What have the Romans ever done for us? Tory ‘proscription’ of the vulnerable

The Conservative Party likes to think of itself as the party of tradition. It’s in the very meaning of its name. But you might not realise just how far back some of their traditions go. It’s very instructive to take a look at, as it provides a perfect context for understanding the behaviour of the current Tory leadership – and a warning for any who fail to see it for what it is. They say that those who won’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so let’s see what history tells us and what the lesson is.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman dictator Sulla started the practice of ‘proscription‘ as a means of achieving his political and economic aims. Winning a civil war is an expensive business, and he needed to find a way to pay his soldiers and the leading citizens who had supported him. Proscription was the solution.

If you were proscribed, it basically became illegal to be you. Messengers – town cryers, essentially – were sent out to all the market places, while notices were posted in prominent places, both proclaiming the ‘crimes’ for which you were being proscribed. Those crimes were generally exaggerated or completely made up. It didn’t really matter – the real point was you were being made illegal, because you had something the government now wanted.

Anyone who handed a proscribed person over to the authorities received a reward, and if someone killed you, they received a portion of everything you owned – while the rest went to the state, to be used by the ruler to enrich himself and his cronies, and to pay the army before.

The Romans came to regard this episode (and other proscriptions that followed through the history of the Roman Republic and Empire) as a source of shame, unfitting for a people that regarded itself as the greatest on earth and which was famed for the value it placed on citizenship. But the method was copied many times down through the years. I won’t sensationalise this post by listing the long and dishonourable list of people who’ve done so. If you want, it’s easy enough to look up. But suffice to say that it includes names we rightly regard with horror and disgust.

Which brings us neatly to Cameron and his team. Though they won’t appreciate the comparison, Dave & co are the latest to use proscription to achieve their ends – and to take what people have so they can give it to their friends. They truly are people of tradition, but not in the way they’d like us to think.

Living in an age where human rights are at least nominally valued, and where 24-hour news can (though not always does!) raise people’s awareness of what’s going on, they’ve had to modify it slightly, make it more insidious – and work hard to manage the media in their favour. But all the key elements are there. Let’s take a look at the key elements of proscription and see whether the Tories fit:

Pay off supporters

Oh definitely. They may need to dress it up as ‘good for the country’ and, of course, the now-laughable ‘we’re all in it together’, but Dave & co have received many millions of pounds of support from wealth corporations, individuals and interest groups – and it’s now time to ‘pay the piper’. Cuts in tax for the wealthiest individuals, reduced corporation tax, opening the NHS for private companies to carve up between them, writing off tax bills for huge companies and so on. Offering (though not in so many words, of course!) to wave through Rupert Murdoch’s take-over of BSkyb..

It would be a long post indeed if I went in detail into each type of payback the government has provided for its friends and backers. And of course, these measures have to be paid for. As Tories are fond of saying (in entirely the wrong way), there is no magic money tree. So someone – lots of someones – have to be set up to be robbed, to fund the palm-greasing.

Spread the word

The town-cryers of our day are the media, and the media has definitely been complicit in this process of modern-day proscription. The right-wing press plays its part with enthusiasm, while some, like the BBC, are guilty by omission as they fail to highlight many of the things the coalition are doing. Only a small selection of newspapers, and a very few journalists and presenters in TV and radio, buck the trend and dare to go ‘off-message’.

It’s illegal to be you

Alright, these days they’re not quite calling it illegal – that’s one of the ways in which they’ve had to modify their approach. But without question the government is making a sustained attack on people merely for being who they are – and often because of factors they can do absolutely nothing about. Some examples:

The disabled – the government has singled out disabled people for special attention. Ian Duncan-Smith has infamously implied that 30% of disability claims were fraudulent in order to justify a crack-down on disabled people aimed at taking 500,000 people off disability benefits. The real figure is around 0.5%. The problem is, if you’re disabled, you can’t un-disable yourself to avoid proscription. Duncan-Smith wants the number of claimants reduced by at least 500,000. So the measures he’s putting in place – at great expense, and great profit to companies like ATOS – are hammering genuinely disabled people. The results? Despair, distress, leading to a rise in suicides and suicide attempts, and an increase in physical attacks on disabled people as some parts of the public start to believe the lie that disabled people are just putting it on in order to get a free ride in life.

The unemployed

Cameron says he’s on the side of ‘strivers’, which seems to mean people who’ll ignore the destruction of our carefully-constructed social safety-nets while just putting their heads down and working harder for less money. He’s on the side of ‘aspiration’, too, which I suspect means those who fall for the dangled carrot of ‘jam tomorrow’ – ‘you too have a chance of being rich like us if you’ll just be nice and compliant now. Maybe you’ll win the lottery!’

Which, of course, sets the ‘strivers’ against the ‘skivers’. Aided and abetted by the media, the Tories have construed the unemployed as feckless, lazy scroungers who are deliberately exploiting the system to avoid doing a proper day’s work. But with far more unemployed people than there are jobs for them to fill, there are always going to be people who are out of work through no fault of their own. Also, more and more of the jobs that do exist are part-time (full time job numbers have been falling dramatically under the coalition government), which means that if you’re the main bread-winner in a family these jobs are going to be little use to you. You’re forced into a choice between staying unemployed and on benefits, or working part-time – and still being on benefits. Which leads us to the next category.

