Decline and Fall
This week: what does it mean for an empire to fall? Could New York have its own Crossrail? But first, Rishi Sunak, oh dear, oh no.
“How has Rishi Sunak’s reputation changed after one year as PM?” Thus reads the headline on a polling report from YouGov, published to mark Sunak’s first and quite possibly last anniversary in Downing Street. The first subheading – literally the next word – is “Badly”.
This is, of course, extremely funny, so let’s take a look at some of his best bits.
On the eve of his accession to the role, 25% of the electorate expected Sunak to make a broadly good Prime Minister, compared to 29% who expected him to be a broadly bad one. That’s not great, but it was a damn sight better than the record now: 11% good, 50% bad. In the same way, shortly after Sunak came to power, 50% of the electorate, foolishly, trusted his judgement on the economy, compared to 31% who did not. It was one of only two issues, out of 12, on which he scored positively. Now the public don’t trust him on that, either, by a ratio of two to one (62% to 31%). In fact, it’s a clean sweep:
It gets worse. Last October, Britons agreed Sunak was competent – this was, you’ll recall, his entire pitch – by a 28 point margin (50% did, 22% did not). Now 46% think him incompetent, while only 34% disagree, a 40 point net drop. His reputation for strength, meanwhile, has fallen by 50 points; his reputation for decisiveness by 55. (Did spending a week pointlessly pretending not to have made a decision to scrap something he’d obviously already decided to scrap have an impact here? Who can say?)
Most damningly of all, the number of people who think Sunak a better Prime Minister than Liz Truss has fallen from 68% to 59% and, okay, that’s still a clear majority, but nearly one voter in every ten has decided that Sunak is actually worse than Liz Truss – Liz Truss – in just 12 months. (He also ranks more highly than Boris Johnson, but lower than any other PM of the last four decades.) “Currently,” concludes Matthew Smith’s write-up, “the best that can be said for Sunak by the public is that he is not racist (+50) and not lazy (+40).”
To put all that in rather fewer words: on Sunak’s arrival in office, his supporters’ hope was that his relatively good personal ratings would pull up the Tories’ bad ones. That convergence has taken place, but the movement has been the other way around.
I was an early Sunak-sceptic, of course, but my instinct is that this was basically inevitable. Despite the man’s obvious irritation that the world is unfairly holding him responsible for the last decade and more of a government he only recently got involved with, it is incredibly difficult to position yourself as new when a government is a dozen years old and everything’s gone to hell on its watch. Even if he’d been good at this, the best case scenario for Sunak was always that he’d be a sort of late period John Major: the guy people liked, but nonetheless wouldn’t vote for.
Sunak, though, has not turned out to be good at this, and despite the insistence of large chunks of the British media on finding it so, it is not in any way surprising. He only ran a department for a little over two years, which is really not very long. Having held a safe seat since 2015, he’s never been in opposition, so has not done the standard political apprenticeship of campaigning for unwinnable seats or standing on hostile doorsteps being told that you’re shit. He’s never had to make people like him.
So why would he be any good at this? Few of us are immediately good at things we’ve never done before, even when they’re a whole lot easier than either governing or campaigning. John Major rose quickly through the ministerial ranks, but he at least had done a political apprenticeship in local politics in Lambeth, a bit of London predisposed to hating his party’s guts. So far as we know, Sunak’s first political encounter with someone who didn’t think he was lovely was when he ran for the leadership. And he sucked so badly, he lost. To Liz Truss.
Biography isn’t destiny, of course, but to address your limitations you need to be aware of them, and there are all sorts of signs that Sunak isn’t. His obsession with his own niche issues, like AI, crypto, and maths. His tone deafness, on HS2, private planes, bankers’ bonuses. His unerring ability to place himself on the wrong side of every wedge issue. David Cameron, hardly a man famed for being in touch with the public, is said to have asked his staff to shout the worst imaginable criticisms of him during interview prep. It’s impossible to imagine Sunak, a man who is still incapable of hiding his irritation when asked even the mildest of critical questions, doing the same.
In every sphere of life he’s encountered before – academically, professionally, financially – the Prime Minister has been strikingly successful. I’m sure that’s been lovely. But it means that, now he’s imploding, he seems unable to even consider that the problem might actually be him. If you’ve only ever been successful, you can’t know how to fail.
The Strange Death of Roman Europe
A few weeks ago now my editor Jasper sent me this tweet by Insider’s Tanya Chen, in which she claimed to be reeling from the discovery that a significant proportion of men spend a lot of their time thinking about the Roman Empire, and I wouldn’t have minded the character assassination so much were it not for the fact I was literally in the middle of a conversation about the Roman Empire at the time.1 Anyway. If you’re one of the people who finds this baffling or annoying then I can only apologise, because I’ve had a new thought about the Roman Empire: specifically, what it tells us about what it means for something to “fall”.
Some years ago now I recorded a podcast with the historian Kevin Feeney (recently heard explaining why so many men are obsessed with Rome on the radio station WNYC). In it, I asked why the empire had fallen and received an answer that confused the hell out of me: perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps it simply turned into something else.
At the time, this baffled me: the fact that Rome fell is one of the main things people know about Rome. (One of the most famous history books of all time is literally called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire!) It’s also, I suspect, one of the reasons some of us are obsessed with it. Never mind all the nonsense about politics or military strategy. The fact our own civilisation was preceded by another whose rise and fall we have on record – the inescapable awareness that civilisation can fall – will never not be haunting. There’s a whole genre of sci-fi stories set in universes where Rome never fell, for god’s sake! Rome absolutely, definitely fell.
The more I’ve read about late antiquity, though, the more I sort of get Kevin’s point. The date generally given for the fall of the western empire – 476, the year a passing German warlord deposed the ironically named boy emperor Romulus Augustulus, and that was the end of that – turns out to be weirdly arbitrary, for a whole bunch of reasons I’ve banged on about before.2 Sure, in the year 400, the Roman Empire definitely existed, and however you look at it it definitely doesn’t now. But just because something was once there and isn’t any more, that doesn’t mean you can point to a moment it “fell”.
To put it another way, consider a question. When did the British Empire fall?