While been interviewed by broadcaster Eddie Mair in 2013, Boris Johnson was called “a nasty piece or work” on the basis of fairly solid evidence. In response to three specific allegations, Johnson managed to not seem in any way nasty. Most other politicians would have behaved like a cornered rat when confronted with their past misdeeds in that aggressive manner. Yet Johnson humoured his way out of it somehow. Now he is, somehow or other, prime minister. In only a very short stint in Number 10, he has managed to wreak several shades of havoc – even a constitutional crisis – yet his persona seems to deflect and defuse animosity.
How? His projected persona is like a coupling of Falstaff and Winnie the Pooh; he seems bumbling but not pernicious, despite considerable evidence.
British national life has long been full of eccentrics. People now in middle age grew up watching and enjoying eccentrics on television. There were scientists like Magnus Pyke and David Bellemy, both ungainly but bursting with enthusiasm. There was also astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, a little sombre perhaps but he loved pets and played the xylophone. Speaking of pets, there was Barbara “Walkies!” Woodhouse and her dogs, and John McCririck, the outlandishly-dressed racing commentator.
Then there were the artistic types like Robert Morley, a portly Evelyn Waugh character, George Melly and Frank Muir. Loveable all. And re-assuring as country gardens, they all evoked a world of horse and hound, cricket and warm beer, jam and Jerusalem. In this cosy constellation, Boris Johnson, a witty television performer with shambolic looks and a bizarre name (de Pfeffel), was to the manor born.
Eccentricity was the more-than-acceptable face of the Establishment; lovable, sometimes outrageous, but essentially harmless and always middle class, if not further up the social ladder. This is important: the “plebs” were not granted the privilege of eccentricity (excepting perhaps the terrible example of Jimmy Saville). People from the regions and Cockneys could be cheeky and amusing, but they would never be – as Baroness Thatcher liked to say – “one of us.” They could leave discreetly by the tradesman’s door (“do run along”).
“A difficult guy to dislike”
“He is a very difficult guy to dislike,” I said once to a politically unforgiving friend back when Johnson was merely Mayor, and all that has since happened was still unforeseeable. Several expletives later, I had been put humbly in my place: he is a buffoon (there was full consensus on that point) but he is not harmless. Yet he has succeeded in creating for himself a beguiling persona that makes him seem so.
He is not inviting underestimation of his “abilities” – the jury is certainly still out on his political abilities – but rather his ruthlessness. We knew Thatcher meant business. She and fellow Tories like Norman Tebbit proudly wore their heartlessness of their sleeve. Nigel Farage, too, is of that ilk. He wouldn’t be a man from whom to buy a second hard car.
But would you buy one from Boris? No, simply because he is too rustic to be imagined in the sordid used car business (unlike, say, his namesake Lyndon Baines Johnson?). However, one could easily see Boris pawing family porcelain on the BBC’s The Antiques Roadshow (“on the underside you can see a tiny inscription from my great-great aunt…”) or judging the prize bull at the country fair.
The core point is this: Johnson’s persona deflects and defuses animosity because he seems to embody a longed-for, comfortable form of Englishness which is entertaining but reassuring. BJ’s danger is his ability to elude the “nasty” tag because of his country’s indulgence of eccentric gentility. This longing has – at least in part – fuelled Brexit; the dream of an England of quaint merriment and cosy assurance, P.G. Woodhouse and crossword puzzles. Boris is a walking thesaurus – and one where “Johnny Foreigner” knew his place.
It is not only that Johnson personally trivialises, he seems to inspire a politics of trivialisation. He allows people to take things lightly that ought to be taken seriously. Commenting bitterly on the Leave campaign, veteran Conservative Michael Heseltine (who would have made a fine PM, and knows it) said that it was Johnson “who gave the style, who made the jokes, who masterminded the strategy, and abandoned the troops in the heat of battle.”
It is not really surprising that a natural entertainer like Boris Johnson would tickle and cuddle his country, rather than let the cold, wet reality in. But what is disappointing is his country’s willingness to be tickled. Brexit is a disaster – and a no-deal version will be even worse – but somehow this is getting lost in the laughter. The garden party might be fun, but the hangover will be horrible.
- Brendan Humphreys is a political historian and lecturer at the University of Helsinki
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