Benjamin Constant, the Swiss political philosopher active in the decades after the French Revolution, might have had Boris Johnson in mind when he wrote that “nearly all men are obsessed with demonstrating they are something more than they are”. He tartly noted that: “The obsession of writers is to show they are statesmen.”
In his reflection on Constant in The Ruin of Kasch, and on power more generally, Roberto Calasso named “this vanity, which has warped the judgement of many writers” and “led to more problems than we realise in our civil conflicts”.
“He gives himself some of the pleasures of authority” until “he is awed by his own intelligence and amazed by his own energy”.
The conceit of the newspaper columnist has ripened appallingly in Johnson. To think of anybody with serious responsibility so bloatedly delusional as to imagine they have something of public importance to say once a week is to enter the antechamber of Bedlam.
This is precisely where we are now: The author of well-rhymed jibes is to become Britain’s prime minister. Columnists, as purveyors of self-regard, are the lowest class of statesmen. Unelected, and plagiarists of truly original thinkers, they are possessed of what a former UK prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, called the prerogative of the harlot, which is power without responsibility.
Electing Johnson to parliament has changed his circumstances, but it hasn’t improved his character. His capacity for generalised evasion could only have been honed in the fourth estate. Pincer-like in their questioning of authority, the press largely excuses itself from self-scrutiny or exposure. That has now changed somewhat for Johnson. But the omerta assisted his progress.
A classical scholar, Johnson will be familiar with the Greek writer Aristophanes’ play, The Birds. Tired of an Athens obsessed with law-making, the protagonists set out and create a new polity, Cloud-cuckoo-land. Birds were the new gods. There was curiously a great desire to build walls to keep undesirables out.
And, of course, there were new laws, principally against the catching, cooking, and stuffing of birds. It is comedy. But with Boris, Cloud-cuckoo-land has arrived. We are to have new gods, new laws, and new walls. In England’s ‘green and pleasant land’, a failed utopia is unfurling.
If Johnson is appalling as a politician, the skills that made him a great columnist have transferred effortlessly. He is a master of making apparently convincing points, based on little or no evidence. He is a highly skilled evoker of sentiment and feeling. In a headline in last Sunday’s Observer, he is the ‘Blond Leading the Bland,’ because the bland want to be him.
The charge, if you are possessed of either, that you couldn’t trust him with your wallet or your wife, makes him more attractive. He is, in the great Whig tradition of statesmen, not prepared to say how many children he has. Truthfully, compared to Charles James Fox or Lord Melbourne, the likely next British prime minister has the morals of an altar boy. But he has enough of the roué to be a convincing role model.
This is the point of greatest danger with Johnson. Insofar as his firm opinions can be ascertained at all, he is a liberal in the classical tradition, meaning he is culturally liberal, but politically conservative. It is a curious truth that he is the other side of the same coin to David Cameron.
On that very same toss of the coin, Johnson, only at the very last, came out for Brexit. Cameron believed his schoolmate would back him. It was a disastrous miscalculation. Johnson saw his opportunity to reposition against the Cameron-George Osborne axis, which seemed destined to be in control of the Conservative Party for years.
In doing that, he was the margin of error that destroyed Cameron. Theresa May was an interlude. Now, it is Johnson’s time. This is a plan that is working because Johnson has positioned himself as leader of an illiberal England, whose nationalism is their defining characteristic. This isn’t Whig at all. It is a dystopian nightmare. For Johnson, personally, it is worse, because it is a class betrayal. Brexit will utterly destroy the privilege he was reared in, for no greater gain.
The irony he is too vain to appreciate is that he is plagiarising Nigel Farage. Farage is the original thinker and the dynamic leader, who swayed a series of Tory leaders to his course. Such is the extent of Farage’s victory — and regardless of the ultimate outcome, he has won — that asked whether they would rather avert Brexit, if it would lead to Scotland or Northern Ireland leaving the UK, 63% and 59% of party members, respectively, would be willing to pay for Brexit with the break-up of the United Kingdom.
There is a driving force behind Brexit, and Johnson has allowed himself to be carried forward by it. It goes back to Henry VIII, when Thomas Cromwell authored and engineered the Act of Supremacy, in 1534. There could, thenceforth, be no superior power, outside the realm. That was reinforced at the so-called Glorious Revolution, in 1689.
Then, in the most intense foreign interference in domestic British affairs seen until the funding and orchestration of the Brexit campaign itself, a Catholic king with autocratic leanings was evicted by the alliance of the native elite and a Dutch army. This is the mainframe of specifically English identity and I haven’t mentioned the Armada or Dunkirk.
The problem is that the loss of empire, and the arrival of a significant immigrant population in the 20th century, has been devastatingly dislocating for England. Admiralty Arch, spanning The Mall and the great processional route of the Empire from the palace to the Abbey, is now to be a hotel. It once housed the First Lord of the Admiralty, when Britain had a fleet. Churchill spent part of two world wars there.
In applying Brexit to that wound, it is cutting it deeper. The adhesion of Scotland was on the basis of a shared project in empire and a common cultural project in Protestantism. Both are gone. Britain out of the EU will lose Scotland. That dislocation will be the irreversible destruction of the mystical thing being recused from Brussels.
Power, as at the reformation, will be placed at Westminster. But the edifice will collapse as it arrives. No matter, Boris’s boyhood ambition will be fulfilled. The writer will have shown he is a statesman. Back to Calasso. “Poor fool!” he wrote. “He is talking to men who are very happy to listen, and who, at the first opportunity, will try his theory out on him.”