FINTAN O’TOOLE: As Brexit gets serious Britain sends in the clowns
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In an epic essay, Irish writer FINTAN O'TOOLE pierces the Boris bluster to brutally lay bare the true character beneath and what he tells us about the UK's future.
In his only novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, published in 2004, Boris Johnson uses a strange word. The hero, like Johnson himself at the time, is a backbench Conservative member of the House of Commons. Roger Barlow is, indeed, a somewhat unflattering self-portrait - he bicycles to Westminster, he is unfaithful to his wife, he is flippantly racist and politically opportunistic, and he is famously dishevelled:
"In the fond imagination of one Commons secretary who crossed his path he had the air of a man who had just burst through a hedge after running through a garden having climbed down a drainpipe on being surprised in the wrong marital bed."
Barlow, throughout the novel, is in constant fear that his political career is about to be ended by a tabloid scandal. In a moment of introspection, he reflects on this anxiety:
"There was something prurient about the way he wanted to read about his own destruction, just as there was something weird about the way he had been impelled down the course he had followed. Maybe he wasn't a genuine akratic. Maybe it would be more accurate to say he had a thanatos urge." [Emphases added]
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The novel is a mass-market comic thriller about a terrorist plot to capture the US president while he is addressing parliament in London. The Greek terms stand out. In part, they function as signifiers of social class within a long-established code of linguistic manners: a sprinkling of classical phrases marks one out as a product of an elite private school (in Johnson's case, Eton) and therefore a proper toff. (Asked in June during the contest to replace Theresa May as Tory leader to name his political hero, Johnson chose Pericles of Athens.)
The choice of thanatos is interesting, and the thought that he might have a death wish will ring bells for those who have followed the breathtaking recklessness of Johnson's career. But it is akratic that intrigues.
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The Leave campaign that Johnson led to a stunning victory in the referendum of June 2016 owed much of its success to its carefully calibrated slogan 'Take Back Control'.
Akrasia, which is discussed in depth by Socrates, Plato, and especially Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, is the contrary of control. It means literally 'not being in command of oneself' and is translated variously as 'weakness of will', 'incontinence', and 'loss of self-control'.
To Aristotle, an akratic is a person who knows the right thing to do but can't help doing the opposite. This is not just, as he himself seems to have intuited, Boris Johnson to a tee. It is also the reason why he embodies more than anyone else a Brexit project in which the very people who promised to take back control are utterly incapable of exercising it, even over themselves. "Oh God, oh Gawd," asks Barlow in a question that now echoes through much of the British establishment, "why had he done it? Why had he put himself in this ludicrous position?"
To grasp how Johnson's akratic character has brought his country to a state approaching anarchy, it is necessary to return to the days immediately before February 21, 2016, when he announced to an expectant throng of journalists that he would support the Leave campaign.
This was a crucial moment - polls have since shown that, in what turned out to be a very close-run referendum, Boris, as the mayor of London had branded himself, had a greater influence on voters than anyone else.
"Character is destiny, said the Greeks, and I agree," writes Johnson in The Churchill Factor, his 2014 book about Winston Churchill, which carries the telling subtitle How One Man Made History. While the book shows Johnson to be a true believer in the Great Man theory of history, his own moment of destiny plays it out as farce, the fate of a nation turning not on Churchillian resolution but on Johnsonian indecision.
For Johnson was, in his own words, "veering all over the place like a shopping trolley". On Saturday, February 20, he texted David Cameron to say he was going to advocate for Brexit. A few hours later, he texted again to say that he might change his mind and back Remain.
Sometime between then and the following day, he wrote at least two different columns for the Daily Telegraph - his deadline was looming, so he wrote one passionately arguing for Leave and one arguing that the cost of Brexit would be too high. (Asked once if he had any convictions, Johnson replied, "Only one - for speeding…")
Then, early on Sunday evening, he texted Cameron to say that he was about to announce irrevocably that he was backing Leave. But, as Cameron told his communications director, Craig Oliver, at the time, Johnson added two remarkable things. One was that "he doesn't expect to win, believing Brexit will be 'crushed'". The other was staggering: "'He actually said he thought we could leave and still have a seat on the European Council - still making decisions.'"
The expectation - perhaps the hope - of defeat is telling. Johnson's anti-EU rhetoric was always a Punch and Judy show, and without the EU to play Judy, the show would be over. But the belief that Britain would keep its seat on the European Council (which consists of the leaders of each member state and makes most of the EU's big political decisions), even if it left the EU, is mind-melting.
Not only was Johnson unconvinced that he was taking the right side on one of the most important questions his country has faced since the Second World War, but he was unaware of the most basic consequence of Brexit. Britain had joined the common market, as it was then called, in 1973 precisely because it was being profoundly affected by decisions made in Brussels and was therefore better off having an equal say in those decisions.
