Saturday, December 7, 2019

A Portrait of Boris Johnson

From my own aerie, thousands of miles away from the center of the action, I am certainly not equipped to offer any analysis, cogent or not, about the upcoming British elections. For the record, they are scheduled for December 12.

What fascinates us all is the larger than life persona of one Boris Johnson. Touted incorrectly as the British Donald Trump, Johnson seems to be out of control, but at the same time in control. He is a member of the British upper classes, but comes across as a celebrity. As leader of the Tory party, he seems poised to produce a significant victory. And that means, an exit from the European Union. Since the British people voted for Brexit over two years ago, it’s about time that the parliament respected the will of the people.

When trying to grasp Boris, we cannot do much better than to examine the portrait painted by his fellow and contemporaneous Oxonian, Andrew Sullivan. Effectively, Boris was made for Sullivan. Almost a living contradiction in terms Boris does not fit in any clear categories. Thus, every one of Sullivan's disparagingly dismissive remarks is balanced against the evidence that Boris looks to be succeeding where others have failed.

So, I will largely defer to Sullivan’s superior knowledge, of Johnson and of British politics:

This comic figure has somehow managed to find himself at the center of the populist storms sweeping Britain and the West — first by becoming the most senior politician in Britain to back Brexit in 2016, and now by plotting a course that might actually bring the United Kingdom out of the epic, years-long, once-impossible-looking mess he helped make. Just over four months into office as PM, he appears poised to win an election he called and, if the polls are anywhere near correct, score a clear victory and take Britain out of the E.U. by the end of January.

Surely, it matters that the Labour party is led by a brain dead bigot by name of Jeremy Corbin, a man who has not only managed to embrace Islamist radicalism, but who also notably supported the home grown terrorists of the Irish Republican Army. For whatever reason, Boris is turning traditional Labour voters conservative. No small achievement that:

This “lovable buffoon,” as he’s called now by journalists and politicos as well as former Labour voters turning Tory in focus groups in the Midlands, has skillfully maneuvered toward a full term as prime minister and perhaps toward an era in British politics when the Conservative Party is defined less by Thatcherism than Borisism. Through complete lack of principle, endless charm, and ruthless ambition, he has managed to bring about a possibility that, not too long ago, probably only he allowed himself to fantasize about: that he would become not just prime minister but a significant one.

For his efforts to have the British government respect the will of the people, Boris has naturally been accused of being a self-centered narcissist:

He is now attacked as a racist and reckless Little Englander, gleefully wrecking the British economy, polarizing the country, and threatening to break up the U.K.
solely to advance his own narcissistic ambitions. Shallow, lazy, incompetent, and bigoted, this clown has somehow leveraged the fears of the many to advance the only thing he has ever genuinely believed in: his own destiny.

Wisely, Sullivan considers the alternative. That it is all an act, one designed to occupy newspaper space, to entertain the people while leading them in the right direction. Clearly, Boris, like Trump, plays it for the comedy:

But there is another story to be told about him: that he has been serious all along, using his humor and ridiculousness to camouflage political instincts that have, in fact, been sharper than his peers’. He sensed the shifting populist tides of the 2010s before most other leading politicians did and grasped the Brexit issue as a path to power. But he also understood how important it was not to be fully captured by that raw xenophobic energy. He saw Brexit discontent as something the political Establishment needed to engage and co-opt rather than dismiss and demonize, and he approached the opportunity in a very different way from his sometime ally Nigel Farage, whose provincial extremism veered into outright racism and whose political career Johnson has now all but ended.

Boris has seduced the people and conjured a magic trick by promising increased social spending. Whether or not he will deliver, is another problem:

So he is quietly forging a new conservatism — appealing to the working poor and aspiring middle classes, tough on immigration and crime, but much more generous in spending on hospitals and schools and science. Or so he says for now. And if he succeeds — by no means a sure thing, though at this point it almost seems foolish to bet against him — he won’t just be charting a new future for the U.K. but pioneering a path for other Western parties of the center right confronted by the rise of populist extremism.

And yet, as opposed to Trump, Boris is a toff, an insider, highly educated in the classics, self-deprecating to a fault, adept at debate and brilliant in his use of language. 

Boris is almost the opposite of this, his career a near-classic example of British Establishment insiderism with his deep learning, reverence for tradition, and a capacity to laugh at himself that is rare in most egos as big as his.

