Boris Johnson's political career has benefited from his comic persona but his government is now a sick joke – Joyce McMillan
When I arrived at St Andrews University in 1970 – as a bright-eyed undergraduate interested in politics – it did not take me long to encounter a very strange and amusing crowd of young men, who spent much of their time hanging around Student Union debates and similar events.
They were what would soon, I suppose, come to be known as “young fogeys”; they went around in tweeds or academic gowns at a time when almost all students wore jeans and duffle coats, talked in a stylised posh manner regardless of their own social origins, and sometimes attended high Anglican acts of worship, with much chat of double genuflections and incense.
They also engaged in Conservative politics, although in a style I had never encountered in Scotland before; during my first term in St Andrews, for instance, they were busy celebrating the fifth anniversary of Rhodesian UDI, a declaration of independence from the UK by a white colonial government which refused to move towards majority rule.
What I could never work out about this crew, though, was how seriously they really took all this, as a political programme. Emotionally, it was easy to trace in them some kind of visceral nostalgic reaction to the more egalitarian world that had evolved in Britain since the Second World War, a resistance to the implicit radicalism of 1960s pop culture, and a desire to preserve the manners and style of a bygone age of aristocracy and empire.
Yet there was something performative about the stance they took – ironic, jocular, lightly self-mocking – which suggested that they also knew it was out of kilter with late 20th century reality.
I never heard any of them actually defend white supremacy, for example, although they were willing to attend a party celebrating it; and it wasn’t until slightly later, when I encountered different, more serious St Andrews Conservatives like Michael Forsyth and Michael Fallon, that I realised how their attitude meshed with a much more substantial attack on post-war values, and on the very idea of a cradle-to-grave welfare state, which had shaped British public policy since 1945.
And it struck me last week, as I watched Jacob Rees-Mogg giving one of his ageing-Lord-Fauntleroy performances in the Commons, that I have now been witnessing this cult of performative reactionary poshness, in one form or another, for almost my entire adult life; and that it is one of the keys both to the political success of the present Prime Minister, and to the reasons why his days in Downing Street many now be numbered. Boris Johnson is no Lord Fauntleroy, of course; he leaves the high-camp 18th century stylings to others.
He has, though, long adopted the persona of the hapless but charming jolly aristocrat, hail-fellow-well-met, chummy in the pub, wearing his classical education lightly, his hair rumpled, and his posh vowels reassuringly deep in the throat, as if hinting at hidden reserves of “bottom” and moral strength. And he has found that in an age of political reaction – driven not only, since the 1980s, by a renewed elite class determined to defend its wealth and privileges, but also by dispossessed working-class people bereft of socialist alternatives – there has been an ever-growing market for his kind of leadership.
The problem for Johnson, though, is that this comedic and ironic style – which served him well as a political journalist – only really works for a leader of opposition, dissent and mockery, and not for the leader of a government trying to deal with 21st century realities. The long collapse of Johnson’s successful act began, of course, on the morning of 24 June 2016, when – white with shock – he realised that powerful forces largely beyond his control had combined to make his jokey retro-fantasy of British withdrawal from the EU into a pressing reality, for which he would probably, at some point, have to take some responsibility.
The second blow to his chosen persona came with the Covid pandemic, which obliged governments everywhere to take the kind of serious “nanny state” measures, to protect health services and lives, that “Boris” most deeply despises.
Indeed if you seek an explanation for the unfolding Downing Street party scandals, you need look no further than the divided mind of a man working half-heartedly as a rational Prime Minister, who almost every day had to announce the current regulations to a struggling populace, but whose “Boris” brain was never fully engaged with the words he spoke, particularly when it came to the behaviour of his own inner circle.
Now, though, we seem to have come to the point where most people have tired of Boris’s amusing political turn, which proved so popular, at least with some, at the general election of 2019.
Suddenly, his jocular and ironic stance is not about reassuring nods and winks against “political correctness”, for those upset by it, but about rank arrogance and double standards, in first ignoring, and then trying to bluster his way out of, regulations made by his own government, for the public good, during a national emergency.
When I first glimpsed the political pantomime of nostalgia for aristocratic times long gone, in St Andrews half a century ago, it never occurred to me that it would ever reach the commanding heights of British government; it was silly, negative and mockingly destructive then, and it remains so now, even as rafts of damaging right-wing policy are enacted under cover of its tomfoolery.
So, to echo David Davis in the Commons this week, in the name of God go now, all you nostalgists and jokers, mockers and myth-makers and imperial throwbacks; and let us have government by the people and for the people, at last, at least in some parts of these un-sceptred isles.
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