Big Caesars and Little Caesars: How They Rise and How They Fall – From Julius Caesar to Boris Johnson by Ferdinand Mount - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Et Tu, Rishi?

Big Caesars and Little Caesars: How They Rise and How They Fall – From Julius Caesar to Boris Johnson


Bloomsbury Continuum 304pp £20

Let’s begin by saying what this book is not. In 1938 the Manchester Guardian’s former Berlin correspondent Frederick Voigt published a remarkable book, Unto Caesar. It chronicled the rise of religio-fascist regimes, including the one that brought to an abrupt end Voigt’s twelve years of reporting in Germany. A year later, Alfred Cobban, a distinguished historian of France at UCL, published Dictatorship: Its History and Theory, another fine book which is not remembered much today. The advent in our own time of Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdoğan, Orbán and Putin has similarly given rise to works about dictators and tyrants by writers such as Frank Dikötter and Timothy Snyder, as well as an avalanche of works about populism in various geographies. Many of these expertly explain the contrived politics of ‘them versus us’ and how renegade members of the elite posture as men and women of the people. 

There is not much of any of that in Ferdinand Mount’s book, which is stronger on Cromwell than almost anyone else. Mount is a novelist and constitutional thinker whose experiences include a two-year stint in Thatcher’s Downing Street policy unit and the editorship of the TLS. His new book is in essence an excoriating attack on Boris Johnson (with a few remarks about the ‘Instagram diplomacy’ of Liz Truss) swaddled in a lot of history about regressions from parliamentary government and the rule of law.

There are three basic problems with what is otherwise a thoughtful and cogent account of the Johnson premiership. Mount never properly explains who or what is a Big Caesar or a Little Caesar (nor does he mention Mervyn LeRoy’s 1931 gangster film Little Caesar, incidentally), though Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes,

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