Boris Johnson, the former UK foreign secretary who is expected to replace Prime Minister Theresa May, earned his right to reign over the presumably final act of Brexit by becoming a media superstar. Adept at multiple roles to keep his audience entertained, in a recent performance he even donned the mantle of a contemplative spiritual leader preoccupied with the notion of mortality.
Like a 14th-century monk troubled by the arrival of the plague that had suddenly thrown Europe into a panic, the former journalist and current politician, preacher and occasional snake-oil salesman offered us the macabre fruit of his meditation, not just on Britain’s fate, but also on the cruel inevitability of death that looms over politicians who sin against the logic of history — a logic that he, the seer and visionary, alone understands.
A growing faction of Tory remainers — those who voted to stay inside the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum — appears to be plotting to thwart Johnson’s grand plan. This consists of emulating the current US president by fomenting chaos and exploiting it as his trump card (pun intended). This should serve to neutralize all other outcomes and secure the power that Johnson needs to be free to act in the only way he knows how: with no sense of accountability.
Referring to the impending initiative of the Tory dissidents who seek to mobilize Parliament to ban a no-deal Brexit — in which the UK would crash out of the EU — the prophet Boris drew on a Biblical metaphor to illustrate his personal reading of one of the great principles of democracy: “I think if we now block it as parliamentarians we will reap the whirlwind and face mortal retribution from the electorate.”
Boris Johnson’s Political Theology
Despite his nod to the Bible (Hosea 8.7), Johnson defines himself as a secular democrat ever attentive to vox populi (the voice of the people). The whirlwind of mortality he mentions is simply a future election, not an act of God. This contrasts refreshingly with the theocratic George W. Bush, the former US president, who claimed to follow vox dei (the voice of God) in his acts of retribution against real and imaginary evildoers. It also contrasts with Bush’s ever accommodating and perennially moralizing sidekick, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, guided by his Christian faith, never believed in the outdated nonsense of turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-40). Johnson steers clear of explicit theology, preferring to let the (whirl)wind of popular opinion guide his political thinking.
As a populist (i.e., narcissistic) leader, Johnson has committed himself to a unique cause: using his declared service to his voters to serve himself. This means his whole philosophy is founded on what is increasingly emerging as the central principle for modern Western democracies, the key to getting elected and holding onto power: understanding and exploiting the undifferentiated mob’s spiteful thirst for vengeance and retribution, even when there is nothing in particular to avenge. Vengeance, after all, is the kind of emotion that motivates people to come out and vote without being troubled by nuance.
Like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro, Victor Orban and Matteo Salvini, Johnson sees the anger of the people (ira populi or democratic retribution) as the safer and reassuringly secular equivalent of divine justice. It conveniently removes direct responsibility from the politicians who know how to respect (and then hide behind) the clamor of the mob. Instead of judging them for the destruction they inevitably perpetrate, the god of history can put the blame on the people whose sovereign will they have democratically agreed to serve.
When challenged on his abusive, racist-tinged, culturally patronizing language, such as his remark that Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letterboxes,” Johnson summoned the deepest resources of his natural humility to reply: “I’m sorry for the offence I’ve caused but I will continue to speak as directly as I can because that’s what I think the British public want.” That was days before explaining that his remarks consisted of “a strong liberal defense of women’s right to wear the burka,” while affirming it’s all about the fact that “we love each other in a Christian spirit … or a non-Christian spirit … whatever.”
This last remark, despite — or rather thanks to — his deliberately confused and confusing hesitations, drew peals of what some might interpret as cynical and complicit laughter from his partisan audience. Only Boris could affirm in public that an obvious racist insult was an act of cross-cultural love. (US President Donald Trump might be tempted to try the same thing, but he hasn’t learned the art of getting people to laugh in complicity, only to cheer at his impudence).
Boris the penitent will not change his ways. He responds to a higher calling, the voice of the people, the ultimate arbiter of morality, as he in return provides the people — Christians and non-Christians alike — with the message they so desperately want to hear. Although he may never have visited the state of Alabama, he has clearly integrated into his moral code and mindset the motto of that American state’s Army National Guard: populi voluntati subsumus (“to the will of the people we subordinate ourselves”). Like the good soldiers of the American South, Boris Johnson is all about obedience and personal sacrifice.
Johnson cites another reason for us to believe that, despite his reluctance and sincere sorrow for offending people (especially those less likely to vote), he must not forsake his sacred responsibilities. He has been called upon to fulfill his democratic duty and never fail to produce the kind of provocative, injurious language that he believes “the British public want.” To refuse would be to betray his democratic vocation. As he explains, people are unhappy with politicians because “we are muffling and veiling our language.” Boris prefers to muffle and veil his ideas.
