FOR anyone with links to Britain there has been precious little of which to be proud in the last few years; certainly, since the 2016 Brexit referendum. The English component of the Union has been in the grip of right-wing populist myths about past, present and future that have dragged the whole nation backwards. One of the exponents of Brexit, the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who dresses and behaves like an undertaker, is often referred to as the ‘member for the eighteenth century’ an apt description of both his appearance and the Brexit cause. But it has been his political boss, Boris Johnson, who has been the more destructive force.
Yet, on a recent red-letter day, Monday 19 June, Johnson was dealt a severe, probably terminal, blow to his political career. The House of Commons privileges committee found that Johnson when prime minister had lied deliberately and persistently about the flouting of Covid-19 regulations at 10 Downing Street; then lied again at the committee’s hearings; denigrated the committee, its chair and members; and prematurely leaked its findings. In resigning his seat in a blaze of indignant Trumpian rhetoric, he called the work of the committee a witch hunt by a kangaroo court. These contemptuous remarks may have earned Johnson complete exclusion from parliament on top of a ninety-day suspension, the latter now symbolic but nonetheless salutary.
When it came to the parliamentary debate and vote on the report, only seven MPs rejected it although there were significant abstentions and absences. It was heartening to hear senior members of government and Johnson’s party such as Theresa May and Penny Mordaunt supporting the report and denouncing the behaviour of a serial liar. This was a moment to celebrate, but it failed to address the question why Johnson had enjoyed such a long career in their party as an unreliable egoist who once registered a (juvenile) ambition to be ‘king of the world’.
In Johnson’s defence it might be said that he is a grossly amoral, narcissist individual who cannot separate truth from fiction and does not appreciate that he is lying. That should automatically disqualify him from any sort of public office at any level. But it ticks many of the boxes of right-wing populism. It is promoted by glib salesmen armed with advertising slogans, not serious politicians. And there is no doubt that Johnson has his supporters in the darker recesses of the English National, formerly called the Conservative, Party. They appreciate the ideological and moral vacuum represented by Johnson and the anti-establishment message he fills it with.
There is a theory that Johnson appeals as a clown and a bit of a lad, enhanced by the deliberate disheveled appearance, that gains traction in the nod-nod, wink-wink culture of golf club and other bars. And many Britons are nervous about and suspicious of intellect, seriousness and effort: that’s something for lowly foreigners because the British always somehow muddle through owing to those innate and superior qualities that are a complete mystery to everyone else. The parliamentary vote may have put a brake on that.
Populist causes like Brexit need messiahs and there is no doubt Johnson was very successful in this role, however sordid. After the referendum vote in mid-2016 I wrote that when it was finally recognised that Britain was on the road to nowhere, there was the danger of Brexit’s supporters turning to right-wing extremism. It would appear that mainstream, decent conservatives may yet prevent their party providing the vehicle for this. So, the future for Johnson surely only lies within a new party on the right. His statements are notable for messianic references to a second coming: Cincinnatus, another innings, and an absence ‘for now’. There are plenty of allies out there, but hard right-wing politics is notoriously fractious and has never prospered for long in Britain. Johnson’s main need is for the money that hard-grind politics lacks, so with luck we have seen the back of him.
Was Monday 19 June, the first time a former prime minister has been effectively expelled from parliament in disgrace, a turning point in British political history? It is to be hoped that events since the Brexit referendum, notably the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine and the consequences of climate change, have brought home to the electorate the fragility of the world they inhabit and the insufficiency of simplistic solutions and nationalistic flag waving. The re-establishment of morality in British politics requires more than this (for example, an honest assessment and acceptance of national history), but it would be a very good start.
The vote was of course an affirmation of standards and decency that are often missing from contemporary life, not just in Britain and not just in politics. But it was also a denunciation of the post-modernist politics that has spawned populism to varying degrees throughout the democratic world. It affirmed that there is indeed factual truth that no amount of sloganeering and spin doctoring can deny. It confirmed that there should be no place for serial liars in public life, a lesson that Johnson had been taught twice before without apparent impact. And in a resounding example of speaking truth to power, it emphasised that truth cannot be bent or made up as you go along to suit the whims of populist purpose.
Johnson’s supporters claim the charges against him were revenge by remainers for Brexit. In typical populist style, this is a wild claim for which there is hard counter-evidence: two members of the privileges committee were diehard, senior Conservative Brexiteers. But in the populist world of victims and enemies, any old lie will do ‒ as Brexit disastrously proved.
- Afterthought: Johnson, Trump and Berlusconi … fate and the law have not been treating right-wing populists well of late. But why is it that many of these tribunes of the people, including Kim Jong-il of North Korea, adopt such ludicrous styles that give new meaning to a bad hair day? Or is it simply part of the narcissism?