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Provocateur or Politician?

eye on the news

Provocateur or Politician?

Assessing Great Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, through his published books July 24, 2019
Arts and Culture
Politics and law

Boris Johnson is as famous for his self-criticism as his self-aggrandizement, and he’s quicker to make a joke at his own expense than anybody else’s. This can be an attractive quality, particularly when it comes intermingled with memorized verses of eighteenth-century poetry. But it remains a distinctly British form of manipulation.

Johnson was a writer well before he was a politician—a trait that he holds in common with Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli. Both these men were uncompromising in their pursuit of world historical standing; both frequently exploited political events for their own personal advancement. But both also possessed visions of Britain that surpassed their own opportunism. They paired their temperaments with heartfelt commitment and wound up being remembered for their political achievements.

Johnson’s air of diffidence may be rooted in his lack of a coherent political ideology. His various biographers are at loggerheads over his beliefs, and he famously drafted three articles—two supporting Leave and another supporting Remain—in the days before announcing which side he would support in the Brexit referendum. Some see this temporizing as evidence that Johnson has nothing but ambition lying beneath the surface. A more generous way of looking at it is that he is a man who makes up his mind through writing. It might pay, therefore, to take a closer look at his writing career.

Johnson’s last book was about Churchill; his next will be about Shakespeare. These follow a history of Rome, a comedic political novel, and an ode to the city of London, among others. And these eclectic books—like Churchill’s and Disraeli’s—reveal a political vision deeply at odds with his public image.

Published in 2006, The Dream of Rome is an attempt to determine the roots of the Roman Empire’s success. Johnson argues that Rome “kept the candle of learning alight for a thousand years,” in contrast with the Ottoman empire, which left the Muslim world “centuries behind.” In a promotional television documentary, Johnson likened the Romans to the European Union, admiring the way that both had ensured peace across disparate geographies.

Yet ten years later, Johnson delivered a marvelous speech to a packed-out hall in Westminster, in which he argued that the intellectual Greeks were far superior to the bloodthirsty, bastardly Romans. The address was given midway through the Brexit campaign, by which time Johnson was campaigning around the country for Britain to turn its back on the EU project. Consistency has never been his priority.

In 2004, Johnson published Seventy-Two Virgins, a novel about a terrorist plot to assassinate America’s president during a state visit to Britain. The book makes for startling reading, especially for its gaffe-prone protagonist, Roger Barlow, a cheeky member of parliament who enjoys riding bicycles and spends most of his time worrying that the tabloid press will find out about his extramarital affair. Johnson is famous for his love of two-wheelers and was sacked from the front bench for lying about an affair of his own. Subtlety has never been his priority, either.

His book about London reflects the character that most knew before the 2016 referendum: entertaining, talented, globalist, and unashamedly privileged. He worships rock legend Keith Richards and recounts stories of conflict between the city’s greatest painters. He reminisces about Samuel Johnson and recounts the vivid story of British-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole. It’s a jumbled narrative, told with equal degrees of enthusiasm and distraction. Johnson’s London is a meritocratic paradise—“fame’s echo chamber”—where a cacophony of talent competes for glittery prizes. There is no unifying spirit, only a collection of fascinating individuals. Johnson undermines an impressive historical understanding with his childlike fascination with glory.

Johnson published his London book in the months leading up to his reelection as the city’s mayor in 2012. It was titled Boris Johnson’s Life of London—appropriate, because Johnson brings life to wherever he goes. He rode the streets on a bicycle with Jeremy Paxman and got caught on a zipwire over Hyde Park; he fell into a lake during a town visit and energized a crowd atop the Olympic stage. The nature of the mayoral role meant that he could spend much of his time on vanity projects. He left the serious work—cutting crime, building homes, and actually organizing the Olympics—to advisers and staff.

Johnson readily admits that he has “a healthy dose of sheer egomania.” But in his writing, the egomania carries through to an egotism about his own country, as the Churchill book demonstrates. It’s a gripping read, with careful consideration paid to the man’s flaws, but also a drastic oversimplification of global history. According to Johnson, “As long as Churchill had to be given honour and respect, the same could be said for Britain and the empire.” But Churchill also recognized that a post-imperial, weakened Britain required a decisive role in Europe in order to retain its status as a global power. The 1940s spirit was about more than the stiff upper lip—it was about honest self-assessment and responsible political leadership.

That many consider Brexit to be Johnson’s Churchillian moment is a sign that the arguments for and against EU membership have been deeply misunderstood. Johnson’s flirtations with imperialist nostalgia are at odds with the attitudes of many staunch Brexiteers, who see increased European integration as having compromised English and Welsh democratic liberties, not British global power. This helps explain why the union is so divided over the issue—Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain, whereas England and Wales voted to leave.

At a book-promotion event, even Johnson admitted that Churchill would likely have followed David Cameron’s line on the EU, and yet he has consistently peddled the line that believing in Brexit amounts to believing in Britain. Optimism, he says, is the key to future success—never mind that Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech at Fulton was an exercise in realism.

What governance should Britain expect from its new leader? Johnson is a small-l liberal conservative. At heart, he is an advocate of robust debate, economic opportunity, and a strong Anglo-American relationship. The final issue is particularly relevant, because if Johnson leads Britain through “no deal” this year, he may need a massive trade agreement with the United States to keep his place in Downing Street. If his personal manifestos are any clue, then tax cuts, green energy, better schooling, a well-funded health service, managed immigration, high-quality public transport, and a tougher police force are on the agenda. Keep a close eye on his stance on Iran: a pivot to Trump’s position could be a sign of where his loyalties lie.

But before he gets the opportunity to implement such an agenda, Johnson must navigate through the Brexit impasse. He will need to do so with a deeply fractured party, multiple threats to the union, and a majority of only a single member of parliament in the House of Commons. The issue of the Irish Backstop could force him to attempt to take the country out of the EU, without a deal, in October. If he does, chaos will ensue, and an election is practically inevitable. Since his official appointment today, Johnson has purged the cabinet of potential rivals and brought several loyalists from the Leave campaign—including the controversial Dominic Cummings—into the fold. He has repeated his promise to leave by October 31, preferably with a deal, but that is entirely for the EU to decide.

Boris Johnson is not a British Donald Trump. He is a liberal-minded, wide-eyed patriot whose inability to a resist a joke and desire for a place in history have, so far, consistently overwhelmed his political commitments. It remains to be seen whether, as national leader, he’ll choose to be a provocateur or a politician. But as Brexit grows into a culture war in which he has already picked a side, the two roles may have already become one and the same.

Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

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