As Sullivan gins it up, he notes the apparent contradictions in the Johnson persona:

That Johnson sometimes appears as an outsider is largely a function of his personality and how he has skillfully marketed it: extremely smart but constitutionally lazy; upper class with a real feel for and delight in ordinary life; sexually promiscuous to an almost comical degree; a defender of rules as long as he is entitled to break them from time to time; a humorist and pun merchant who has succeeded in making his own aristocratic idiosyncrasies part of the joke; a ruthless careerist with a capacity for deceit and forgiveness; and a narcissist no one should even begin to trust. But of course, as loath as aristocrats of previous generations would have been to admit it, all of this may be even more characteristic of the country’s ruling class than a stiff-upper-lip sense of propriety.

Despite himself, Sullivan found Boris endearing when they both were attending Oxford:

At Oxford, it was the same performance. I overlapped with him for a year (1983–84) and, like him, was president of the Oxford Union. Compared with most of the toffs, he seemed to me endearing. So many other Etonians downplayed their upper-class origins, became lefties, smoked pot, softened their accents, and wore clothes indistinguishable from anyone else.

But Boris wore his class as a clown costume — never hiding it but subtly mocking it with a performance that was as eccentric as it was self-aware. He made others feel as if they were in on a joke he had created, which somewhat defused the class resentment he might otherwise have been subject to and which, like many from the lower ranks of British society, I mostly shared.

And yet, Johnson won two elections as mayor of London and was adjudged for having done a good job of it:

By the end of his term, a YouGov poll found that almost twice as many Londoners thought he did a good job as mayor as those who didn’t.

Sullivan then manages to fall into psycho diagnosis, noting that Boris seems not to have any friends, but does seem to have had a multitude of lovers. Note well that Sullivan has access to good sources:

… in speaking with multiple school and college contemporaries of Boris’s and with colleagues and former colleagues, including Cabinet ministers, I soon discovered no deep friendships or political networks. Compared with the elaborate social political network of, say, David Cameron, he is a loner. 

Some who know him suggest his attachment to consecutive lovers is the only way he can securely feel intimacy. Others simply believe that Boris has had one endless love affair with himself and that everything else is politics. Some see him as a persona rather than a person: “He has no purpose,” says an embittered old ally. “For someone so prodigiously talented to have no moral core is heartbreaking.”

For it all, Johnson commands respect:

Emmanuel Macron congratulated the new prime minister: “He may be a colorful character sometimes, but we all are at times. He’s got a temper, but he’s a leader with a real strategic vision. Those who didn’t take him seriously were wrong.”

Sullivan also respects Boris for having succeeded in neutering the British far right. This implies that those countries that have seen a resurgence of the far right have done so because their governments have projected weakness in dealing with, for example, Muslim migrants:

He has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervor has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this. What Cummings and Johnson believe is that the E.U., far from being an engine for liberal progress, has, through its overreach and hubris, actually become a major cause of the rise of the far right across the Continent. By forcing many very different countries into one increasingly powerful Eurocratic rubric, the E.U. has spawned a nationalist reaction. From Germany and France to Hungary and Poland, the hardest right is gaining. Getting out of the E.U. is, Johnson and Cummings argue, a way to counter and disarm this nationalism and to transform it into a more benign patriotism. Only the Johnson Tories have grasped this, and the Johnson strategy is one every other major democracy should examine.

Sullivan is grudging in his praise, but still, the accomplishments are real. Perhaps we will wake up next Friday to read of yet another:

And all of this has been made possible by Boris Johnson’s shameless ability to shift and reinvent his politics, betray his allies, lie to the public, and advance his own career. One of those close to him told me that the next group he will betray is the ERG, the hard-right Tory Brexiteers. And if he wins this election by a solid margin and seizes the center, he may force the Labour Party to reexamine how far left it has traveled in the past few years.


Anonymous said...

Writing from the UK, I agree with most of this.

But when I read "The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership", I am reduced to muttering "Overton window" under my breath.

What Sullivan regards as the centre would be seen as pretty far left in the US.

Johnson's tory party is actually a pretty statist centre-left party in the European tradition.

UbuMaccabee said...

OMG! The dreaded “right,” or worse, “far right” parties! You mean the normal way of viewing sound government, national identity, respect for customs and traditions, and the enforcement of a sovereign border? The rejection of a monstrous, unaccountable bureaucracy and the demand to import tens of thousands, if not millions, of illiterate, Saracen savages? I’ll take Hungary and Poland over Germany and France all day, thank you. The same idiots who blindly refuse to see the mountain of open, Muslim fueled Jew hatred on the left all across Europe spend their time waving about a molehill of anti Semitism in Hungary.