How bloodthirsty democracies can be: a message from Michael Portillo

So, my former student Kayce Mobley (now a Ph.D, and tenure-track professor!) and I gave this paper last year comparing the situation of the Mytilene Rebellion described in Thucydides to the East Rising in Dublin from 1916. It was wonderful to work with her, and the paper has now been submitted (entirely through her hard work) to a journal. As I was thinking about the Irish situation, I watched an excellent TV show on the topic, a joint BBC/RTE production called “The Enemy Files.” The host was Michael Portillo, a former Conservative Party bigwig and Defence Minister who is now a journalist. On a whim, as Kayce and I were writing the paper up, I dropped Portillo an e-mail–or at least, I thought I had. I didn’t hear back from him, and then, in looking through my e-mail account, realized I had never hit Send on the message. So, the day before Christmas, I figured What the hell? and sent the message off. Much to my surprise, Portillo responded in less than 24 hours! I’m not sure there’s anything here that he didn’t say in the TV episode, or in editorials concerning the Easter Rising, but still, it’s not every day you get a former Defence Minister’s take on a topic you’re hoping to publish on!


Dear Christopher

Thank you for your interesting email.
What strikes me most about the comparison is that the British government did not debate the pros and cons of proportionality, still less did the British people! British policy towards Ireland was characterised by neglect, and occasionally by the demands of the Unionists.
In 1916 it is perhaps excusable than an exhausted HH Asquith thought that the war with Germany deserved his attention more than a bunch of hotheads in Dublin. And briefly his view of the rebels would have been widely shared by the mass of the Irish people.
He never considered what was the appropriate punishment for Ireland or its rebels. General Maxwell made the decisions, and the execution of sixteen made all the difference to Irish history.
Contrast 16 with 1,000 Mytileneans! Consider that on the western front 16 might be dying every second or minute. But those sixteen martyrs made all the difference.
There’s much evidence that Pearse sought martyrdom. For example the Irish Declaration of Independence paid tribute (somewhat gratuitously) to the rebels’ gallant allies, the Germans, who were at that moment slaughtering British youth, including of course Irish youth. The tribute was a provocation. But alas the British government never stopped to consider whether it might be sensible to deny him the martyrdom that he craved.
I am struck within your story of Mytilene by how bloodthirsty democracies can be. When I was Defence Secretary I often heard it said that democracies would never vote for war, but I believe that Athens often did.
Happy Christmas.
[It’s true, by the way, what he writes above the language in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, “supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe.” That is designedly provocative.]

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, England, Ireland, Military, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s