Johnson's belief that Britain would continue to have a seat at the European table after Brexit suggested a profound ignorance not just of his country's future but of its entire post-war past.
This ignorance is not stupidity - Johnson is genuinely clever and, as his fictional alter ego Barlow shows, quite self-aware. It is the studied carelessness affected by a large part of the English upper class whose manners and attitudes Johnson - in reality the product of a rather bohemian bourgeois background - thoroughly absorbed.
Consequences are for the little people, seriousness for those who are paid to clean up the mess. In Seventy-Two Virgins, Barlow is anatomised by his sober-minded intern. (It is typical of Johnson's incestuously chummy rivalry with his fellow Old Etonian and rising Tory star that this lowly assistant is named Cameron.)
She watches him in action at a constituency meeting: "Barlow had given an intelligent answer… and then thrown it all away with some flip aside…. Didn't he understand that these guys cared about this question?" Caring about the question is not Barlow's, or Johnson's, thing. Everything Johnson says is really a flip aside. As Cameron (the intern, but presumably also the prime minister) concludes, "he is characterised by his political evasiveness, his moral evasiveness, and indeed, dammit, his sheer physical evasiveness".
'Evasiveness' can be a polite term for lying, and it is impossible to understand Johnson without recalling that he has quite literally made a career of mendacity. At the end of that fateful weekend in February 2016, the Telegraph, which pays him £275,000 a year for a weekly column, dutifully spiked his sincere plea to Remain and published his anti-EU column.
It cited as the main reason for Brexit that "the more the EU does, the less room there is for national decision-making. Sometimes these EU rules sound simply ludicrous, like the rule that you can't recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons". The truth is that some local councils in Britain itself had introduced rules against recycling teabags, which have nothing to do with the EU. As for children under eight not being allowed to blow up balloons, EU safety rules simply say that packets of balloons should carry the words "Warning: children under eight can choke or suffocate".
But Johnson has always understood that a vivid lie is much more memorable than a dull truth. He is a product of the tight little world of English class privilege in which the same people move from elite schools to elite universities to (often interchangeable) careers in politics and the media. (Johnson's contemporaries at Oxford included David Cameron, a fellow member of the aggressively elitist Bullingdon Club; his own main rivals for the Tory leadership, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove; and the political editors of the BBC and Channel 4 who now report on him.)
From Oxford he soon sailed into a position as a graduate trainee at the Times. It was there that he learned a valuable lesson: it pays to fabricate stories. The Times had to fire him because he sexed up a dull story by inventing lurid quotes and attributing them to a real Oxford historian (who happened to be his own godfather). Instead of ending his journalistic career, this was the seed from which it blossomed. Almost immediately he was hired by the Daily Telegraph, which then employed him as its Brussels correspondent between 1989 and 1994.
The job of a Brussels correspondent is an odd one. It almost entirely consists of covering the EU, and therefore it carries a degree of prestige. But most of the time, the EU is immensely dull. Johnson thus had a plum job but one with little public profile. His genius was to turn page 20 stories into page one stories by seizing on relatively inconsequential EU market regulations and inflating them into attacks by demented foreigners on the British way of life.
He claimed the EU had considered "plans for a maximum condom width of 54mm," which would of course restrict the better-endowed Englishman. He spotted a regulation limiting harmful additives in packets of crisps and made it a question of national sovereignty. As he confessed in 2002, "Some of my most joyous hours have been spent in a state of semi-incoherence, composing foam-flecked hymns of hate to the latest Euro-infamy: the ban on the prawn cocktail flavour crisp".
The stories were fabulous bubbles of outrage (prawn-cocktail flavoured crisps were never banned), but the foam-flecked hymns of hate were real. Sonia Purnell, who was his deputy in the Telegraph's Brussels office in the early 1990s, describes in her excellent biography, Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, how far he went to transform himself...
"from Bumbling Boris to Bilious Boris before penning yet another explosive tract. Most days, just before copy deadline, he would do this by a tried-and-tested method known as the 'four o'clock rant'… After locking his door, he would then work himself up into a frenzy by hurling repeated four-letter abuse at a ragged yucca plant near his desk".
Johnson's anti-EU journalistic performances were a kind of method acting - and they required from his editors and his readers a willing suspension of disbelief.
This raises the two central questions about Johnson - does he believe any of his own claims, and do his followers in turn believe him? In both cases, the answer is yes, but only in the highly qualified way that an actor inhabits his role and an audience knowingly accepts the pretence.
Johnson's appeal lies precisely in the creation of a comic persona that evades the distinction between reality and performance.
