Isaiah Berlin once denounced somebody for being “that rare thing – a genuine charlatan”. He pointed out that few people, even quacks and imposters, deceive and manipulate all the time. Boris Johnson is a prime example of Berlin’s rare breed, who does just that with his boosterism, false promises and lying. This is attested to by everybody from newspaper editors like Max Hastings, who knew him during his days as a journalist, to his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.
For a proportion of the public, the fact that their prime minister is a charlatan (or a mountebank – a useful word that has largely gone out of fashion) is an accepted if regrettable feature of the political landscape. But dismissive contempt and furious hostility both serve to prevent proper analysis of the real-life consequences of having somebody as frivolous as Johnson, along with his lightweight appointees, in charge of the country.
The result is not automatically negative, since their very incapacity may undermine their ability to do real harm. But of course one should not bet on a happy outcome. As Cummings showed, giving chapter and verse, Johnson’s chaotically poor judgement over the Covid-19 pandemic last year led to the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of people.
More often, Johnson escapes criticism because people do not take him seriously but see him as a comic turn. The price to be paid for this tolerance of his antics was on show this week, as Johnson, bursting with servile bonhomie, sat beside President Biden in the White House, claiming that British-American relations were better than ever. Biden, for his part, made it humiliatingly clear that an Anglo-American trade deal was dead in the water, and that the US would resist Johnson’s bid to torpedo the Northern Ireland protocol.
The balance of power between the US and the UK has been weighted heavily towards the Americans since 1940, but Britain’s room for manoeuvre in the wake of Brexit is more minimal than ever. Predictably, the real failure in Washington was masked by the claim that Britain might join the US, Mexico and Canada in the North American free-trade pact, a fantasy trumpeted by the pro-Tory media as a sign that “global Britain” was on the march, though bemused trade experts denied that any such thing was likely to happen, adding that it would do Britain little good even if it did.
Like most political leaders, Johnson is addicted to both giving and attending conferences that are billed as decisive for the fate of the world and forgotten a few months later. Already we have had Johnson in full after-dinner-speaker mode at the G7 summit in Cornwall, and then in front of the UN general assembly this week. He will shortly be performing at the UN climate change conference in Glasgow.
Having attended many of these international jamborees over the years, I still have difficulty remembering any that changed anything for the better (or, indeed, for the worse). Usually, calls for action are in reality a replacement for action. But they are an ideal platform for a government whose meat and drink are catchy slogans and grandiose projects that are discarded after they have served their political purpose.
Such snake-oil remedies to real problems no longer even get a decent burial; they are instead handed over to Michael Gove: secretary of state in charge of “levelling up” and keeping the UK together as a nation state, as well as housing and planning.
I like to imagine Gove’s office diary:
2.30 to 3.15pm – act to level up Britain, more unequal today than any country in the EU aside from Bulgaria; 3.15 to 4pm – do something to hold together the United Kingdom, under greater threat than at any time for a century; 4 to 4.30pm – solve cladding problem; 4.30 to 5pm – resolve housing and planning crises, so damaging to the Tories among their core supporters.
In practice, Gove will be in charge of a giant political care home, where abandoned promises will be on life support, giving the government useful deniability when asked what happened to past pledges.
But this lack of seriousness and generalised ineffectuality is not entirely distressing. The Johnson government felt more menacing when it was directed, at least in part, by Cummings, as the Otto von Bismarck of Downing Street, deploying his ruthlessly authoritarian abilities to get toxic policies implemented.
The Tory party was once famously labelled by Theresa May as the “Nasty Party”, but today a more accurate description would be the “Silly Party”. Of course, Priti Patel as home secretary and Nadine Dorries as minister for culture will delight Tories by fighting high-profile culture wars, but in the UK these are largely media-inspired conflicts. Trivial incidents, such as critical graffiti scrawled on a statue of Winston Churchill, are inflated, framed as an assault on British national identity.
A paradox of the culture wars in Britain is that those waging them in supposed defence of British traditions are adopting wholesale the agenda of the Republican Party in the US, where cultural wars are fought with such venom because they plug into racial animosities. In Britain, attitudes are different, as evidenced by the counterproductive failure of Patel’s attempt to exploit opposition to footballers taking the knee, and more broadly by the Black Lives Matter movement.
More threatening would be cultural wars fought out at an institutional level, such as the appointing of a hard-right head of the communications regulator Ofcom, who would be likely to open the door to partisan television channels, possibly in the shape of Rupert Murdoch’s proposed talkTV.
Some see it as superficial to view Johnson and his government as an unlucky accident in British history, preferring to drill down and detect a new type of toxic English nationalism. They see Brexit as both a symptom and a cause of an embattled English identity under threat from globalisation.
There is something in this, but I am sceptical about the argument, since it does not quite fit the facts. After all, one of the electoral breakthroughs for Ukip was not in England but in Wales. In any case, a strong sense of English identity is scarcely new, though some of its symbols have changed. I have always liked John Betjeman’s poem “In Westminster Abbey”, in which a lady prays at the start of the Second World War:
Think of what our Nation stands for / Books from Boots’ and country lanes / Free speech, free passes, class distinction / Democracy and proper drains.
More aggressive and satirical is Flanders and Swann’s “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”, first sung in 1956, which is full of abuse of other nations (especially those of the Irish, Scots and Welsh), and is too robust to get a hearing today. Some of the tamer lines run:
The English, the English, the English are best / I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest / The Germans are German, the Russians are red / And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed!
Michael Flanders said the absence of an English national song was because “we didn’t go around saying how marvellous we were. Everybody knew that.” How very different from today, when British ministers appear on television engulfed in union jacks, like so many third world despots.