Paradoxically — and this is something Friar Boris might want to meditate on — recent polls show that “just 14% of the public believe he is honest and has a ‘good moral character.’” For someone who believes in vox populi, this could be a problem. Even if elected by his Conservative Party and confirmed by Parliament (which itself is uncertain), he will take office as the least trusted and most unpopular British prime minister ever. If you thought Brexit was a picture of chaos, wait till you see Boris at 10 Downing Street.
Following in Julius Caesar’s Footsteps
Boris Johnson has a sense of his historical mission. Interviewed on talkRadio, Johnson confirmed his preoccupations with mortality as he cited the inevitability of the latest of a series of ever prolonged Brexit deadlines, this one scheduled appropriately for the night of Halloween: “We are getting ready to come out on 31 October.” Asked to confirm this, he added: “Do or die. Come what may.”
Could the author of “The Dream of Rome” be thinking or even dreaming about Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC? Didn’t Caesar say something along the lines of “the do or die is cast” (alea jacta est, to be literal, since we’re in the mood for quoting in Latin)? Caesar’s defiant, come-what-may act in 49 BC launched a civil war, which could become the case for Britain if a no-deal Brexit under Johnson’s watch takes place. The Rubicon might then be the Northern Irish border (or even the Scottish border).
“Do or die” — an expression originally penned by Robert Burns in his ode to Scottish hero Robert Bruce, battling the English — expresses an attitude of political and military defiance. It also conveys a belief in fatality. Boris may even be anticipating his own Ides of March. In one of his radio interviews, Johnson complained of the injustice he is subjected to: “People are trying to stop me achieving what I want to achieve.” He also insisted: “The longer we spend on things extraneous to what I want to do, the bigger the waste of time.” He hasn’t quite attained Caesar’s level of hubris, who famously defied the dire warnings of the soothsayers, though that could change once he has reached his goal. He does make it clear that it’s all about “what I want to do” and anything else can only be a distraction.
The media unanimously expect Johnson to emerge victorious on July 23 as his lead over his opponent, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, among the Tory electorate is unlikely to fade. A former boss of Johnson’s, when he was still a journalist, predicts that his election to lead the Conservative Party “will signal Britain’s abandonment of any claim to be a serious country.”
Despite a high level of dissatisfaction, if not dread, across the political spectrum at the prospect of seeing Johnson in Downing Street, Hunt, who could have profited from the various controversies and scandals around Johnson’s behavior, has led an inept campaign in his futile attempt to discredit the Boris brand. Instead of opposing his rival’s controversial policies designed to seduce Tory voters while running the risk of upsetting the rest of Britain, Hunt has followed the strategy of affirming that if it works for Boris, it will work for Jeremy.
Hunt has promised to do exactly the same thing as Johnson, but more seriously. He failed to realize that simply affirming that he, Jeremy Hunt, isn’t a public clown whereas Johnson obviously will convince no one. Imitating a clown but not knowing how to draw laughs makes one not just a clown, but an unfunny one. The one thing that works for Johnson is the fact that, being such an oafish comedian, people (erroneously) attribute to him the innocence of a clown. That alone explains why he refuses to comb his ragged blond mop.
After Jeremy Hunt publicly announced his intention to follow Boris Johnson’s lead and accept a no-deal Brexit at the next deadline on October 31 if no new EU withdrawal treaty could be negotiated, his BBC interviewer asked him “if he would be willing to look the owners of family businesses in the eye and say they should be prepared to see their companies go bust.” Hunt replied: “I would do so but I’d do it with a heavy heart precisely because of the risks.” When the journalist asked him to explain his reasoning concerning the risks, Hunt explained “that a no-deal Brexit was necessary to maintain the UK’s image abroad as ‘a country where politicians do what the people tell them to do.’”
Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, it’s difficult to know from reading it on the page which one is speaking, especially since, on their own admission, they have no thoughts of their own but only know how to apply what the people have told them to do. The two Tory candidates to succeed Prime Minister May see themselves — as May herself insisted she also did — as slaves of the people, robots programmed to apply a decision the people made in June of 2016.
Following Johnson’s expected election, one major question will remain (since remaining in the EU is no longer an option). What mortal retribution is awaiting not just the Conservative Party but also the nation that, a little over three years ago, bought into Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage’s comedy act built on what they later admitted were lies? As Jeremy Hunt has rather realistically pointed out, that retribution will most likely come not from a democratic whirlwind, but from the economy itself as businesses falter, Scotland revolts, chaos reigns on the Northern Irish border and the vaunted trade deals fail to materialize. What message will the people then have for their new leader, if any? And will it be in a language they can understand? (Presumably they only understand binary choices: yes or no, leave or remain).
Of course, in the great British political tradition, Parliament itself has been the institution called upon to play the role of not just expressing, but especially of interpreting the will of the people. The first battle Boris Johnson will face will be with Parliament itself. And the real suspense for the nation and the outside world will be about seeing and feeling the shift of forces that will inevitably take place, leaving everyone guessing about where it may lead.
Three years of guessing obviously wasn’t enough.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.