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The Lord of the Lies: How Germany’s view of Britain is shifting with Boris Johnson at Number 10

Boris Johnson. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

How does Boris Johnson’s evocation of Churchillian wartime spirit go down with out friends in Germany? PETER LITTGER tells us what it has been like to observe the change from Cool Britannia to Rule Britannia.

The language used by the self-proclaimed “war cabinet” led by prime minister Johnson is so hostile that it could be labelled ‘propaganda used in the time of war”. Without any regard for good relations and domestic peace, they lie, accuse and discriminate. A new low for freedom.

Twisted and hyped messages coming from Westminster are nothing new. The “Cool Britannia” motto of the nineties still lingers. That was the time when London enthused the world with its fresh cosmopolitanism; when Britpop conveyed youthful optimism and when Tony Blair promised his followers the “third way”. Keen to attract young (and conservative) voters with “hip” messages, Blair seemed to have overlooked, however, the recklessness of using the “Cool Britannia” slogan for political purposes. After all, it evoked the old, patriotic song, “Rule Britannia!”: the claim to British global domination – an evocation that was anything but cool.

So much already became apparent shortly after Johnson had drummed up his new team around the cabinet table at the end of July and there was talk of a “war cabinet”, like the one Winston Churchill headed during the Second World War. Taking the mickey? Yes and no! Given the heated struggle over Brexit and focus on the adamantly promised – pardon the expression – “Endsieg” (final victory in the parlance of Germany’s wartime leadership), people are finding it difficult to find such war-related jokes funny and to excuse them in the familiar, flippant manner. “Cool Britannia” may be as dead as a dodo, but “Rule Britannia” is back! With specific threats, attempts at blackmail and downright lies.

Recalling autocratic regimes

The language the Brexiters use and their style of communication do indeed bear the hallmarks of propaganda that was hitherto attributed to autocratic regimes rather than British free-spirits. There are, for example, the new language rules that Jacob Rees-Mogg has issued, as if he were a censor in ancient Rome, in his role as Leader of the House of Commons. In black and white they ban such words as “equal”. He also required untitled men to be designated as “esquires”, that is, as attendants to the titled – but women are not included!

Although it is a small measure that will not have much of an impact, it does, above all, show how pedantic Rees-Mogg is, as it is doubtless part of a new, irony-free propaganda. Politics with language. And in a manner can reasonably be described as “reactionary”, “discriminatory” and “unworldly”. Or perhaps “progressively returning to the past”.

With its irritating messages, Brexiters’ uncool propaganda has for some time been directed at us and other Europeans as well as British society: On the one hand, they have been complaining to the outside for three years about being pushed out of the EU. Ambassadors, ministers and media – many have repeated this passive-aggressive accusation, plucking it as it were out of the air.

On the other hand, exhortation to hold out is directed at the domestic audience; a plea that suggests more in the way of real problems and an unfunnily critical overall situation than glorious times ahead. A remarkable, new pomposity and overconfidence of the country’s position has arisen in this climate. While even Theresa May no longer found “Great” to be fabulous enough and tried to get the country’s citizens to embrace a “Global Britain” emergency rebranding, Boris Johnson took an ever bigger swig of the potion. In his first communicative act, he declared himself as “Minister of the Union” and the United Kingdom as “the greatest place on earth”. Which invariably evokes Donald Trump and also a bit of the Great Dictator who lies face-down on his desk and holds the globe in the air with his backside.

In Germany, where a similar exhortation to hold out was last heard about 80 years ago, we know only too well that this kind of propaganda is needed when final victory is under threat. When there are serious doubts, and great concern prevails. When the invulnerable hero begins to feel the pain and his heroic downfall becomes the alternative.

Campaign team or government?

The world’s public has known ever since the success of the Vote Leave campaign that the struggle for Brexit calls for much twisting of reality and also quite simply brazen lies. Those responsible for manipulation and deception were sentenced to six-digit fines. The key figures now nevertheless form the government: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and not least a man by the name of Dominic Cummings. Cummings, considered to be the secret mastermind behind the Vote Leave campaign, is thought to have come up with the red bus that carried the lie that the NHS loses 350 million pounds a week to the EU up and down the country.

Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Cummings provided HBO and Channel 4 with a model for their Brexit drama. The title was as good as the drama itself: “The Uncivil War”. After all, it plays two ways: first, in reference to the crisis at home, with Brexit having led to an argument of civil war-like magnitude and fears of unrest or even an actual civil war. Secondly, it refers to the entirely uncivilised, that is, audacious methods used by the Brexit gang. This also includes the fact that other influential PR consultants and lobbyists are members of the “war cabinet” – and from the start have made it look more like a campaign team than a government.

Boris Johnson likes to say that he intends always to freely and openly say what he thinks – however without explaining clearly why this freedom would be in so much doubt in his case. For example, when he compared burqa-wearing women with letterboxes and bank robbers he subsequently claimed to have intended to defend their self-determination. Or when he – as he has repeatedly for decades – holds the EU’s administration responsible for problems that do not even exist because he invented them.

A kipper too far

Just recently, while contesting the party leadership to become prime minister, he held a kipper up in the air and claimed that strict European regulations on refrigerating fish are driving the producers into bankruptcy. It later turned out that these are exclusively British regulations. The Conservative Party’s members elected him nonetheless – and thereby accepted a virtually post-truth prime minister.

