In the video, the Prime Minister looks as tousled as ever, face pale and hair akimbo; but he seems cheerful enough, as he delivers his brief celebration of “our diverse, generous, and welcoming nation”, now eager to co-operate with other nations in building a more prosperous and sustainable future.Contradiction, though, is Boris Johnson’s middle name; notably the frequent glaring contradictions between what he says, and what is actually happening. A few hours after the release of his video, Boris Johnson boarded a private jet to fly to Cornwall, in a gesture which suggested that the message of environmental sustainability has yet to penetrate very far into the Prime Ministerial way of life.
The inclusive language of the Great Britain campaign also comes across as peculiarly at odds with reality, in a week that saw Boris Johnson conspicuously fail to condemn England football fans who booed their own team for taking the knee, and allegedly embrace a suggestion that civil servants should stop referring to the “four nations” of the UK, a concept that has defined this country’s identity as a multinational state for more than 200 years.Even worse, this was the week in which the government of this supposedly “welcoming” country was ruled by the High Court to have acted unlawfully in its treatment of asylum seekers held in shocking conditions; and all of this against the backdrop of Britain’s profoundly hostile and disruptive decision to leave the EU, triggering everything from a major crisis over the future of Northern Ireland to this week’s chilling barrage of television adverts warning EU citizens, even those who have lived and worked in the UK for decades, that they risk losing their right of residence, and even their right to health care, if they do not start to apply for “settled status” before 30 June.Meanwhile, Johnson and his ministers have already started to back-pedal on their commitment, made with great fanfare last week, to Joe Biden’s G7 plan for the taxation of big multinational corporations; even though it is difficult to see any prospect of the public investment needed to repair our public services after Covid, and to support the urgent transition to a low carbon economy, if western governments cannot even begin to access more revenue from the vast wealth now sequestered in tax havens.For Johnson and his colleagues, though, these contradictions are all of a piece with the political strategy that has served them so well until now, as they orchestrated the slow-motion disaster of Brexit, and continue to mishandle many aspects of Britain’s response to the pandemic. On one hand, they mask policies that militate against the interests of ordinary British citizens with a barrage of upbeat “Great British” rhetoric; and on the other, they run distraction in what is often an all-too-compliant media by staging endless faux confrontations and culture wars that divert attention from the economic and social realities on the ground.Current culture-wars topics of choice include taking the knee, the removal of a portrait of the Queen from an Oxford common room, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s choice of names for their new baby. All of these vivid but entirely symbolic rows land conveniently at the top of the news agenda whenever serious allegations of illegality and corruption emerge against Boris Johnson’s government, as they did again this week; and they contribute to a climate of public debate in which real power is rarely held to account, while endless straw men and women are noisily burnt at the stake, to much loud baying and pitchfork-waving from right-wing quarters.And the only significant question to emerge all of this is for just how long Boris Johnson will be able to pull off this remarkable, and so far highly successful, political double act, featuring two versions of himself. To judge by pre-G7 reports across the British media, Joe Biden’s US administration is certainly less than impressed by the man once described by an Obama advisor as “that shape-shifting creep”. They will clearly use all the clout at their disposal to try to compel Johnson to implement the Northern Ireland protocol he negotiated and signed, to stop noising up his EU neighbours for domestic political gain, and to move on. Boris Johnson’s carefully cultivated public persona likewise clearly cuts little ice with European governments around the G7 table.Yet he remains popular at home, at least in England; and he will no doubt have heard from right-wing allies across the Atlantic that Biden’s position at home is weak, that his ground-breaking corporate tax deal is unlikely to get past the US Senate, and that once the US’s Republican states have finished with their electoral rolls, there will be little chance of a Democrat ever being elected President again.
The world, in other words, still hangs in the balance between a 21st century politics that tries to engage with reality, and one that passes through the looking glass, into that realm where voters forever fight fake battles chosen for them by those in power, while the planet burns around us. So far, Boris Johnson has shown himself a master of that game of smoke and mirrors, well able to bamboozle enough of the people, most of the time; and in Scotland as elsewhere, we would be unwise to imagine that there is any obvious or easy escape route, from the political world of illusion and deception that he - and other politicians like him - now seem determined to create.