Boris Johnson’s election signals a desperate new stage in the long death of British conservatism, writes Duncan Thomas.
Do or die, dude. Daunted? Not Boris. He has confidence. He has a ‘can-do attitude’. He wants to insert fibreoptic broadband into ‘every orifice’ in the country. He has, apparently, something called ‘charisma’, which must be what you get if you routinely fuck up and embarrass yourself with displays of wanton public stupidity, but are posh enough to become Prime Minister anyway.
Apparently, landing the top job has always been a ‘burning ambition’ for Boris Johnson, although it’s not really clear why or what for. Now, he has his wish, and the backing of a whopping 0.19% of the electorate to carry it out. That negotiators for the European Union are apparently unimpressed by this mandate shows, once again, how little respect they have for British democracy.
Unfortunately for Bojo, this is probably as good as it gets. He has, it is true, a certain ‘skill set’, and is hardly the only weird-haired racist to make recent political hay on the back of a xenophobic, entitled, petit-bourgeois support base. But, unlike Trump, Johnson has a very specific set of immediate and intractable crises to deal with; and unlike Farage, he is embedded within an establishment party riven by seemingly unresolvable divisions, and laden with the inconvenient burden of actually governing. He has little room to manoeuvre, and the walls of reality are closing in.
This doesn’t mean that he isn’t dangerous and unpredictable. In particular, having a Prime Minister with ‘pickaninnies’ in his vocabulary is likely to further encourage racism. But it would still be a mistake to overestimate him. Unlike most ‘populists’, he doesn’t have any real political principles (by his own admission), and tends to get flustered under the slightest pressure. He is an opportunist who responds to shifts in public opinion, rather than an ideologue who shapes it. This makes him ultimately unsuited to the role of demagogue: he’s really just a posh boy in over his head with a penchant for dinner-table bigotry, and little else. His bullshit and bluster are unlikely to carry him as far as the figures to whom he is regularly compared.
For, as has been repeatedly stated elsewhere, there really is no way out of the Brexit mess for Johnson, or indeed any Conservative Prime Minister. The gap between the desires of large capital, which the Tories have more or less successfully represented for centuries, and the parochial and delusionally nostalgic party membership is simply too large. The smart money is probably on Johnson doing what he has always done: obfuscate, backtrack, and lie. His recklessness means that we can’t rule out a No Deal exit that he is manifestly unprepared for. But, generally speaking, when the going gets tough, Boris turns and runs. Some minor cosmetic alterations aside, he is unlikely to get any real concessions from the EU; what he is likely to do in these circumstances is sell his supporters down the river and fumble his way through by polishing Theresa May’s turd. We’ll see how well that goes for him.
There was a time, not so long ago, that the Conservative Party prided itself on prudence, statecraft, and long-term strategic governance. This is a party of the rural, monarchist aristocracy that not only survived the vast social and economic transformations heralded by industrial capitalism, free trade liberalism, universal suffrage, and social democracy, but actually flourished under circumstances to which it seemed hugely ill-suited. It can claim, with some justification, to be the most successful political party of all time, having governed the United Kingdom for the majority of the 19th and 20th centuries. Over that time, it has welded together electorally viable coalitions of big capital, the petit-bourgeoisie, and considerable sections of the working class. At its post-war peak, it was a mass party of nearly 3 million members – nearly three times the number claimed by the Labour Party at the time.
This record, presumably, is what Johnson was trying to gesture towards in his acceptance speech when he waffled incoherently about the Conservatives understanding the ‘jostling sets of instincts in the human heart’ (truly, which of us does not wake up every day worrying about whether we would prefer to buy a house or share our wealth?).
Yet, his election to office represents a defining moment in the long story of Conservative decline. In his vacillation, his ineptitude, his fundamental lack of seriousness, Johnson is the perfect embodiment of a political tradition struggling to remain relevant in a changing world. His wildly contradictory statements and posture – ‘fuck business’ one moment, boasting about doing more to ‘stick up for bankers’ than anyone else the next; dropping vague hints about ‘One Nation Conservatism’, before promising massive tax cuts for the rich – encapsulate the contradictions running through the heart of a party that has boxed itself into a corner. It simply cannot effectively represent all the various fractions of its traditional support.
His coronation is less a way out of the Tories’ impasse than an admission that the best they can do is bluff their way from one crisis to the next. Johnson’s approach to Brexit, and governance in general, is akin to a Victorian Arctic explorer who thinks he can open the northwest passage simply by reciting the Iliad with a plucky attitude. That might wash with an aging, jingoistic, overwhelmingly white membership who seem to think they all personally fought on D-Day. How well it will go down with the public at large in the event of a snap general election remains to be seen.
There is a bigger story here of the declining competence of the ruling class, the long death of British conservatism, and the unintended consequences of the political alienation caused by the neoliberal restructuring of state and society. Boris Johnson has ascended to an office that his party would never dream of letting him near in normal times: we are witnessing a desperate role of the dice from a political tradition that has run out of ideas, and an expression of the current state of chaos among the ruling class and its political representatives. Do they really think Boris Johnson has the vision, the political skill, or simply the concentration span to offer any solutions here?
‘Do you feel daunted?’ he asked his party yesterday morning. The silence said it all.
Join the Fck Govt Fck Boris demonstration at Russell Square in London, starting from 5.30 pm today (Wednesday 24 July).