Boris Johnson, who may share some qualities with Winston Churchill, is a combative leader whose great cause is both worthless and divisive, writes Joyce McMillan.
Of all the half-truths, lies and dubious arguments advanced by supporters of Brexit over the last few years, none is more ridiculous – or frankly offensive to those who truly took part in the conflict – than their apparent conviction that the current turmoil in British politics is somehow analogous to the Second World War. “We got through the blitz, we’ll get through this,” say an endless parade of middle-aged people unearthed by our national broadcasters, apparently unaware that they were not even born during the war, never mind partly responsible for “getting through it”.
Of the 45 million people world-wide who did not “get through it”, they have of course nothing to say; and it is certainly a national tragedy that such a high proportion of UK citizens seem to see nothing problematic in equating the wholly self-inflicted nonsense of a no-deal Brexit with the great fight against Nazism that eventually united not only the British nation, but almost the whole world, in a conflict which, in the wisdom of its eventual peace settlement, led to the longest single period of peace and advancing prosperity that most of the western world has ever seen.
Amid this array of absurdities, though, it’s worth noting that one Second World War analogy that stands up to scrutiny slightly better than most is the new UK Prime Minister’s famous obsession with Winston Churchill, and sense of himself as a latter-day version of his great hero. It’s not that Boris Johnson shows much sign of equalling Churchill’s serious achievement as a national leader, of course. What is true, though, is that at the time of his ascent to the premiership, Churchill was a figure much despised by many of his political colleagues for a formidable track-record of bungled decisions, shifting loyalties, and doubtful character traits.
“He wasn’t what people thought of as a man of principle,” writes Johnson, in his 2014 book The Churchill Factor. “He was a glory-chasing goal-mouth-hanging opportunist... As for his political career — my word, what a feast of bungling! ... Throughout his early career he was not just held to be untrustworthy — he was thought to be congenitally untrustworthy.” Small wonder that Johnson, also seen as untrustworthy by many who have worked with him, identifies with this figure; the bungling, unreliable opportunist who nonetheless finds his historic moment, and somehow leads his nation to a great victory.
Here’s the rub, though: that not only is the national crisis Britain now faces a mere self-inflicted scam, compared with the genuine conflict of the 1940s; and not only is it one that utterly divides the UK, rather than uniting it, but it is one that Johnson, unlike Churchill, cannot and will not tackle by making any moves at all that might actually promote the national unity of which he talks so bombastically. When Churchill took office in 1940, he did so as first minister of a national government of all the talents, which included the Labour leader Clement Attlee, and was designed to reflect the country’s unity in the face of a lethal enemy.
Like the second-rate Churchill tribute act he is, though, Johnson has already demonstrated, in Wednesday’s bloody Cabinet reshuffle, that he lacks the vision even to unite his own party, far less the country. His promotion of right-wing figures like Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Gavin Williamson – the latter two recently sacked or forced to resign for misconduct in office that should have ended their political careers – not only represents a clear insult to his predecessor Theresa May, and a direct threat to the futures of ordinary British people through a no-deal Brexit and other right-wing policies, but a serious provocation to a growing army of ex-ministers on the back benches, who may not be willing to surrender the Conservative Party to the hard Brexiteers and their backers without a serious fight. With the clamorous support of a large and influential section of the British media, Johnson’s government of national disunity may achieve a measure of short-term success; indeed if we do leave the EU with no deal on 31 October, the fanfares of positive spin will be so deafening that we may never hear the sad litany of truth about its impact on the most vulnerable. Yet what neither Johnson nor his supporters seem to grasp is that national unity is not just a phrase, but a real and powerful force that has to be built and won, through compromise, negotiation and mutual respect, before any national community can navigate great change, or begin to achieve its full potential.
The UK, by contrast, is now a country effectively split down the middle by Brexit, with the 16.1 million who voted to Remain routinely ignored, and – when not ignored – often referred to with contempt, as little better than traitors. The country is also now geographically divided as never before, with both of its Remain-voting nations increasingly furious not only at being taken out of the EU against their will, but at the probable imposition of an extreme form of Brexit likely to inflict grave and completely unnecessary economic and political damage.
Johnson may, in other words, share some personal characteristics with his great hero. In the last few days, though, he has only confirmed the suspicion that if he is a Churchill, he is shabby pound-shop edition for shabby times; a Churchill without an Attlee to flesh out his patriotic rhetoric with real social and political meaning, and a combative leader whose great cause is fundamentally both worthless and divisive. There is, of course, a current urgent crisis which truly demands the attention of a great national and international leader; it is the looming climate disaster reflected in this week’s torrid temperatures, around Westminster and across Europe. That is a crisis, though, which Johnson’s new government might have been constructed never fully to acknowledge, far less to confront in any way that might bring real hope to the people of these islands; and one from which the whole Brexit drama seems little more than a cynical distraction, a circus designed to entertain and preoccupy the people, while the planet burns.