ordering that it be immediately dismantled. It had served its purpose. The bridge had been built to assuage his vanity and to distract the empire from the crisis he had created. It was the original dead cat.
Sound familiar? Boris Johnson is a big fan of the Romans, and while he’d undoubtedly run a mille passus from comparisons with Caligula, his obsession with grand ventures owes much both to the Caesars of old and the Victorians who plagiarized them.
For all his bluster, Johnson is a fundamentally unimaginative politician.
Like Caligula, Johnson loves to build pointless things.
As mayor of London, Johnson’s “achievements” consisted almost entirely of eponymous, frequently unrealized, follies that cost the taxpayer upward of £1 billion. Many of these ideas had the feel of something dreamed up on the back of a beer mat after a heavy afternoon in the pub: the ersatz Routemaster buses that cost twice as much as normal double-deckers; the cable car from nowhere to nowhere that set Londoners back a cool £24 million; the hideously ugly Olympic Orbit Tower, currently losing £520,000 a year, which was commissioned after a chance encounter with steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal in the gents’ toilets at Davos; the calamitous “garden bridge” that racked up a bill of £53 million without a single brick ever being laid; the list goes on.
For all his bluster, Johnson is a fundamentally unimaginative politician. He has just one or two ideas that he recycles with tedious frequency. Since winning an 80-seat majority in the general election in December, it has become clear, even to members of his own Cabinet, that the prime minister and his administration have no idea what to do next. Tired of the Brexit-shaped elephant sitting at his shoulder, and desperate to get people to stop talking about it, he’s resorting to doing what he always does — announcing big building projects.
In his speech to the nation on January 31, Johnson promised the “biggest revival of our infrastructure since the Victorians” and this week he has set about starting to deliver on that undertaking.
After much delay, High Speed 2 — the controversial three-stage high-speed railway between London and Birmingham that will eventually go on to Manchester, Wigan and Leeds — has received the green light.
Much has been made of Johnson releasing the potential of the so-called Northern Powerhouse and giving something back to the blue-collar constituencies that voted for him. And yes, if it is ever completed, the new line will one day reduce journey times from the capital to other U.K. cities. But in its first decade (assuming it’s finished by 2030), HS2 will mostly benefit London and the South East. In essence, it is a £100 billion project to give wealthy southern rail users more picks of commutable places to live.
Johnson’s policymaking, like Brexit itself, is not the politics of common sense. It’s the art of plate spinning and distraction — and leveraging nostalgia for a Britain long gone.
In the 19th century, the British believed themselves to be the heirs to the Romans, lording over the Pax Britannica and an empire on which the sun never set. Back then, to be British was to be special, and when characters like Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Cecil Rhodes decided to build stuff, they jolly well did so. Brexit ideologues and Tory fellow travelers believe that because “we” did it before, “we” can do it again.
All of which is, of course, pure fantasy. Britain’s industrial past cannot simply be conjured up by misty-eyed patriots believing in it. The country no longer has a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor or massive reserves of coal and steel. Neither are modern voters all that keen on having their homes bulldozered to make way for a railway. The lengthy consultations involved in a project on the scale of HS2 take time and money and, as Londoners learned to their cost with Crossrail, no amount of Johnson’s “can do spirit” will magic things into being.
Perhaps realizing this, Johnson has promised not one but two grand distraction projects. For in addition to dull old HS2, there is to be a shiny Caligula-esque bridge to Northern Ireland. This plan sees Johnson return to doing what he does best: wasting time and taxpayers’ money on a bonkers project that will almost certainly never get built.
Given that the proposed bridge is set to go across one of the stormiest and deepest stretches of water in Europe, it has been suggested that its 50 support towers would each have to be half a kilometer high, which would make it the tallest and potentially most expensive crossing in the world. And then, of course, there’s the problem of what to do about that massive World War II munitions dump right in its path.
It seems unlikely that a man who failed to build a 300-meter-long garden bridge will pull off an ambitious 40-kilometer-long Irish Sea crossing, or that a country that can’t build its own broadband network without help from the Chinese will suddenly rediscover its Victorian pioneering spirit.
Surely, Johnson must know this. But these mad schemes, aside from distracting us, also have the benefit of pampering his vanity.
As for Caligula, after he turned his palace into a brothel and made his horse a senator, the Romans finally decided they’d had enough and 30 conspirators dispatched him outside the walls of the palace. Such an ugly fate is unlikely to befall Johnson, but as Britain slowly learns what London discovered to its cost, time might not be so firmly on his side.