Peter Jones

Ancient & modern | 12 June 2010

The newspapers are turning up the heat on government proposals to raise capital gains tax from 18 to 40 per cent.

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The newspapers are turning up the heat on government proposals to raise capital gains tax from 18 to 40 per cent. From powerful business factions to starving pensioners, howls of outrage echo across the pages. A success, then, for the coalition: getting the newspapers to do the scaremongering for you is a very efficient way of gauging public opinion.

The only way the ancients could do this was in secret. The greatest sculptor of the Greek world, Pheidias, needing the reassurance of public approval, hid (we are told) in his studio and listened to the comments. In ad 16, Germanicus, the popular adopted son of the Roman emperor Tiberius, was on campaign in Germany. Wishing to test his troops’ readiness for battle, he dressed himself in an animal skin and, like Henry V before Agincourt, wandered among his soldiers to ascertain morale. Tacitus reports that he heard nothing but praise for himself and a determination that ‘the treacherous, treaty-breaking enemy must be offered up to vengeance and to glory’. They were.

But how serious will the CGT outcry become? In Rome, threats to the corn supply always brought the crowds out. But riots rarely got out of hand. The reason was that the emperor was generally credited with a commitment to improving the lot of the people, in his own interests as much as theirs. In other words, the crowds took it for granted that they had a right to protest, but more as a way of reminding the emperor what his duty was to them rather than fomenting genuine revolution.

So in 23 bc, Augustus responded to a food crisis by buying grain with his own money and distributing it to a quarter of a million people. In ad 19, when there were riots at the excessive rise in the price of grain, Tiberius imposed a maximum price, compensating merchants for it at the same time. In ad 51 a bad harvest created a grain shortage. With only 15 days’ supply left, Claudius sent for grain in the middle of winter. Luckily, the weather smiled on him.

An intelligent coalition will make the same sort of measured response to the capital gains tax outcry. So there, there dears. Calm down. We know exactly what is going on. The government is merely testing the waters of public opinion before, as it were, putting its foot in it.