A few days ago on Twitter I asked why so many people are happily complicit in Boris Johnson’s dishonesty. Based on a small focus group – which is as scientific as any other such group – here are a few theories. First, Johnson exudes a sunny optimism – in Tom McTague’s words, “an all-encompassing belief that things will be fine” – encapsulated by slogans such as “Get Brexit done”, “level up”, “Global Britain”, and “build back better”. This contrasts with the Guardian’s endless list of complaints about the country, and with the nay-saying fiscal conservatism of the May government: one Tory friend of mine describes Philip Hammond as a “ghoul”. Nobody likes a whiny little shit; they prefer the optimist. You’ll object here that Johnson achieves this optimism by ignoring details such as the
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A few days ago on Twitter I asked why so many people are happily complicit in Boris Johnson’s dishonesty. Based on a small focus group – which is as scientific as any other such group – here are a few theories.
First, Johnson exudes a sunny optimism – in Tom McTague’s words, “an all-encompassing belief that things will be fine” – encapsulated by slogans such as “Get Brexit done”, “level up”, “Global Britain”, and “build back better”. This contrasts with the Guardian’s endless list of complaints about the country, and with the nay-saying fiscal conservatism of the May government: one Tory friend of mine describes Philip Hammond as a “ghoul”. Nobody likes a whiny little shit; they prefer the optimist.
You’ll object here that Johnson achieves this optimism by ignoring details such as the Irish border trilemma. True. But detail is for wonks – what Johnson calls fact-grubbers. Most people don’t pay enough attention to politics to fret about detail; their analysis goes no deeper than Laura Kuenssberg’s. So big-picture cheerfulness sells. What worked for Ronald Reagan works for Johnson.
Allied to this optimism is a form of liberality. Matthew Parris in the Times reminds us that the politician whom Johnson sees as his polar opposite is Hillary Clinton. What marks her out is her censoriousness, her desire to police the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” language of the “basket of deplorables”. By contrast, his supporters see Johnson’s serial political incorrectness not as a licence for racists and homophobes (which many of them are not) but as an endorsement of free speech against the “wokesters” who want to police our language. He gives us, says one friend, a “licence to relax.”
Of course, the idea that Johnson is striking a blow for freedom is a fiction. His government is restricting the rights to protest, to migrate and even to vote whilst empowering the security services to commit crimes. But remember, people pay little attention to detail. What they see is an image of somebody standing up for freedom.
What’s more, Johnson has assets that mitigate his serial dishonesty. One is that he doesn’t preach. In the 90s, Tories’ dishonesty and slightly rickety sex lives were a liability because they made them appear hypocritical in light of John Major’s “back to basics” campaign. Because Johnson has never pretended to be a moral paragon, he appears not as a hypocrite but as a loveable rogue. He is like your rugby club team-mate boasting about fiddling his expenses or tax return. Sure, he’s defrauding somebody. But it’s other people, so we laugh along. That contrasts to MPs’ expenses scandal, which took money from us. If you think all politicians are liars, Johnson’s transparent dishonesty is a breath of fresh air.
This is not the only way in which Johnson flouts the rules of normal politicians. He doesn’t pretend to be a man of the people by feigning an interest in football or popular music, as with Gordon Brown’s claim to like the Arctic Monkeys. He doesn’t wear the uniform of politicians, eschewing a well-fitting suit in favour of a Worzel Gummidge look. And he doesn’t pretend to have a command of the facts. He is comfortable in his own skin, in a way that some Labour leaders have not seemed to be.
And this is popular. Many people have had enough of technocratic politicians, whom they perceive as failures. Johnson is different. He provides a spectacle of grotesque chaos while laughing in the face of the normal order of things. He’s like punk rockers rebelling against the pompous prog rock that went before. And that leaves many of us feeling like Bob Harris*, befuddled by what seems to us to be an artless and charmless rejection of the rules we have become accustomed to.
In saying all this, I’m not claiming that Johnson is clever enough to have consciously capitalized on these sources of appeal. More likely, I suspect he is the lucky beneficiary of a political environment has selected for his schtick, just as the natural environment selects for accidental mutations or the business environment selects for strategies that entrepreneurs or investors have adopted without full knowledge of their consequences.
Nevertheless, the question arises: could the left emulate his success? In one sense, no. Whereas working class people can be lovable rogues – think of Jack Duckworth – only posh people can achieve wealth or power through this route. Johnson’s class is an asset: my mum thinks he is more educated than I am (which he’s not) simply because he talks proper. And of course the media would scrutinize leftist dishonesty much more carefully than Johnson’s lies. Life ain’t fair and the world is mean.
Also, we must guard against skating to where the puck has been. Just because the environment today selects for Johnson’s attributes does not mean it will continue to do so.
Nevertheless, there are, I think, two things we should learn.
One is to not be priggish humourless moralistic whiners, but to present instead an image of fun-loving liberality. We must lighten up, drop the censoriousness and laugh more.
The other is the need for optimism. Remember that Barack Obama’s breakthough owed a lot to the slogan, “yes we can.” The left needs to show that it can somehow improve things: building on McDonnell’s economic agenda is one possibility here. And this requires not just policies, but the self-confidence to sell them. Johnson shows that politicians can succeed by not being scared of their own shadow. The left should learn from this.
* Harris actually coined the phrase “mock rock” in 1973, to describe the New York Dolls, a pre-punk band but my point holds.