The Greek philosophers found akrasia mysterious - why would people knowingly do the wrong thing? But Johnson knows the answer: they do so, in England at least, because knowingness is essential to being included.
You have to be 'in on the joke' - and Johnson has shown just how far some English people will go in order not to look like they are not getting it. The anthropologist Kate Fox, in her classic study Watching the English, suggested that a crucial rule of the national discourse is what she called "The Importance of Not Being Earnest": "At the most basic level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of 'earnestness'." Johnson has played on this to perfection - he knows that millions of his compatriots would rather go along with his outrageous fabrications than be accused of the ultimate sin of taking things too seriously.
'Boris being Boris' (the phrase that has long been used to excuse him) is an act, a turn, a travelling show. Johnson's father, Stanley, was fired from his job at the World Bank in 1968 when he submitted a satiric proposal for a $100 million loan to Egypt to build three new pyramids and a sphinx. But the son cultivated in England an audience more receptive to the half-comic, half-convincing notion that the EU might be just such an absurdist enterprise.
What he honed in his Brussels years is the practice of political journalism (and then of politics itself) as Monty Python sketch. He invented a version of the EU as a gigantic Ministry of Silly Walks, in which crazed bureaucrats with huge budgets develop ever more pointlessly complicated gaits. (In the original sketch, the British bureaucrats are trying to keep up with 'Le Marché Commun', the common market.)
Johnson's Brussels is a warren of bureaucratic redoubts in which lurk a Ministry of Dangerous Balloons, a Ministry of Tiny Condoms, and a Ministry of Flavourless Crisps. In this theatre of the absurd, it never matters whether the stories are true; what matters is that they are ludicrous enough to fly under the radar of credibility and hit the sweet spot where preexisting prejudices are confirmed.
This running joke made Johnson not just highly popular as a comic anti-politician but, for many of his compatriots, the embodiment of that patriotic treasure, the English eccentric.
There is a long tradition of embracing the eccentric (though in reality only the upper-class male eccentric) as proof of the English love of liberty and individualism, in contrast to the supposed slavishness of the European continentals. No less a figure than John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty (1859) that "precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric".
Mill associated eccentricity with "strength of character", but Johnson has been able to turn it upside down - his very weakness of character (the chaos, the fecklessness, the mendacity) provides for his admirers a patriotically heartening proof that the true English spirit has not yet been chewed up in the homogenising maw of a humourless and excessively organised EU.
Here we must bear in mind that Johnson really did learn a great deal from his boyhood hero Churchill. What he emulated was not any kind of steadfastness or ability to lead but a self-conscious political theatricality. "He was," writes Johnson in The Churchill Factor, "eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes".
Johnson's use of "camp" is an astute insight - he understands very well the strain of louchely histrionic Toryism that runs from Benjamin Disraeli through Churchill to the intellectual father of Brexit, Enoch Powell. Johnson, too, has "his own special trademark clothes", albeit that he is the anti-dandy whose slovenly dishevelment is carefully cultivated as a sartorial brand.
Johnson, moreover, uses Churchill to lend his own cynicism and mendacity a paradoxical kind of gravity. In his book, he argues that the great wartime leader...
"wasn't what people thought of as a man of principle; he was a glory-chasing goal-mouth-hanging opportunist…. As for his political career - my word, what a feast of bungling!… His enemies detected in him a titanic egotism, a desire to find whatever wave or wavelet he could, and surf it long after it had dissolved into spume on the beach…. Throughout his early career he was not just held to be untrustworthy - he was thought to be congenitally untrustworthy."
This is not just Boris in drag as Winston. It is intended to suggest a crazed logic. Churchill was an unprincipled opportunist, a serial bungler, and a congenitally untrustworthy egotist; therefore, only someone who has all of these qualities in abundance can become the new Churchill that conservative England craves.
It is a mark of how far Britain has fallen that, in what may indeed be its biggest crisis since 1940, so many Tories are willing to suspend disbelief in Johnson's pantomime caricature of the man who gave it the courage to 'stand alone' in that dark hour. So what if he has the V for Victory sign the wrong way around?
What, though, might a Johnson premiership actually look like? Donald Trump is the obvious point of reference. Johnson told a closed meeting in June 2018 that he was "increasingly admiring" of Trump and suggested that the US president would be the ideal negotiator for Britain with the EU: "He'd go in bloody hard… there'd be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos…. Everyone would think he'd gone mad. But actually, you might get somewhere." Trump, for his part, openly endorsed Johnson a week before his recent state visit to Britain: "I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent."
Both men see themselves, with good reason, as creatures who thrive on chaos. Johnson also shares with Trump a puerile fascination with gigantic and illusory infrastructure projects. As mayor of London, he left the city with large bills for an unbuilt airport on a fantasy island (known to his fans in the press as Boris Island) and a 'garden bridge' across the Thames for which the abandoned plans cost £46 million.
