The day Margaret Thatcher took her ridiculously refurbished voice into number 10 Downing Street, she was determined to make the world a better place.
She wanted to do the best for Britain. She really did. But, as everybody on the left saw it, she was the personification of evil and nothing good could come of her period as prime minister, which, they prayed, would be short despite her daunting majority, which was roughly half what Boris Johnson boasts today.
“The common failing of her opponents — within the Tory party, on the Labour side and among the breakaway founders of the SDP — was their shared belief that she was a freakish aberration and that British politics would resume its regular course before long,” says David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University.
“They just had to wait their turn. That was a catastrophic error.”
In similar vein, the Democrats in the United States see their president as “a freakish aberration”and believe American politics will “resume its regular course before long”.
Johnson’s landslide victory in the British general election generated much the same feeling in the left: This cannot be happening, and therefore, after a hopefully brief period of suffering, it will stop happening and we will go back to normal.
It is a curious stance from those who believe they personify democracy. No reverence, here, for the verdict of the voters. They don’t even say, as someone in politics once reputedly said: “The people have spoken. Goddam them.”
They regard the voters as stupid, misled, racist, old, bigoted or all of the above. They see no positivity in the situation, unlike Martin Luther King Jr who, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, looked at the dead president’s successor, the crude, vulgar, misogynist and racist Lyndon Baines Johnson, and refused to join the chorus of predictive condemnation.
“LBJ is a man of great ego and great power,” King told his worried supporters at the time.
“He is a pragmatist and a man of pragmatic compassion. It may just be that he’s going to go where John Kennedy couldn’t.” Which is precisely what happened.
The big unsophisticated Texan did more than any president before or since to move towards racial equality in the United States. His unexpected elevation to the presidency proved that the law of unintended consequences, usually invoked to explain away the bad outcomes of well-meant decisions, can work the other way.
Which is not to buy into the spirit of Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, which, below a photograph of Boris Johnson against the dark green foliage and tiny lights of a Christmas tree, ran the uplifting headline: “Tidings of comfort and joy.” Ah, here, lads.
On the other hand, those who lost out might be well advised not believe that politics will resume its usual course once voters stop being headbangers who mistakenly think they get Boris.
That view is a version of the big screen/small screen syndrome.
In the first decades of TV, no actor worth their salt would go on it, believing that when you’re 30ft tall on a cinema screen, you become a figure of magnificence. People look up to you. Go on the small screen — even, perish the thought, go on a screen so small it can be held in a human hand — and nobody looks up to you.
Those actors were right. Watching, on your smartphone, video of Boris Johnson hiding in a fridge changes the relationship between voter and politician. It makes lesser people acceptable. It makes inattentive, underachieving liars saleable. In the past, voters were preserved from the lies lived by men like JFK.
Now, they get a daily gawk at those of Trump and Johnson with nobody telling them what to think about it. (Commentators in mainstream media do try tell them what to think about it, but, since many are not on mainstream media, this is barking up the wrong tree.)
The fact is that greater numbers of voters are becoming enfranchised in a new way. They vote in their personal self-interest, which they understand perfectly, even if the commentariat doesn’t.
This is easier to map in Trump’s case, but let’s look at what he offered versus Hillary: 1) Prevent immigrants by building a wall; 2) Keep gas cheap; 3) Make credit easy to get; 4) Cut taxes; 5) Stop government taking your money (Obamacare, etc).
Meanwhile Hillary was (assumed to be) offering more tax, environmental restrictions on cars, restrictions on the financial sector, an open door to foreigners and more government intervention.
The proposition was like electing your headmistress so she could lecture you from a greater height, whereas electing Trump was like smoking around the back of the bike shed. Mightn’t be good for you in the long term, but to hell with the long term.
In Boris’s case, the key messages were as simple and appealing as Trump’s: Finish this Brexit mess; get more nurses and more cops; do a deal with the USA; and keep immigrants out.
Meanwhile Corbyn was offering menopausal women days off and quiet rooms, a four-day working week, and another referendum without him even taking a side.
The mistake made in each case was to miss that the qualities of the individual no longer matter — shorn of that aspirant need to have someone to look up to, voters don’t care if they elect a lying philandering elitist, as long as he’s the lying philandering elitist most likely to get them what they want.
Democracy has become pure. Corbyn offered stuff people didn’t like. Boris offered stuff they did. That simple. Same with Hillary and Trump.
The rest of us get blinded by the objection ability of the candidate and the paternalistic view that people don’t properly understand their own best interests. Focusing on the objection ability of the candidate misses the hundred year lesson of TV: The viewing public doesn’t choose to watch admirable people. It watches entertaining people.
Trump was way more entertaining than was Hillary and Johnson ditto versus Corbyn.
THAT people don’t properly understand their own best interests is a dangerous notion. A trucker in South Bend, Indiana, cares not a bit if Indonesia floods in 2050 as long as they can fuel their truck today. And if a dodgy rich guy with dodgy hair is going to deliver on that objective, happy days.
The British people who queued last week to vote for the Tories knew precisely what they wanted. The fact that it wasn’t what a preachy bunch of commentators believed they should want was beside the point.
Let there be weeping and gnashing of teeth at the outcome, by all means.
But let not the sounds of weeping and teeth-grinding deafen us to the possibility that Boris Johnson, like Lyndon in another time and place, may go where nobody expects him to go and govern positively in the next few years.