Andrew Wilson: More power to Boris in a political world that needs humour and optimism
I THINK I am in the process of changing my mind about Boris Johnson. I have watched him in various guises for quite a long time. Early in his first term as Mayor of London I heard him address a large international event in his city and found his form of PG Wodehouse-style levity to be grating and not serious for important topics and grave times.
I felt a great (possibly the greatest) world city like London deserved an altogether more substantial leader, albeit for a post with limited power.
But over the years and particularly over recent months, I have to admit my view has been shifting. I am not entirely sold – of course. But one of my many weaknesses is that I default to generosity of spirit in people who put themselves in the line of fire in public life and public service, even when I disagree with much of what they say.
In the case of Johnson I particularly admire his optimism, positivism and capacity to inject energy into whatever conversation he leads, whether it be on TV or conference platform. Yes, we can scoff at his buffoonery and humour. What interests me, though, is his ability to take a post with such limited actual power and through force of personality and initiative turn it into a platform for causes he wants to champion.
The world is full of noise and terribly important nothingness. In business, in sport, in politics – in any organisation really – we are ever more diverted by issues that are in our faces. Organisations fire-fight the present and leaders are often caught up in it.
In public life this is accentuated by the nature of public discourse: 24-hour media and the brutal efficiency of social media. How hard it is then for leaders to step back, keep their eyes on the bigger prizes and to steer the ship strategically to its course rather than fret about each bounce of the waves.
It is also increasingly important for anyone who aspires to truly lead in public office (as opposed to just hold power) to be able to cut through this noise. The ability to stand out and hold the nation’s attention is a true gift and harnessed properly can be a remarkable power for good.
The fact that Boris can do this was demonstrated to us all summer and punched home on a family weekend in September when one of my teenage nephews from Lanarkshire sought me out to ask “have you ever met Boris, Uncle Andrew?”
So I don’t scoff at him anymore. But I do wonder what his plans will be for the power he is building for himself. I hope for the best in that. With antecedents from Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions he is well placed to unify in a world at risk of fracture. His “brand” arguably reaches beyond his party so he stands a chance of breaking through the partisan divisions as his vote in London demonstrates. He takes risks and is hopeful – two strengths his party colleagues in Scotland would do well to learn from.
I have also liked seeing him daring to challenge the centralised grip on power in Britain and seek more policy and power for London – albeit I have yet to hear him frame that in selfless terms or as part of wider policy of putting power closer to the people. But it’s a neat twist to see a challenge to the grip of Whitehall and Westminster coming from London itself. Again, lessons here for his colleagues north of the Border.
But how would he go down in the regions and nations of the rest of Britain? Who knows, though Winston Churchill was able to win elections as a Liberal in Dundee and held his seat for nearly 14 years, a long way from the palace in Oxfordshire where he was born. You just never know.
What would he be like if he had power enough to do more than just lobby? We can only guess. But he clearly has the brain and increasingly the means to lead well. And it would take a moment, literally a moment, to switch the emotion of his tone from humour to a focus on an issue that counts. And having captivated his crowd already he is far more likely to be able to focus that energy where all who care about politics would want it to be.
There is something deeply tedious about the political classes’ inevitable process focus and the desire to turn the Boris phenomenon into a split with the Prime Minister. As it happens I am near certain (without any actual evidence of course) that Johnson does have his eyes on that prize. But he must also be clever enough to know that if that story is the only one we hear about him then he will likely fail in his objective.
Is he Bill Clinton? Clearly not. He does share very human flaws that might be his undoing, but few can cast a stone at that, free from sin. Does he have the capacity to simplify, interpret, focus and educate? Unquestionably, in my judgment, yes. He is different and we should celebrate that at least. And those politicians who disagree with his politics should start thinking now about what they can learn from him and what they do about the phenomenon as it grows.
Life is serious enough – where is the harm in laughing while we seek to fix our world?
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east