The Elections for Mayor of London 2016: Sadiq Khan, a modern Cicero or a victim of Ciceronian oratorical tactics?

imgres-5When Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) was standing for the consulship of 63 BCE, the highest office in Republican Rome and the ultimate goal of his career, he was the only one among the main contenders (of seven candidates in total) to be a homo novus (‘newcomer’), i.e. the only one to come from an equestrian family with no consular ancestors. By his hard work as a lawyer and as a junior politician as well as by his oratorical brilliance he had put himself into a position so that he could contemplate running for this senior office.

Cicero’s situation comes to mind in the current campaign in advance of the elections for Mayor of London, one of the top political jobs in the UK, on 5 May 2016, when people will vote on Boris Johnson’s successor (find a full list of Mayor of London candidates here). The main contenders, MPs Zac Goldsmith (Conservative) and Sadiq Khan (Labour), have presented their manifestos, but have also commented on the other’s past and the nature of their campaign.

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While there is little similarity in the biographies of Zac Goldsmith and Cicero, Sadiq Khan, on the other hand, like Cicero, does not come from the political establishment (‘a bus driver’s son’) and has had a career as a lawyer before he became a politician.

In Republican Rome confrontations between politicians could be rather direct, and it was not regarded as inappropriate to criticize all kinds of personal faults and vices, even if they were not connected to the matter at issue. Thus, during the election campaign for the consulship in 64 BCE, Cicero was attacked because of his background. In Cicero’s career as a lawyer, he initially was careful only to act as the defence, as this could be seen as the more honourable part; when he carried out his first prosecution, against Verres in 70 BCE, having been asked by his former clients in Sicily, he started the first speech in this trial by explaining why it was appropriate for him to take on this job. Otherwise, however, Cicero seems to have chosen the cases he accepted carefully: he avoided petty business and preferred cases with a political dimension or those that enabled him to include a political element, so as to prepare his credentials for a political career. Although there are examples of Cicero being on both sides of a legal conflict on different occasions, this does not seem to have been an object of reproach.

In the case of Sadiq Khan, the fact that in his earlier career as a human rights lawyer he defended individuals with questionable views and shared platforms with others has led to a lot of questioning of his political views and integrity in the media and by his opponents. An article in the London Evening Standard, for instance, considered possible reasons of why Sadiq Khan answered the probing questions in the way he did and why he might have undertaken such cases in the first place. One potential motivation suggested was: ‘Or was the young Mr Khan carried away by ambition to make a name for himself and build his business?’ Whether or not this claim is true, such a motif might apply to the young Cicero and others in his situation.

Although, obviously, Sadiq Khan and Cicero live and work in very different societies (for instance regarding the extent of scrutiny by the media), their situations as candidates for a high political office are somewhat similar. It remains to be seen whether the similarity continues into both of them winning the job despite opposition.

This is by no means the first time that modern politicians have been assessed in relation to Cicero: when Barack Obama first appeared on the political scene, the media compared him to Cicero with regard to his use of oratory. This has not happened in the case of Sadiq Khan, and he has not had the chance to make long speeches yet, as the election campaign consists more of interviews, hustings and uttering soundbites. But one might look for similarities with Cicero in terms of profile and the rhetoric used for attacks.

People challenging Sadiq Khan because of the individuals he used to be in contact with or because of what some of his advisers have said follow true Ciceronian tactics: if there was not a sufficient amount of negative characteristics to be found in the opponent or if his friends and associates could offer more savoury details, Cicero did not hesitate to use them and the opponent’s contacts with them as an argument in his political oratory (according to the principle ‘and by their friends ye shall know them’).

For instance, in the controversy with Mark Antony towards the end of his life (44–43 BCE), Cicero composed a long speech (never delivered) in which he justified himself against allegations and accused the opponent of all sorts of things, reviewing his entire life, including mentions of the disreputable characters in his entourage (Cicero, Philippic Orations 2.58):

‘The tribune of the people was borne along in a chariot, lictors crowned with laurel preceded him; among whom, on an open litter, was carried an actress; whom honorable men, citizens of the different municipalities, coming out from their towns under compulsion to meet him, saluted not by the name by which she was well known on the stage, but by that of Volumnia. A car followed full of pimps; then a lot of debauched companions; and then his mother, utterly neglected, followed the mistress of her profligate son, as if she had been her daughter-in-law. O the disastrous fecundity of that miserable woman! With the marks of such wickedness as this did that fellow stamp every municipality, and prefecture, and colony, and, in short, the whole of Italy.’ (Find full text here).

Any aspect that can throw a negative light on the opponent may be useful in such a political controversy!

In the campaign for the consulship in 64 BCE Cicero, in the end, did manage to get elected. In his later public speeches he tended to put it down to the support of the People and their faith in him while other ancient authorities thought that it was the result of some kind of compromise with other options looking even more dubious. At any rate, after Cicero was elected, in his inaugural speech to the People, he thanks them for having voted for him, makes good use of his background by arguing that he is ‘one of them’ and therefore knows what is good for them, and eventually promises peace, liberty and tranquillity for his year of office (Cicero, Agrarian Speech 2.9):

‘And as I did not only suspect these things, but clearly saw them, (for indeed there was no secret made of what was being done,) I said in the senate that I would in this magistracy prove a consul devoted to the interests of the people. For what is there so advantageous to the people as peace? … What is so advantageous to the people as liberty? … What is so advantageous to the people as tranquillity? … How then can I avoid being devoted to the interests of the people, O Romans, when I see all these things, – our peace abroad, and the liberty which belongs to the Roman race and Roman name, and our domestic tranquillity, and everything, in short, which is considered by you as valuable or honourable, entrusted to the good faith, and, as it were, to the protection of my consulship?’ (Full text).

This outlook sounds like a programme that everyone would want to agree to, though details are unclear and the question of how it will be realized is not addressed. It remains to be seen whether an inaugural speech of whoever becomes the new Mayor of London will be equally ‘Ciceronian’ in style!

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