Boris Johnson gave a quite dazzling speech tonight at the Legatum Institute – ostensibly about fifth century BC Athens; but really about his politics.
I don’t think anyone – politician, don or otherwise – could give a talk about ancient Athens to a group of non-academics, and not bore some of them. But Boris was quite extraordinary. Forgive the sycophancy – but he had not just journalists gripped, but also classics dons.
Greece is a subject he really cares about – and, when he deals with an audience that includes experts, he rises to their level, and exceeds them. He did it years ago in the Spectator – where, out of nowhere, he wrote a scholarly, yet funny, article about Horace. The text came from a lecture to classics academics – and so he attached his intellectual rocket boots. Ditto tonight.
But he also – beneath his thorough understanding of Athenian politics – laid out his manifesto as a potential Prime Minister. In his parallels between Athens and London, he made clear his position on pretty much everything.
First, Athens in the early fifth century BC got rid of their scummy harbour and replaced it with a superport at Piraeus. No difficulty there in seeing the parallel with Boris Island.
Then there was a long bit on how Athens embraced the equivalent of Polish plumbers and South African immigrants – in Ancient Greece, they were called metics, a kind of guest-worker. But, at the same time, Boris was quick to add, illegal immigrants should be kicked out pronto.
It was democracy, the rule of law and an open welcome to talented incomers that made Athens the eternal glory of the Western world – in stark opposition to the “ghastly, self-whipping, olive-spitting, xenophobic Spartans”. What monuments do they have left, Boris asked, compared to the brilliance of ancient Athens? The truth of it is that ancient Sparta has a pretty decent theatre – but, still, point taken.
He only briefly touched on Europe – in a mildly eurosceptic way, fitting with his centrist views on the topic. But, otherwise, it was a complete one-off – an extremely delicate, highly intellectual piece of policy positioning. Unlike old, easy-going, occasionally chaotic Boris, he only took a few questions from the floor – and the questioners had all been pre-selected.
No doubt about it. The assault on Number Ten has begun.