Winston Churchill once wrote “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Labour’s losses in this month’s local elections and the collapse of its ‘Red Wall’ are examples of this. From Bolsover to Berlin, history shows us that as political powers abandon the aspiration of expansionism and resort instead to complacency, introspection and defensive walls, decline soon follows. The Labour Party is no different.
President Kennedy was right, of course, when he said: “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us”. Despite speculation at the time that communism signalled the wave of the future, people need only have visited Berlin to see the monument to its futility and failure. Indeed, it was the collapse of the wall less than four decades’ later that to many serves as the symbol of its ultimate collapse.
More recently, while President Trump’s pledge that “on day one, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, power, beautiful southern border wall” may have initially helped deliver electoral victory, his failure to even secure funding to erect the wall is itself a symbol of the former President’s failed legacy.
But the futility of walls as an instrument of preserving power extends much further back into history. In my latest book, ‘Pugnare: Economic Success and Failure’, I explore the economic rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the striking lessons we can learn for our modern day. One is that far from being a sign of strength and ambition, the construction of great defensive walls often signals the opposite.
By the 1st century AD Rome’s power and imperial ambition was absolute. Not since Alexander the Great had the ancient world seen a force capable of ruling so vast an area, equivalent roughly to the modern United States. Emperor Claudius began the British conquest in 43 AD. Over the next 80 years, under the rule of emperors including Domitian and Trajan, Rome continued to advance their territory, subduing rebellious tribes and developing infrastructure.
By 122 AD, however, under Hadrian’s leadership, Roman strategy changed significantly. Gone were the offensive tactics aimed at eliminating unruly tribes in the north of Britannia, replaced instead by a more defensive strategy the remains of which can still be seen today in the form of Hadrian’s Wall (and later Antonine’s) in the north of the island.
That the wall survives in some form today may lead to the assumption that it serves as a reminder to Rome’s strength. In fact, the opposite is true. The construction of Hadrian’s Wall signalled the beginning of a new, more conservative defensive approach that, over the next 150 years, would see walls constructed around major cities throughout the Roman empire, including, eventually, Rome itself. This approach was a symptom of growing insecurity in the Roman world and an increasing breakdown in law and order – once an absolute.
Rome’s wall building signalled to her enemies that the days of expansionism were behind her, replaced instead by a policy of territorial consolidation.
Rather than subjugating those who threatened the empire through military conquest, Hadrian chose instead to pay money to buy-off Rome’s enemies while diverting funding away from its military. So began the slow 300 year decline of the Roman empire marked by an economic crisis early in the second century, the division of the empire under Diocletian in 285 AD, and the eventual collapse of the western empire in 476 AD.
While Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ may not be defined by a physical defensive barrier it nevertheless shares commonalities. The party’s socialist policy agenda under Jeremy Corbyn and its subsequent lack of a clear policy agenda under Keir Starmer demonstrates the party’s complacency and overreliance on its historical heartlands that date back to its founding at the start of the 20th century. Gone is the radical policy agenda that underpinned successive landslide election victories in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Following the apparent collapse of its ‘Red Wall’, Labour is facing an existential crisis. Traditionally a party of reform; it wins, on average, every third election, most of which are secured on a radical reform platform. If it is to once again secure victory it must put forward a clear radical reform agenda that appeals to middle Britain and a broader demographic. This phenomenon is not unique to Labour, or to Trump, or to communism. The same fate awaits any large complacent power or institution. Just ask the Romans.