To a new Prime Minister’s speech-writer the party conference approaches like a bullet train. If my friend, Sir Ronald Millar, were still alive he would be working flat out on Theresa May’s speech by now. With the date of delivery advancing and the drafts on her desk ever more undeliverable, the need for ‘Ronnification’ must be overwhelming. It always was. Ronnie is best known today as the playwright who wrote ‘U-turn if you want to: the lady’s not for turning’ for Margaret Thatcher in 1980, and gave this paper’s former editor, Charles Moore the title for the second volume of his great biography. But Ronnie, a classicist as well as a man of the West End and Hollywood, was proudest of what he called his ‘De Clementia’ moments, the softening of harsh edges, the promises to the doubters and the desperate that Mrs Thatcher made on entering Downing Street for the first time. Mrs May did the same this year, not quite so eloquently.
De Clementia was the speech that Lucius Annaeus Seneca urged upon Emperor Nero after his accession in 54 AD, a promise to those who feared the arrival of a merciless tyrant that they were wholly mistaken. In the nineteen eighties the DC became a favourite of another former editor of this paper, Frank Johnson, who shared with Ronnie and me a rather unusual Latin class in the back of a Wapping pub. I remember Frank in 1986 in Bournemouth, determined not to let Mrs T and her cabinet of discontent come between him and an ablative absolute. While we were conjugating our verbal way through the ministerial speeches, (declining too, which was his preference) the news came that the Prime Minister had fallen down a manhole. Cui bono, said Frank. Which of her hostile colleagues would dare to seize the handbag of office? Which of her smiling friends? How did the manhole dare the deed? Was she really gone or might she be lying low before a devastating revenge? Once she had proved the rumour false and shown herself unscathed before her people, Frank wrote one of his best remembered conference sketches. But he soon returned, more enthusiastic than ever, to the study of Nero’s Rome.
Frank was a genius of his genre who genuinely wanted to learn Latin, one of the great languages of civilisation which he had missed by leaving school at 14 and missing a university education altogether. I was not, in his eyes and rightly, an ideal tutor but I was then Deputy Editor of The Times with an office close by and that was a help. Ronnie, who was a classicist at King’s Cambridge before the war, had something of start but hid it well. Two other fellow students joined us sometimes in The Old Rose on the Highway near the home of The Times, Woodrow Wyatt, Voice of Reason at the News of the World, and Mrs T’s leading flatterer in a crowded field, and David Hart, a wealthy businessman and rather less official court ideologue.
It was Ronnie who first called us The Senecans. Nero’s speechwriter and chief adviser was also a fellow playwright, much praised in the 20th century by that great conservative, T.S. Eliot, thus triply suitable as a patron in Ronnie’s view. We also had at Wapping most of Seneca’s works, newly discarded by the Times library as ‘no longer relevant’ for the electronic age. Ronnie was outraged: speechwriters for unpopular rulers had to stick together. Frank and I saved the threatened texts from destruction and appreciated them at the Old Rose all the more warmly for that, like unwanted puppies acquired across the river in Battersea.
Seneca was not only educational but useful. As scholars have often noted, he was a practical thinker, not one who advanced philosophy very far but someone helpful in hard times. Thatcher’s unofficial advisers often felt it a struggle to justify what she was doing. And while today the preference is to avoid all but the most superficial justifications, in the eighties there was a taste for thinking, not always good taste but better than none. If David Hart, who was a property investor and lobbyist for defence companies, felt under pressure for being hugely rich, Seneca, probably the wealthiest great writer in history, could reassure him that riches, like lack of riches, were a secondary issue in a good Stoic life. What was important was virtue, a good man (or woman’s) intuition of what was naturally right. Obsession with outcomes (who could ever tell what an outcome would be?) was too often part of the useless utilitarianism of the Left.
Seneca offered new approaches to awkward problems, like how to defend inequality, how to place individualism within a strong society, how to use Thatcher’s inner virtue as a weapon, how to turn a leader deemed harsh and unfeeling into a model of morality and mercy. Why did the Senecans feel the need to find some ancient basis for their wants and beliefs? It was that kind of age, said Ronnie before he died in 1998. No one would bother now, he complained, as the Blair era began.
Of course, there were huge differences over 2000 years. Thatcher was no Nero. Heaven forbid, insisted her loyal speechwriter. She was a female democrat in her fifties, not a 17-year-old boy heir (and only just an heir) to Julius Caesar. But, like Nero, she oversaw a time of bringing power to the centre from the places where it had traditionally been: Nero had a neutered Senate, Thatcher had a nest of senior male colleagues who would oust her if she did not climb out of her manhole fast enough. Like Nero she was beset by flatterers. As Woodrow Wyatt saw early, she loved flattery as much as any young prince; she was insecure beneath her suit-and-pearls; she could be just as bloody impossible; she was short on humour. But she had to be humoured because she was uniquely reasoned in good intention, steadfast, stoic, in command of herself, recognising the fundamental morality of choosing the right course. That was what Woodrow thought. That was what she thought herself. But how to get others to see her that way too?
Woodrow had learnt Latin at school and underneath a carapace of jovial contempt, remembered many of the ‘good bits’. Ronnie had been enough of a classicist to play Greek roles in ancient Greek, encouraged at Cambridge by John Maynard Keynes, not a name he dropped when Mrs Thatcher was around. Both were cautious courtiers, Woodrow regularly reminding me from Seneca’s most gruesome tragedy, Thyestes, that life was a slippery wheel and that, by not praising the Lady enough, I was in ever danger of dropping to destruction.
It was Frank who took Seneca’s stoicism most seriously. Then the doyen of parliamentary sketch-writers, he had less optimism than was required for a full-time member of the Thatcher court. The main use of the future was to imagine the worst so as to strengthen oneself for its arrival. Praemediatio futurorum malorum did not bring anxiety but strength. The courtier had to build and protect his prince or princess, refashion their very self. Style was the truth. Prose was character. A man or woman was as he or she wrote – or seemed to write. This was not so hard to do if it were made a priority.
Our favourite among the books we rescued from the Times library skip was the essay entitled De Beneficiis which Frank translated not as On Benefits, which sounded too socialist but On Giving and Getting, which had a more conservative ring. Frank used to criticise newspaper editors, including me, for seeing all political gifts as stories about corruption. Surely honours and favour were the very oil of politics without which there would be nothing to report on at all. Thatcher was very bad at distributing favours. Senecan study would tell her how it was done – and just as important how it was not done. None of the Senecans lived to see Theresa May’s inheritance of cronies from David Cameron - and the slightly kinder-than-Neronian way in which she has sent them on their way.
Peter Stothard is the author of The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher, published by Duckworth on 6 October.