Like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson is a known liar who appears to have few of the qualities needed to make a good leader, but that no longer seems to hinder some modern politicians, writes Joyce McMillan.
If there is one thing we should have learned, from the politics of the last five years, it’s that anything is possible; particularly if it has plenty of wealthy backers, and the support of vocal sections of the popular media. It was impossible that the once-sensible British public would vote to leave the European Union; but they did. It was impossible that Donald Trump would become the Republican presidential candidate in 2016; but he did. It was impossible that Trump would beat Hillary Clinton; but although she defeated him in the popular vote, Trump picked up the states that mattered, and won the Presidency.
Now, he is launching his campaign for re-election in 2020; and although his approval ratings are not impressive, the Democratic opposition to his presidency is so divided that he seems unlikely to fail. Nor – although it seems impossible – does any allegation against him make any difference. He is known to be a liar, a cheat, a possible law-breaker, and an apologist for racist and sexist attitudes of the worst kind. Yet none of this matters to his passionate supporters, who like him for his “outspoken” style, and for breaking the rules when he deems it necessary, like some two-bit Hollywood hero.
And here is the most chilling truth of all; that although the rise of Donald Trump looks every inch an all-American tragedy, in fact it is all too easy to spot a whole generation of mini-Trumps, supported by the same backers and using the same ruthless campaigning techniques, beginning to spread across the globe. From Viktor Orban in Hungary to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – a man elected last year after a ruthless campaign of outright lies spread through the WhatsApp messaging service – Trump’s clones are already everywhere, sowing hatred and division, refusing to act on climate change, and picking their own favourites from a menu of right-wing horrors that range from the militant suppression of women’s rights, to savage crackdowns on independent media.
So now, we in Britain face the prospect of the choice, as our next Prime Minister, of our very own mini-Trump, Boris Johnson. Like Trump, he is a known liar, both in his private life, and in public; indeed as Brussels correspondent of the Telegraph two decades ago, he invented most of the lies about the European Union on which the Leave victory of 2016 was based. He is known to have few if any of the personal qualities one might look for in a leader, famous as he is for his slapdash attitude to detail, and sometimes dangerous inability to master a brief.
He may – or may not – have been complicit in criminal behaviour, both in the conduct of the 2016 Leave campaign, and in the matter of recent government arms deals with Saudi Arabia, this week declared illegal by the Court of Appeal. And like Donald Trump – with whom he shares many prominent backers – he is admired by his fans for the kind of “plain talking” that right-wing apologists call a brave blast against political correctness; but that others rightly identify as bigotry, racism and “othering”, masquerading, in Johnson’s case, as feeble wit.
About the rise of Boris Johnson, there are therefore two questions to be asked. The first, of course, is the infinitely debatable question of how such a man ever came to such eminence, in a country once admired for the quality of its government. The other, though – and much more pressing for us north of the border – is whether Westminster will somehow get away with the democratic, political and ethical outrage of imposing a Boris Johnson premiership on Scotland, a nation which does not want to leave the EU, which does not appreciate being lied to about it, and which tends to be less than charmed by the Johnson brand of supposedly engaging buffoonery. The conventional wisdom around Holyrood, of course, is that Boris is the SNP’s “dream candidate” for British premier; the one whose outrageous right-wing demagoguery, and sheer incompetence in office, will finally drive patient Scots to the ballot box, to claim their independence at last.
Independence supporters tempted to count their chickens, though, would be well advised to remember that this is the age of the impossible, when unlikely outcomes are backed by massive funds, and by campaigning techniques that barely existed a decade ago. We know now, of course, that almost two-thirds of Tory party members would happily wave Scotland goodbye, rather than give up on Brexit; most of them probably believe that Scotland is a liability, heavily subsidised by the more successful economy down south.
Yet we can also be sure that no Conservative Prime Minister, on entering Downing Street and looking at the map of his new domain, will want to be the one to lose a third of the territory and more than half of the sea area – particularly when the latter is still full of oil and gas fields. Cue a likely barrage of efforts to persuade, cajole and bully the Scots into forgetting about independence and the EU once and for all; from cabinet meetings at the UK government’s massive new Edinburgh headquarters in the Royal Mile, through more cash for projects delivered with massive Union Jack branding, to every kind of online and conventional propaganda campaign designed to trash the idea of independence in Europe, and to overwhelm the Scots into recognising themselves, after all, as happy Tory voters and Boris fans, just like their English cousins.
Millions will not be happy, of course, across the UK; millions will care about the trashing of human rights, the legitimisation of bigotry, and the surrender to global corporate interests at the expense of the wellbeing and dignity of ordinary people. Yet unless all the opponents of this age of Trumpist leadership can find ways of sinking their differences, and uniting in the struggle for a better way forward, this is likely to be our fate; and like many other nations across the globe, we in Scotland now run a high risk not only of suffering the humiliation of Trump-style government, but of finding ourselves persuaded to go to the ballot-box, and inflict it on ourselves.