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What Boris Johnson really tells us about the state of Britain

Boris Johnson - Credit: Getty Images

The Foreign Secretary thinks he’s re-creating Britain’s imperial past. In fact, he acts like he’s in ‘Allo ‘Allo, and is turning the UK into a Twilight Zone of bunting and marching bands

‘The biggest stitch-up since the Bayeux tapestry.’

That’s how the Right Honourable Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, currently Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the nation’s top diplomat and head of MI6, described something that, in his view, never happened: David Cameron’s private re-negotiation of our EU terms.

But it doesn’t matter because ‘that’s Boris’. And that’s the problem.

One of the perks of being an immigrant is that you can see things with different eyes if you want to.

Although I’ve been a Londoner half my life, and a UK and EU citizen for a third of it, I’ve never lost my American accent nor sense of being somewhere new and different.

When I was on the board of the British Museum, one of the things that I liked to do was go ‘backstage’ – into the warehouses and see what we didn’t have room to display. I can recall friends telling me that they would never set foot in the Museum because it was a warehouse for ‘imperial loot’.

During my time there we certainly tried to de-imperialise it, but what many of the millions of visitors from Britain and across the globe come for is to see that ‘loot’.

Johnson rolled up one evening to give an address about something or other, but what struck me was how in awe the audience was of him. How they hung on his every word, laughed at his jokes. Adored him. Even my English public-school husband laughed. And he detests Johnson’s politics and tendency to be ‘economical with the truth’.

Yet the then Mayor of London looked strangely right standing in the agora of the Museum’s Great Court, a 20th Century Billy Bunter rattling off a speech in Latin at a clip. He seemed to represent everything that was at once that moveable feast known as ‘The English’.

He was straight out of The Four Feathers, Where No Vultures Fly, Ice Cold In Alex and Sink The Bismarck! those classics of ‘don’t look like you’re trying’ and ‘whip Johnny Foreigner’.

Making fun of foreigners is our latest Foreign Secretary’s mainstay. That’s weird to me (a foreigner) because Johnson is descended on his father’s side from the Circassian–Turkish journalist Ali Kemal, who had fled to Britain. When he returned home he was murdered by a lynch mob for political reasons in Istanbul in 1922.

Kemal’s mother was a Circassian, and more than likely an Ottoman slave. Circassian women were prized for their blond hair, which Johnson and his siblings have inherited.

But again, maybe this opens up a story about Britain and its attitude to the EU. The Duke of Wellington reputedly said that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and the Brexit story – where we are – might have been won, and lost, there, too.

It’s well known now that Boris (‘call me what you like’ he said on the Sunday shows last week) had (has?) a rivalry with David Cameron that dates back to when they were schoolboys at Eton. It grew to become the crisis we’re in now.

Cameron, in an attempt to shut down his party’s obsession with Europe, and also to outflank UKIP, put an EU referendum in the Tories’ 2015 General Election manifesto.

Johnson, you’d think, would be a natural ally, a born Europhile (which he had been if you read his various writings from not too long ago). But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. It was that English schoolboy thing again and he came out as the opposite (‘Do keep up’!, as he’d say).

Suddenly he became a Man of The People whistlestopping and touring the country with a bullhorn. He promised millions for the NHS from the money we’d have from not paying in to the EU. He intoned ‘Take Back Control’, that chasm into which anything can be chucked, just like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’.

He was chanting this again last Sunday as he toured the studios debunking a story about being undermined in the corridors of European power. The American press had laughed during a press briefing at the US State Department when he was mentioned, and the French had greeted his appointment as an example of ‘English humour’.

But the big question is what does his appointment, his prominence, tell us about the attitude of the UK as we begin the unprecedented process of uncoupling from the EU?

It tells us that we’re entering into all of this in the belief that we have the upper hand: that the 27 other EU nations live in an ‘Allo, ‘Allo! universe where all we have to do is insist that everyone speak English and we reply very loudly and very slowly.

There was something touching about Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the EU in its dealings with the UK, speaking in English about his vote in the French referendum in 1972. That vote was to decide whether Britain could join the European Communities. The last time the UK had tried, president Charles de Gaulle had firmly said ‘non!’. Barnier said: ‘I voted ‘yes’, I feel even now that I didn’t make a mistake.’

But to the Boris Tendency – that part of the eurosceptic right wing press – this means nothing. It means nothing simply because Europe does not exist outside the pages of a long forgotten language lesson, or a glass of wine, a holiday or, maybe, a film.

So it would never occur to them that the EU has the whip hand, is the larger party here, is 27 nations, is the power.

Every time the media laughs at Johnson in a mixture of awe and the sort of indulgence given to a little boy, the nation is plunged deeper into a kind of Twilight Zone – complete with bunting, marching bands and long tables of picnic food drenched in the summer rain.

This attitude has led Theresa May to appeal the High Court’s ruling that Article 50 must be, in effect, triggered by Parliament, our elected representatives, not through an ancient piece of ‘crown-in-parliament’. She’s allowed Brexit to be laid bare for all the world to see. The emperor has no clothes.

So I have to return to the storehouses of the British Museum, stand there in all my immigrant-ness and ask the question: is Britain’s imperial past the real thing being yearned for?

If you look at Brexit like that, including the ludicrous point of view that Europe is waiting with bated breath on the UK to define the terrain, then ‘Take Back Control’ takes on another meaning. Maybe its real one.

Then, Boris becomes a kind of Churchill – his idol – a Big Figure who can compass all of the lost dreams in the derring-do of his very being.

He renders the 21st century a mistake. He can question the president of the United States’ honesty because of the fact that his father was born in Kenya – with barely a whimper from the body politic. For many out there, there is a residual view that, the president is a ‘wog’ after all. And as the old saying goes: ‘wogs begin at Calais.’

The danger of Johnson is that we calibrate our response to Europe through him and people like him: the equivalent of the guy who asks in a loud voice in a Spanish bar: ‘Anybody speak English in here?’

What he is is a lie. What he gives is a false assurance. What he brings is chaos.

And yet, he shambles along, safe in the ties that bind him to a myth, given voice by Shakespeare, the greatest poet who ever lived:

‘This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.’

Bonnie Greer is a critic, playwright and author

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