But that’s not all. A video clip of an official visit in Myanmar shows how inappropriate, hostile and above all wilful Johnson’s gaffes can be. Like a truculent schoolboy, Johnson recited the poem “Road to Mandalay” in a temple; a poem about British colonial rule in the former Burma. It was a kind of “Rule Britannia” in verse. The British ambassador felt compelled to advise his foreign secretary that this was “not appropriate” and that he should stop immediately. Yet Johnson simply retorted: “Good stuff”.

As cronies, biographers and of course his fans – here in Germany too – ascribe a special degree of intelligence and education to him and love to glorify him as congenial and socially skilled communicator, it may or rather must be assumed that Boris Johnson always acts and talks in a fully intentional way. His behaving in this way, regularly hurling insults and false assertions in all directions, justifies the simple conclusion that premeditated lies and coercions are part of his strategy rather than the result of unreflected irony, situation comedy and perhaps the instinct of a speaker who spontaneously opts for a punch line and will just spontaneously twist a few facts to make it.

A hero needs a crisis – if need be he’ll invent it

Boris Johnson is a story-teller who, not for no reason, wrote a biography about the “Churchill Factor”. With his own take on Churchill – hunched stance, Oxford stutter, mumbling to the point of incomprehensibility – he follows the narrative of the invincible hero in his “finest hour”. That calls for a crisis; a conflict and best of all a war – if need be by conjuring it up.

And herein lies the fabricated circumstance that should cause most concern both in and outside what is still the United Kingdom: The British people have meanwhile been so heavily indoctrinated with lies that they have probably lost a clear appreciation of the advantages of pan-European collaboration. Both major parties share responsibility for this:

– Labour, which veered off its cool third way long ago, has been claiming for years that the EU is a project of the neo-liberal elite – to the detriment of the hard-working population.

– Tories hostile to Europe have always painted the EU as a quasi-socialist project. During the Conservative Party conference in the autumn of 2018, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt blatantly compared the EU with the Soviet Union and its gulags.

The manipulation and deception of the UK’s population has for years gone deeper still. By all sides, the EU was framed as the scapegoat for theirworries, problems and not least for British society’s home-made luxury problems:

– The lower class was led to believe that its situation was due to (poor) immigrants from Eastern Europe, who were being systematically directed to the country by the EU.

– To the middle class it was suggested that its frustration was the result of productive swots like the Germans and lazy freeloaders in Southern Europe and France.

– The upper class was convinced that the EU is a kind of middle class project that creates ever higher taxes and social security levies as well as generating an ever increasing number of unabashed normies who want secure and well-paid jobs.

These are all distorted and twisted representations that are, in short, untrue. Boris Johnson, who embodies them like no other prime minister and took part in fabricating them, furthermore belongs to those who conceal another truth about the British upper crust: everything involved with the business of “tax avoidance” that we in Germany traditionally project onto Switzerland, for wealthy Brits takes place on the islands off their own shore and, not least, in their own capital city.

Alternatively, they also have their own tax havens overseas. The plan to turn the United Kingdom into a kind of low-tax zone like Singapore would seem to suggest as much. The fact that Brexit could serve the interests of the rich against the wider British population, just as the United Kingdom quite obviously suffers more from rich than from poor immigrants – and on which the EU has no influence whatsoever – is something that no member of the government has so far sufficiently explained, let alone raised.

Boris Johnson has undertaken to spread optimism and combat readiness, instead of talking about problems like David Cameron once did by taking the notion of the “broken society” to be his mantra. Johnson wants to “deliver” Brexit by 31 October; come what may, “do or die”! These words also come from a poem: “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. It deals with a heavy defeat of British troops in the Crimean War. Oh well, no matter, the well-read Oxford graduate may have thought: it’s close enough.

Disappointment and the pain

Be it self-protestation or self-deception: Brexiters’ present propaganda also evokes the battle cry of “football’s coming home”, which likewise emerged in the nineties. It is a kind of “Rule Britannia” and “Road to Mandalay” for English football fans: full of nostalgia, full of illusion and full of presumption. The louder fans shout it, the more they believe in winning a trophy – only to find every time that they have once again overrated their team, which once again returned home empty-handed.

The disappointment and pain are even part of the song. “Thirty years of hurt …” have meanwhile become “50 years of hurt”. The reference is to the last World Cup victory in 1966, against – who else? – Germany. This is actually an entirely different story, but it fits very well with the affirmative, belligerent pronouncements we hear coming out of the UK due to Brexit. Luckily, football battles take place on the playing field – and when they seriously escalate, then perhaps in the stadium or somewhere in the pedestrian zone.

The political situation is explosive; it is being fuelled by the government’s lies, and it could escalate across the board quite soon. It will surely not lead to a real war – although no one should underestimate the situation in Ireland. Yet, inside the country, a conflict looms than could turn into violence. We should in any case not kid ourselves. The threats and the scenarios that are even now readily accepted are self-evidently hostile. The underlying stance is similar to that before a major battle: All right, we must now get through this no matter what it costs, do or die!

The risk in the process of thinking irrationally and of acting to one’s own detriment as well as that of others is huge. It is always – in terms of both individual and mass psychology – the result of fear. The consequence is destruction: of good relations. Of internal cohesion. And not least Britain’s own credibility.

– Peter Littger is a writer, speaker and author. He tweets @plittger.

– A German version of this article originally appeared on

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