Rarely has a new Prime Minister been less deserving of a period of grace. Boris Johnson’s in his coveted new job and has unleashed a powerful range of divisive and potentially destructive ideas. Left unchecked, this approach, could weaken the Tory Party, destroy the Union, set the UK’s relationship with the EU back 50 years, engineer a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, embolden the most right-wing group of ideologues ever contained within a Tory Cabinet and, potentially the most damaging of all, embark on an uncritical embrace of the USA and President Donald Trump.
But Britain was promised something different! Less than a month ago, Boris was supposed to unite the Conservative Party, bring the country together, deliver Brexit, strengthen the ties that bind the Union and offer leadership “as only he could”. Instead his Cabinet and Government seem more like a new Leave campaign team, with the zealots and cheap patriots of the European Research Group occupying prominent roles.
Britain, it is claimed, is on a war-time footing, with tax-payer funded, pro-Brexit propaganda and billions of pounds being spent on preparations for a “no deal” Brexit. In doing so, Johnson is mocking the memory and achievements of a great war leader. Sir Winston Churchill was fighting fascism, the destruction of civilisation and the possible invasion of Britain. In sharp contrast, Johnson, a narcissist and opportunist, is only trying to cope with the most monumental act of self-harm this country has ever inflicted upon itself.
Telling lies, exploiting emotion, sentiment, and nostalgia, sprinkling billions on services his party has starved of resources and serving it up with a large dose of delusion and theatrics, are all designed to rally the great British public around the flag. But which flag and which public? Johnson’s populism and English nationalism go hand-in-hand. His brief visits to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland were embarrassingly contrived, and confirmed for many, that Johnson’s Union is draped in the cross of St George.
The politics of division drive Johnson’s Cabinet. There are no unifying threads running through his Government. The UK, culturally, economically, politically, socially and constitutionally is in a fragile condition.
This is not a statesman rising to the needs of the country. Johnson thinks every day is show time. His wordsmith’s skills flourish as in “boosterism”, “turbo charging” and, of course, “doomster and gloomster”, create a new political lexicon. There was always the hope that style would give way to substance in Government. Let them eat optimism is unlikely to catch on.
Pursuing the politics of division is a worrying reminder of how populists, especially President Trump, operate. From the US to Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Israel, India, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and in many more countries, nationalism, populism and eventually authoritarianism emerge. Abandoning the 48 per cent of UK electors who voted to remain, Johnson’s every action has been focussed on his “base”, embracing a “single issue” in the context of one nation, England. This is straight out of Trump’s political handbook.
Learning the lessons of the Leave campaign, led by Farage, Gove and Johnson, Trump won the presidency of the United States on an anti-immigrant platform. “Make America Great Again” was the rallying call. We know where that has taken the US! ‘Making England Great Again’ (MEGA) has an eerily worrying ring to it, especially if you live in Scotland, Wales and the Island of Ireland.
Identity politics is key to the success of populist politicians and is potentially explosive when viewed in the context of a whole continent being lied about and where the future of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are apparently playing second fiddle to England, the Conservative Party, and a populist Prime Minister.
The Union is in peril. Two weeks into a new premiership, three nations of the Union seem more vulnerable, angry, resentful and restless, after poorly stage-managed visits by the new PM, which lacked purpose, sincerity and empathy. An ill-advised visit to Faslane, a visibly angry First Minister on the steps of Bute House, the boos of protestors and the Charlie Chaplin-like escape by the PM through the back door, captures everything!
Twenty years of devolution have created a more confident, mature and assertive Scotland. Ruth Davidson, as a significant political leader, must help Johnson transition from theatrics to reality and, in turn, do a great deal for her own ambitions. There is no “settled will” about a final constitutional outcome for Scotland, but the mood is changing, and Johnson could shift the political dial.
Johnson may achieve in Scotland what Brexit, up to now, has failed to achieve: alienating more Scots, widening the debate beyond core independence supporters, reinforcing the contemptuous way consultation with Holyrood over Brexit was conducted and highlighting more vividly than ever the contrast between a Scotland that could look like Scandinavia, rather than a Scotland that could look like the USA. The question of what kind of country do you want to live in has been pushed further up the political agenda by Boris Johnson in only two weeks.
Trump believes our new PM is a man to do business with. But why are right-wing Conservatives and their new leader obsessed with the US? Historical ties explain a great deal. There is, however, another agenda.
The Leave campaign didn’t promise the UK would exit the EU and then join the US! Or to use the flowery language of Johnson and Rees Mogg “to become a colony or a vasal state” of another country.
It is difficult to understand why the UK would leave a successful, stable, secure, prosperous and peaceful EU to align our fortunes more closely with the US, especially at a time when Trump is so unpredictable and every foreign policy issue carries the President’s imprint of chaos, confusion and threat to the international order.
Johnson is desperate for a US trade deal to try and paper over the catastrophic cracks of leaving the EU. But despite overtures from the President, this deal could be a decade away and will be shaped by American interests; chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef will be the least of our concerns.
The ideologues in Johnson’s Cabinet can’t believe their luck. It is their life-long ambition to see the Americanisation of the UK. Economics and the free market are high on their agenda. Removing the shackles of the EU, in their troubled minds, will allow the realisation of their dream of a “Britain Unchained”, where deregulation, limited welfare, minimum standards, limited intervention by governments, low taxes and low pay. Overstated? Not if you accept the facts. In a bitterly divided US, Trump is turning the fiction, fears and dystopian ideas of 2016 into today’s frightening reality. There is no room for complacency in Britain. Trump could be President for the next five years, so why would we want to become de facto the 51st State?
The Union, after 312 years, must have more to offer its people and its nations. The politics of division, the exploitation of difference and the rise of populism are confronting progressive politics and undermining democracy and governance in the US and other European countries. Johnson may be charming and amusing, but he is mainly dangerous.