He proposed, shortly after leading the campaign to take Britain out of the EU, to deal with the threat of isolation from the continent by somehow erasing the English Channel and thus undoing "the physical separation that took place at the end of the Ice Age". He has proposed to deal with Brexit's threat to Northern Ireland's place in the UK by building a vast (and impossible) bridge linking it to Scotland.
Both he and Trump are racists, though Johnson's variety is much more arch and knowing. When he wrote in 2002 of Queen Elizabeth, on her visits to Commonwealth countries, being greeted by "flag-waving piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles", he was (surely consciously) echoing Powell's infamous "Rivers of Blood" diatribe, delivered 35 years earlier, which used the same curiously coy Christy's Minstrels term of racist abuse. Powell had spoken of the plight of another elderly English lady: "When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies."
The word itself configures racism as an archaic, old-world, baroque notion, as if the racist epithet is being uttered not by a contemporary English politician but by a Southern belle in an old plantation novel.
In Seventy-Two Virgins, the journalist who is digging into Barlow's scandals is ethnically Asian, and Johnson calls her the "pestilential Debbie Gujaratne". He also gives us a Nigerian traffic warden with a comic 'black' accent: "De law is de law…. I cannot make de rules."
But this is all, unlike Trump's racism, wrapped in a coquettish, camp jokiness. When the Nigerian man is attacked by Serbs, Barlow thinks, "Ah yes… a classic scene of our modern vibrant multicultural society, a group of asylum seekers in dispute with a Nigerian traffic warden." Here, as always, Johnson claims the privileges of the clown while exercising the power of a politician.
Trump and Johnson are both serial philanderers. According to Purnell, Johnson once explained to another man that, though married, he had to have a lot of affairs because he was "literally bursting with spunk". But - and this is why his sexual life is relevant to his political prospects - these affairs were all conquest and no consequence. Johnson refused to pay the medical bills when his lover Petronella Wyatt had an abortion. The boyfriend of another of his lovers was left to pay the medical bills when she gave birth to what was almost certainly Johnson's child.
As it is with sex, so with political power - the conquest of 10 Downing Street is Johnson's desire; the consequences of what he might do there are very much a secondary consideration.
Here, though, two differences between Trump and Johnson are important. First, Trump has been able to mobilise a visceral American nationalism. Johnson cannot articulate the powerful but inchoate English nationalism that has driven Brexit. In part this is because he is not really a nationalist - born in New York and raised for some of his childhood in Brussels, his fantasy world is much more a reconstituted 'global Britain' than the Little England imagined by many of his followers. (This divide is one of the insoluble contradictions of Brexit: its leaders, Johnson included, are globalists, while its followers are English nationalists.)
In part, too, it is because Johnson cannot disentangle himself from the United Kingdom. He insists that the "union [of Britain and Northern Ireland] comes first," even though it is abundantly clear that most of those who voted for Brexit and most Tory party members are quite happy to see Scotland and Northern Ireland depart. There is little sense that Johnson has any idea of how he might channel this English nationalism into a reinvented British patriotism or unleash it without destroying the UK.
Secondly, Trump sustains his base through the relentless repetition of the same slogans. He is brutally consistent. Johnson, especially on the all-consuming question of Brexit, is still "veering all over the place like a shopping trolley". He was - as a disastrously incompetent foreign secretary - part of the government that negotiated the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, including the controversial 'backstop' provisions that would prevent the creation of a hard border between the Irish republic and Northern Ireland.
He resigned in 2018 and denounced the agreement claiming that it would make the EU "our colonial masters". In March this year he voted in the House of Commons for the withdrawal agreement, backstop, colonial masters, and all. And then he ran for the Tory leadership on a promise to tear up the backstop even if it means a catastrophic no-deal Brexit.
So while Trump's anarchism shades into authoritarianism, Johnson's shades into a kind of insouciant nihilism.
The joker's evasiveness that has taken him to power will be no use to him when he has to make fateful decisions. Brexit is finally moving beyond a joke. But what lies ahead for Johnson in those uncharted waters?
His best joke was not meant to be one. In November 2016 he claimed that "Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a titanic success of it". In this weirdly akratic moment of British history, most of those who support Johnson actually know very well that Brexit is the Titanic and that his evasive actions will be of no avail.
But if the ship is going down anyway, why not have some fun with Boris on the upper deck? There is a fatalistic end-of-days pleasure in the idea of Boris doing his Churchill impressions while the iceberg looms ever closer. When things are too serious to be contemplated in sobriety, send in the clown.
- This article first appeared in The New York Review of Books