We're getting good, aren’t we, at ushering unwelcome politicians out the door. The old Irish trick of “here’s your hat and what’s your hurry?” worked well with US President Donald Trump when he visited his Irish golf club a few weeks ago, and we barely noticed his vice-president, Mike Pence, coming and going.
British prime minister Boris Johnson was always going to make a bit more of a splash, but it’s good to be able to report that he was received with courtesy and politeness yesterday, and given absolutely nothing.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was firm and direct and Boris burbled about intricate relationships and his Irish friends. Both sides know he has to go to Brussels with something he hasn’t developed.
That was it, really. Platitudes about good beginnings aren’t going to deliver anything. And then Boris was off, no doubt to lose another vote in the House of Commons.
I’ve met a few British politicians in my time. They have two things in common. First, they’re very able. Many of them are erudite to the point of being scholarly. They work hard to master their brief. They carry themselves well in public; are able to do difficult interviews without losing their cool. They’re good at their jobs.
Secondly, one of the things they find hardest to understand is us. I’ve never failed to be amazed at the British politicians who come to Ireland expecting us to recognise their importance and infallibility. Britain was an empire, and Britain knows best.
With the best will in the world, we haven’t had the benefit of public school education, access to top universities, nor the experience of winning great wars. How can we possibly regard ourselves as equal?
That’s an oversimplification, of course. But even among British politicians who have a genuine affection for Ireland, too many have instinctively regarded us as a little quaint; charming, but not grown-up enough to play at the big table.
Boris Johnson doesn’t fit into any of those moulds. He’s highly intelligent — perhaps erudite and well-read — but not able. That’s because he doesn’t do the work,and because he has no interest in empathy. He’s a performer — and always switched on — but the performance is a trick.
And he has no regard or respect for, or understanding of, Ireland. On his visit to Dublin, we saw all the tricks — the fake charm and bonhomie, the nonsensical assumptions that he didn’t need to offer anything of substance. No doubt he’ll be swanning around for the next few days, telling everyone that he has made great progress in persuading us of the urgency of his cause, as he prepares to try the same flannel in Brussels in the next few weeks.
The other thing he doesn’t get, of course, is that he is dealing with a united Europe. There is no reason why Europe should make it cheap or convenient for Boris to ride roughshod over it. And there is even less reason to believe that Europe will betray one of its existing members to facilitate Boris.
But perhaps he doesn’t care. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that Boris is modelling everything on Trump. He leads autocratically, he governs by disruption, his politics are divide and conquer, his audience is only what he perceives to be his own base.
Just like the man he has chosen as his mentor, Boris has no regard for truth and no enduring sense of values.
There are, however, differences, and they may be Boris’s undoing. Donald Trump got himself elected against a background that was as bitterly and poisonously divided as it was possible to be. It was divided on grounds of class, race, and colour.
Issues like healthcare were approached as code words for something different. Healthcare wasn’t called healthcare in the States, it was called Obamacare, and it was viciously attacked by a political class that hated Barack Obama above all. Trump was able to bend and twist that political class to his will, and even though many of them despise their president, they are unable, and are afraid, to show that contempt in public.
Trump has been able to shift the focus of the rapidly-aging Supreme Court in his direction. And his supreme tactic, in describing every criticism, Goebbels-like, as fake news, has not just divided the media, but has reduced its capacity to really take him on.
We don’t know yet if the Trump strategy of seeking to turn his country into an almost anarchic state will deliver him a second term. While there is no sign of his base deserting him, there are some indications that it is shrinking. More or less every opinion poll in the United States suggests that any of the four leading Democratic candidates would beat Trump. Time will tell.
But Britain isn’t like that. The British electoral, first-past-the-post system is alien to us, for sure, because it can produce a government majority for less than half the votes. But British institutions are ancient. They have stood the test of time, and they are revered, no matter what people might say.
The British fought in two world wars to protect those institutions, and those institutions have a magnetic hold on the British psyche. Atheists believe the Church of England must endure. Republicans will not have the monarchy insulted or traduced. Anarchists believe, ultimately, in the rule of law.
That’s the British paradox. It’s actually the thing that makes them quaint. It was Brendan Behan, of all people, who perhaps summed it up best, in a song:
That yearning for the Captains and the Kings is the reason a generation voted for Brexit. But their fondness for muffin rings and dry sherry is also why they might like Nigel Farage, but will never put him in a position of real power. It’s why they might still be saying that Boris is the man for them, but they are becoming more and more uneasy.
I don’t like the Tories in Britain; never have. But I’m not blind to the things that have made it one of the greatest and most resilient political parties in my lifetime. One of those things is a core adherence to institutional value. Another is loyalty to its own.
Boris Johnson is not just challenging the institutions on which British democracy is built; he is perilously close to insulting them. Parliamentary democracy matters in Britain, and the notion that their prime minister, heir to Churchill and Thatcher, would flout the rules, again and again, is unacceptable.
Unlike Donald Trump, Boris Johnson does not lead a supine party. So if he continues to behave as if he can do whatever he likes, he will see his support evaporate as quickly as it emerged. And that can’t happen soon enough.