Sunday 18 July 2021

Tories, Tyrants & Tall Poppies


In this week’s incoherent speech ‘explaining’ his ‘levelling up policy', delivered at a West Midlands battery factory where he had apparently inserted some of the goods into his frontal lobes, Boris Johnson attempted to drown his lack of a plan in a tsunami of metaphors: jam-spreading, robbery, rings of steel, building a wall of vaccine against waves of virus, throwing things to the wind, getting up a tail wind, playing around the football goal’s mouth, strenghthening sinews, and—best of all—'the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce—the ketchup of catch-up’.

But one of these vertiginous images involved one his flashiest classical references: ‘We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies; we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer’. We can’t possibly tax the rich any more, after all. Perish the thought.

This reference puts Johnson into dodgy company. Thrasybulus, tyrant of Miletus, sent a message to the even bloodthirstier Periander, tyrant of Corinth,  to teach him how to hold onto power. He took Periander’s herald to a field, and cut off all the tallest ears of wheat, which Periander rightly understood as an instruction to slaughter all the most powerful individuals in his country (Herodotus 5.92). Aristotle tells the same story, but put the tyrants’ names the other way round (Pol. 3.1284a).

Tarquinius Superbus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema,

Specifically Tall Poppy Discourse was used by the nonpareil Roman despots, the Tarquins. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus lopped all the tallest poppies in his garden to indicate to his equally nasty rapist son Sextus (NB Jacob Rees-Mogg seems to have remembered this when he baptised a son ‘Sixtus’) that he should execute the leading men of Gabii (Livy 1.54).

Everyday Life in the Tarquin Family

I accept that Boris says that the Tories DON’T want to cut off the heads of the Tall Poppies of London and Middle England. The problem is, he hasn’t said how he’s otherwise going to increase the height of the Short Poppies of the North, let alone its dandelions and daisies. Metaphorical Bulimia is not an Economic Policy.

6-foot Poppies of Guernsey This Morning

But his choice of allusion seems to me to offer interesting material to a psychoanalyst thinking about Projection. BTW I’m weekending in the Channel Islands (to visit my ageing father-in-law for the first time since he buried his wife all alone under Lockdown 1). These are floating tax avoidance sanctuaries. I’ve noticed that the poppies are tall indeed.


  1. Beautiful article, thank you! It makes you think about how our Prime Minister is wasting his talent for Classics.

  2. Beautiful article, thank you! It makes you think how our Prime Minister is wasting his talent for Classics.