Boris Johnson’s political career has benefited from his comic personality, but his government is now a bad joke: Joyce McMillan

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People filled with nostalgia for aristocratic times do not make good political leaders (Image: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

They were what would soon, I suppose, be known as “young fogeys”; they moved about in tweed or academic gowns at a time when almost all students wore jeans and duffle coats, spoke in a stylish and elegant manner regardless of their own social origins, and sometimes attended Anglican worship services, with much talk of double genuflections and incense.

They also became involved in Conservative politics, although in a style that they had never previously encountered in Scotland; during my first term at St Andrews, for example, they were busy celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Rhodesian UDI, a declaration of independence from the UK by a white colonial government that refused to move towards majority rule.

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However, what I was never able to resolve about this team was how seriously they really took all of this, as a political agenda. Emotionally, it was easy to trace in them some kind of visceral nostalgic reaction to the more egalitarian world that had developed in Britain since the Second World War, a resistance to the implicit radicalism of 1960s pop culture, and a desire to preserve the manners and customs. style of a bygone era of aristocracy and empire.

Yet there was something performative about the stance they took – ironic, jocular, slightly self-mocking – that suggested they also knew it was out of step with late-20th-century reality.

I never heard any of them defend white supremacy, for example, although they were willing to attend a party to celebrate it; and it wasn’t until a little later, when I met different and more serious St Andrews Conservatives like Michael Forsyth and Michael Fallon, that I realized how their attitude dovetailed with a much more substantive attack on post-war values, and to the very idea of ​​a cradle-to-grave welfare state, which had shaped British public policy since 1945.

And I realized last week, while watching Jacob Rees-Mogg give one of his aging Lord-Fauntleroy performances in the Commons, that I have now witnessed this cult of performative reactionary elegance, in one form or another, for almost my life all adult life; and that it is one of the keys both to the political success of the current Prime Minister, and to the reasons why many of his days in Downing Street are now numbered. Boris Johnson is not Lord Fauntleroy, of course; he leaves the 18th-century styles of high-camp to others.

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However, he has long adopted the persona of the hapless but charming jolly aristocrat, great friend, friend of the tavern, wearing his classical upbringing lightly, with his messy hair and his graceful vocals reassuringly deep in the throat. as if hinting at hidden reserves of “background” and moral strength. And he found that in an era of political backlash, fueled not only, since the 1980s, by a renewed elite class determined to defend its wealth and privilege, but also by a dispossessed working class devoid of socialist alternatives, there has been a growing market for your kind of leadership.

The problem for Johnson, however, is that this tongue-in-cheek, comedic style, which served him well as a political journalist, only works for a leader of opposition, dissent, and mockery, and not for the leader of a government trying to deal with The 21st century. century realities. The long collapse of Johnson’s blockbuster act began, of course, on the morning of June 24, 2016, when, white with shock, he realized that powerful forces largely outside his control had combined to make his move. retro-fantasy joke of British withdrawal from the EU. in a pressing reality, for which probably, at some point, you will have to assume some responsibility.

The second blow to his chosen personality came with the Covid pandemic, which forced governments around the world to take the kind of serious “nanny state” measures, to protect health services and lives, that “Boris” despise more deeply.

In fact, if you’re looking for an explanation for the Downing Street party scandals, you need look no further than the divided mind of a man half-working as a rational prime minister, who almost every day had to announce the current regulations. to a population in distress. , but whose “Boris” brain was never fully engaged with the words he said, particularly when it came to the behavior of his own inner circle.

Now, however, it seems that we have reached the point where most people have tired of Boris’s funny political twist, which proved so popular, at least with some, in the 2019 general election.

Suddenly, his jocular and ironic stance is not about reassuring nods and winks against “political correctness” for those upset by it, but about rank arrogance and double standards, first ignoring and then trying to get out of the created regulations. by their own government, for the public good, during a national emergency.

When I first caught a glimpse of the political pantomime of nostalgia for the aristocratic days of the past, at St. Andrews half a century ago, it never occurred to me that I would ever reach the heights of command of the British government; It was silly, negative, and mockingly destructive then, and it still is now, even as reams of damaging right-wing policies are enacted under cover of its nonsense.

So, to echo David Davis in the House of Commons this week, in the name of God, all you nostalgics and pranksters, scoffers, mythmakers and imperial throwbacks, go; and let us have a government by the people and for the people, at last, at least in some parts of these islands without a scepter.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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