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Britain Will Never be Taken Seriously with a Genuine Charlatan as PM
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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.

ORDER IT NOW

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.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain 
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  1. Stogumber says:

    Obviously Cockburn’s central motive is his hate for nationalism and his stupid admiration for globalism (or world imperialism). Johnson is, like Churchill, a “colourful” personality – but he does hardly express more lies or false promises than the average politician (and Cockburn doesn’t even try to make a comparison – was Tony Blair so much better?).

  2. Rogue says:

    What a lame article.

    Not because of Boris Johnson, who I don’t like either. Johnson’s buffoonish, unkempt and upper-class-twit act I figured out many years ago – even before he became mayor of London – to be just that: an act.

    Which wouldn’t matter if he was a good leader, but he’s not. But then you’d have to go back all the way to Margaret Thatcher to have a British Prime Minister who was actually loyal to her own country and an effective leader. Every other PM since her has not been able to tick both of those boxes simultaneously, and possibly neither of them in one or two cases.

    However, this article comes across as being butt hurt because of Brexit.

    The Independent newspaper for which the author is writing for, was diametrically opposed to Brexit. So, no surprise on the ideology of both the article and the author.

    • Agree: Proximaking
  3. You are so right.

    We need a responsible statesman like Tony Blair, who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, opened the UK borders to the EU and the world, and continued the deindustrialisation and financialisation of the economy, which now consists of people selling coffee and houses to each other.

    • Agree: WJ
    • LOL: niceland, 36 ulster
  4. I can’t tell if the author supports a “strong national identity” for Britain or not. What’s the thesis of this article, exactly?

  5. Of course Johnson is a genuine charlatan. He got us out of the European Union. If a responsible statesman was in charge, we would still be a member. We can’t have the peasants believing that the result of a binding referendum should be enforced. It’s not democracy, is it, Mr Cockburn ?

    Get rid of referenda. In fact, get rid of elections, full stop. Just let the Establishment and Establishment newspapers, like the Independent, influence and direct government policy. That’s real democracy – not rule by the people, but rule by the people who matter, like you, Mr Cockburn.

    • Thanks: YetAnotherAnon
  6. Keir Starmer seems even worse than Johnson.

  7. A123 says: • Website

    BoJo looked vastly more competent than Not-The-President Biden.

    The UK does need someone who can push back against Muslim infiltration. BoJo cannot do that. However, he does deserve credit for what he has accomplished. His GET BREXIT DONE message was effective and successful.

    Not-The-President Biden’s coup has doubled (at least) U.S. fuel prices and ignited an inflation cycle. Every action from the occupied White House harms U.S. citizens.

    I would gladly accept President BoJo as a replacement for the current Failure-in-Chief.

    PEACE 😇

  8. joe2.5 says:

    More empty bullshit.
    What has the personality of the current figurehead to do with anything?

    Let’s restart with the title:

    Britain Will Never be Taken Seriously, period. Because it’s not a country any longer but a US territory without a vote — like Guam and less than Puerto Rico. It always does as told and pays. Never has any say.

  9. Erebus says:

    The reality is that across the entirety of the Anglo World, ciphers have been placed in positions where leaders used to sit. Not always of course. Creatures of one interest group or another often made it to the top, but not often enough to seriously thwart the will of the people.

    Today, none, not one is what s/he claims to be. To the extent that they have an agenda, it’s an agenda handed to them from higher powers. Powers they themselves are bu dimly aware of. To the extent that the agendas are visible to us, they appear malevolent.

    I doubt the ciphers are fully aware of the agendas they’re executing, much less understand their full extents or implications. Doesn’t matter, they’ve fully subscribed to the parts they do understand are are drunk on the powers they’ve been handed to execute them.

    Quite astonishing, actually.

    • Replies: @animalogic
  10. Rapscallion also comes to mind. The history of the English Empire was tragedy write large across the world, and England’s demise is both karmic and farcical. BoJo is perfect for the task, with Sabbat Goy stooge, Starmer, as a sort of charmless Uriah Heep.

  11. @Erebus

    “I doubt the ciphers are fully aware of the agendas they’re executing,”
    Yes, I wonder too.
    Although, they are fully aware when it comes to pat’s on the head, & rewards generally — ie Blair, that doggie got lots of biscuits after leaving office….

  12. Someone was saying recently (on I think an iSteve thread) that while Xi is a communist dictator, he seems to govern more in the interests of the Chinese people than Biden or Johnson govern in the interests of the American or British people, despite US/UK being formal “democracies”.

    It appears that the wealthy and powerful in the West have learned how to ‘game’ democracy – hence the abundance of pressure groups, “activists”, lobbyists, often opaquely funded.

    When Cherie Blair said she went into law in order to “change Britain”, that was a very bad omen. Law should be downstream from politics.

  13. Taking anything Dominic Cummings says in public at face value is a capital mistake.
    He gives every indication of being alarmingly far out on The Spectrum and naturally completely un-self aware. Almost as much as Gordon Brown.
    They are both absolutely sure of being The Cleverest Boy in School, of course. Always have been.

    • Replies: @YetAnotherAnon
  14. @Expletive Deleted

    It’s a pity about Dom. Very bright chap, full of good ideas. But to leave Downing Street and immediately start bad-mouthing Boris and his government was utterly foolish, like telling the world “don’t employ me anywhere important ever again”.

    Why self destruct like that? Keep your trap shut and when the next crisis comes (it’s here now, knew it wouldn’t be long) you’ll be back in No 10 heading up a tiger team with real power. He’s chucked it away.

    We all knew Boris was dodgy, he was just better than all the alternatives, just as we know the Tories are pretty awful but all the others are worse. Dom seemed to think we thought Boris and Co were great guys, and needed him to enlighten us.

    Dom had all the right enemies, so it was a decent bet that he was on the side of the angels. What possessed him to try and prove them right I’ll never know.

    “Great wits are sure to madness near allied
    And thin partitions do their bounds divide”

  15. GD says:

    Huh, an author I’ve never heard of using a lot of words that mean nothing. Wonder where he falls?
    “By letting Saudi’s of the hook for 9/11, the U.S. encouraged jihadism”
    Ah, it makes sense now.

  16. anon[307] • Disclaimer says:

    dude! blighty arrested a guy for typing “nigger” on his own facebook page. your country is shit and should be nuked.

  17. Wielgus says:

    Britain hasn’t been a serious place for decades. Having an obvious clown at the top is the merest acknowledgement of reality.

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