Thursday , June 27 2019

The Johnson puzzle

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One of the puzzles of our time is why Boris Johnson is considered – not just by Tory members but by much of the media - to be a credible contender for Prime Minister when many of us regard him as a oafish buffoon, serial liar and associate of criminals. One answer to this paradox, I suspect, lies in the concept of ambiguity aversion. This is the notion that people much prefer the familiar to the unknown, and known risks to unknown ones: they strongly prefer (pdf) 50-50 bets to ones on unknown proportions. Such ambiguity aversion explains a lot of behaviour in financial markets, ranging from the home bias in equity portfolios to the US’s “exorbitant privilege.” It also, though, explains political attitudes. The thing is, the Tory party is for many people the familiar option; it is after

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One of the puzzles of our time is why Boris Johnson is considered – not just by Tory members but by much of the media - to be a credible contender for Prime Minister when many of us regard him as a oafish buffoon, serial liar and associate of criminals. One answer to this paradox, I suspect, lies in the concept of ambiguity aversion.

This is the notion that people much prefer the familiar to the unknown, and known risks to unknown ones: they strongly prefer (pdf) 50-50 bets to ones on unknown proportions. Such ambiguity aversion explains a lot of behaviour in financial markets, ranging from the home bias in equity portfolios to the US’s “exorbitant privilege.”

It also, though, explains political attitudes.

The thing is, the Tory party is for many people the familiar option; it is after all the natural party of government. When Cameron threatened “chaos with Ed Miliband” and May promised “strong and stable government” they were appealing to the presumption, that the Tories offered familiarity and comfort whilst Labour offered uncertainty – something people hate. For this reason, turmoil in the Tory party is "drama" whereas that in the Labour party is "chaos".

It’s not just Tory supporters for whom the Tories are the known safe prospect. The same’s true for much of the media.

One reason for this is class. Most top journalists went to private schools. They therefore regard Johnson as “one of us”. For the same reason, they regard a public school-educated commodities broker with suspected links to Russian oligarchs and who doesn’t listen to music or watch TV as a “man of the people.”

It’s not just personal homophily that makes the Tories the familiar option, though. Being privately educated inculcates people into shared presumptions such as about what counts as “educated” (classical references do but numeracy doesn't); what matters (economics doesn’t) and who is or is not part of “the country”.

Much of the media and the Tory party have other things in common, though. One is a shared conception of what politics is – an Oxford Union-style game iof jockeying for position. The BBC, like much of the media, is obviously happier covering the Tory leadership race than it is covering substantial policy which ends up, in Humphrys’ words. “all getting a wee bit technical and I’m sure people are fed up to the back teeth of all this talk of stuff most of us don’t clearly understand.” It thus sees Johnson as a player of a game it understands, whilst it ruthlessly othered technocrats such as Ed Balls or Ed Miliband*. In the same way, the failure to see that politics can be a project of building mass movements has lent the BBC a bias against Corbynites and other activists.

Also, the media prefers human interest stories to theories of emergence, in which social outcomes for good or bad are the product of human behaviour but not design**. This too lends a bias towards seeing politics as a clash of characters rather than as a more complex process. Nonthreatboys

The Tory party, therefore, is seen – not just by its own members but by most of the media, including the BBC – as a cosy familiar option. From this perspective, Johnson offers it the same thing that Lisa Simpson gets from non-threatening boys – a frisson of excitement in what is actually a safe environment. Tories and the media know that whatever else Johnson does he will not do anything really dangerous such as put an extra penny on the top rate of tax. Johnson’s (and Farage’s) many media appearances reinforce this impression. As Alan Bennett wrote, they make them seem “human and harmless and that their opinions are not really as pernicious as their opponents pretend.”

It is only those of us from other backgrounds and perspectives who see them otherwise. It is surely no accident that the only times Johnson has been seriously challenged by the BBC has been in interviews with Eddie Mair. He might seem a harmless joker to media insiders, but to the son of a lorry driver he appears altogether more sinister.

In this sense, the mirror image of Johnson is Tony Blair. Whereas Johnson is a slightly thrilling personality from a familiar organization, Blair in the 90s offered a safe and comforting front for what was an unfamiliar and thus unsettling party.

Now, I’m not making a partisan point here. I could say much the same for many metropolitan and academic leftists: for, them, Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez or even various terrorists have served the same function Johnson serves for Tories and the much of the MSM.

Instead, I’m complaining about a tendency for everybody to inhabit bubbles in which they are unaware of the partiality of their own perspective. I suspect this is an increasing problem, caused by decline of two otherwise different characters: the aristocratic Tory who crouched in foxholes with working class men; and the upwardly mobile working class man who enters posher circles. For me personally, the most attractive of the Tory candidates is the (yes, Etonian) Rory Stewart whose career suggests a willingness to step out of a comfort zone of his own background and presumptions.

Such a failure to see that one is in a bubble is perhaps forgivable for those on both the left and right. Whether it is quite so forgivable for the BBC, which pretends to be impartial, is another question.

* Some Tories are victims of this othering: when David Willetts was called “two brains” it wasn’t an unalloyed compliment.

** For example, the media took Osborne at his word when he claimed to be trying to control the public finances, oblivious to the most basic concept of emergence, the paradox of thrift.

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