British Crises: a sly, wry word from Alfred Duggan

The fall of a yet another short-lived British Prime Minister in the midst of deeply unstable and ambiguous relations with Europe reminds us of how curiously we have been here before. At least, you would if you read the novels The Little Emperors and Conscience of the King by Alfred Duggan, both written in 1951.

Duggan, scion of Irish-Argentinian stock moved in the highest Tory circles of the old British Empire in its last generation. After Oxford, dissipating a fortune, and honourable service in World War II, he settled down to marriage and the production of short, easily readable novels about real, but slightly less well covered periods of history. Not so much Henry VIII or Augustus as people like the outrageously gay Emperor Elagabalus, the pious but devious Edward the Confessor or cunning Count Bohemond of the First Crusade. Nowhere are his insights and talent better shown than in the Diptych of novels which cover the obscure and tragic period of the fifth century as settled, prosperous Roman Britain descended into anarchy and economic collapse. The Little Emperors tells the story of a pompous civil servant in Londinium who watches the rise and fall of a string of short lived Emperors who try to manage the breakaway of Britain from the Empire. None succeed; and he flees to the barbarians, convinced that his Rome and his world are truly lost.

Conscience of the King takes up the story two generations later. It tells of the ruthless sociopath Cerdic, who after a some life as Romano-British Aristocrat also deserts to the Barbarians, this time the Anglo Saxons, where he makes himself the first King of Wessex (and incidentally founds the royal line which leads to our present monarch, Elizabeth II) Lying in his royal hut at the end of a long life, he cannot forget that he was once an educated man, and on the side of civilisation. He has survived, but everything else has gone wrong. Why? And he makes this reflection:

I was born into a world where the Roman order seemed destined to last forever, all the more because we had got rid of the drain in money and troops caused by our previous rulers to succour or overthrow the central government in Italy. We seemed to have taken the best things in European Civilization, and rejected the tyrannous central organization of the Empire

But you cannot choose the best out of two worlds in that way. We light-heartedly broke with the Emperor, thinking that all the honestiores of Britain would then become little Emperors on their own. Too late we discovered that Rome really gave us something in return for the gold that left the province and that it was something we could not replace from our own resources

The pound sinks, as does investment. Inflation rises, choking all hope of economic progress. Strikes abound, and may lead to further disintegration. The next Emperor must finally resolve our ancient equivocation over Europe. Or their reign will be shorter even than this one’s.

Thanks to Mr Lindsay Charlton of Kent for the idea for this post

#alfred duggan #roman britain #wessex #london #roman empire #brexit #united kingdom

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