Benefit claimants

The government would love you to think that this category and the one above are one and the same, but they’re not. The government’s plans to cap housing benefit are justified with the argument that it’s not fair that hard-working people have to put up with poor housing or living in bad areas while benefit claimants are living the high life in grand houses in nice areas. They want us to see this as a battle for the rights of the hard-working versus the claimants – when in fact, those two groups mostly consist of exactly the same people.

That’s right. Only one in eight housing benefit people are unemployed. Most are people working hard in jobs that don’t pay a living wage – yet are demonised for needing to claim housing benefit or any kind of income support. Tthe real situation is that UK tax-payers are subsidising the profits of businesses by allowing them to pay slave-wages, and subsidising greedy landlords who charge ridiculous rents – but the government prefers to demonise the exploited. They’re less likely to vote Tory than rich business-owners and rich landlords.

The young

The only thing you can do about being young is wait to get older. In the meantime, the government is going to exploit you any way it can get away with – and do its best to make it look like you deserve it. David Cameron has announced plans to remove housing benefit for all under-25s, forcing young people to live with their parents, or to be homeless if their parental home is an intolerable environment. Or if you’ve left the care system at 17 or 18 and have nowhere to go. David Cameron justified this plan by saying that for many young people it’s a ‘rite of passage’ to live in a room of their parents’ home into their late 20s while they save up to be able to afford to move out. Of course, to a reasonable person it would be a source of shame that greedy employers, banks and landlords have been allowed to create a situation where young people have so little chance of getting affordable accommodation. But it’s a lot easier and more politically advantageous to blame the exploited. Again.

And, adding insult to injury, the government has frozen the minimum wage for young people. As we have inflation, the real value of that wage is getting lower every day – so the young people who are working hard and trying to save to set themselves up in life are going to find it even harder and have to wait even longer. This government really has no shame.

As well as these vulnerable groups, the government has robbed, or is working to rob, public workers of pay and pensions, to drive down salaries and numbers to free funds that can be channelled to the rich. These groups really don’t have a lot of choice in practical terms about who they are and how they earn a living, but let’s press on and look at the fourth and final way in which the Tories are following the ‘proscription’ model.

Dividing the citizenry against itself

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, Sulla divided the people against themselves by allowing anyone who co-operated in his persecution of the proscribed to take a portion of the proscribed person’s wealth. Of course, the bigger part went to the state, but lots of people became rich.

The neoliberal Tory leadership is too greedy for that so, being cunning, they’ve created a perception that people like those described above are somehow stealing from ‘the rest of us’ while they’re just trying to correct an injustice – to be ‘fair’ to the ‘do-ers, the strivers, those who work hard and play by the rules’.

It’s a neat trick. If you fall for it, you get a warm glow from thinking of yourself as one of these noble people – but not much else. Meanwhile, Cameron is channelling all the funds that you stand by and let him strip from his victims straight into the bank accounts of the rich and powerful.

And it’s in this aspect of the proscription model where the warning lies that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. In Roman days, the people who turned on the proscribed were rewarded in the short term. But in time, when the state’s rapacious rulers wanted what they had, it made their act of betrayal illegal in retrospect – and then took what they had too.

And that is, without question, the aim of the Tories in government. They’re setting a mass of people against the disabled, the disadvantaged, the working poor, because it’s expedient for their immediate aim. But the Tory leadership, and their wealthy masters and backers, are endlessly hungry. They always want more. If you’re not a member of one of the main target groups now, give it time and you will be. Unless we refuse to be divided and we unite to stop them.

German Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote a famous verse about the nature of this creeping, divide-and-conquer persecution that the powerful use to keep us compliant until it’s our turn. He was of course writing about an even darker time and an even worse set of ‘leaders’, but the principle still applies – I think hauntingly so.

So to end this post, I’ve taken the liberty of modifying it a little to reflect our precise circumstances. I won’t comment further after it, but I’ll leave you to make up your own mind whether I’m right and whether/how you should react if I am:

First they targeted the unemployed,
and I didn’t speak out because I had a job.

Then they came for the disabled,
and I didn’t speak out because I’m fit and well.

Then they targeted the young, and the public-sector workers,
and I didn’t speak out because I’m middle-aged and privately employed.

Then they targeted me,
and there was no one left who was powerful enough to speak out for me.

And I realised that we’d been robbed, every one of us.


  1. Yet another great article, putting into words what many of us fear. Some people think that this could not happen in the UK but I know that it IS happening.

  2. An excellent synopsis and a good use of “modernisation” of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s verse…..but a very, very, very true analysis! Keep up the good work.

  3. Reblogged this on Socially Housed and commented:
    Im not throwing Political parties into this – HOWEVER this blog says a lot of what I feel – The only thing I dont want to get into is the Politics of it all – As far as I can see, the 3 main parties are just suits with interchangeable heads! What I want is the Low to middle income earners/working class, like me,to realise what’s going on & start to fight back…

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: