Both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are constantly attacked as buffoons, racists and Islamophobes pandering to the lowest instincts of the populist masses. Johnson’s Brexit deal was attacked by the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, as a “Trump Brexit”. The US President himself has claimed that Johnson has been called “Britain’s Trump”. Both are indeed ebullient, raffish figures with colourful private lives but Johnson and Trump are quite different men. One a classically educated journalist with a penchant for reciting extracts from the Iliad, the other a straight-talking, transaction-oriented Manhattan real estate magnate. Johnson’s rhetoric, apart from the occasional snide about burqa-clad Muslim women resembling letterboxes, differs significantly from that of his counterpart across the Atlantic. In December 2015 when Trump made his controversial call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US, Johnson joined in the global cacophony of criticism, calling him “out of his mind”. As Mayor of London 2008-2016, Johnson was pro-immigration and even backed an amnesty for illegal immigrants who had been living in the UK for more than 15 years.
Johnson and Brexit
A glance at Johnson’s articles and statements about the EU over the years indicate mixed feelings and just before the beginning of the 2016 referendum campaign he wavered. In one article that was not published at the time, he backed David Cameron’s renegotiation deal with Brussels and called access to the single market a “boon”. Eventually, of course, he came down in favour of Brexit and became a key face in the Vote Leave campaign. Some, including Cameron in his recent memoirs and interviews, have suggested that Johnson believed that Remain would win but being on the patriotic romantic side of Brexit would bolster his chances in a future Tory leadership contest. It has been said that Theresa May simply wanted to be Prime Minister but that Boris Johnson wants to be a great Prime Minister. Delivering Brexit is the means to that end. Johnson’s latest book is called “The Churchill Factor”. The message is not particularly subliminal.
Johnson and Englishness
Scottish historian Neill Ferguson recently wrote that Johnson is the sort of bumbling upper-class Englishmen famously portrayed by P.G. Wodehouse, a man “belonging to the past, not the future”, a throwback to the 1920s and 1930s. Possibly. But that might be a reason for his popularity with certain sections of the public. He is Britain’s 55th Prime Minister and the twentieth to have attended Eton. The man who established the link between the school and the office was Robert Walpole who went attended Eton in the 1690s and became the first Prime Minister in 1721. Oligarchic and hardly meritocratic for sure but also reassuring for the deferential? Things have not changed that much after all and thank goodness for that, some might say. It would be no isolated phenomenon. Trump’s Make America Great Again, Recep Erdogan’s evocations of the golden age of the Ottoman Empire and Putin’s appropriation of the symbols of Czarist Russia and, beyond that, Byzantium indicate a world growing weary of post-1989 liberalism and globalism.
Johnson and Breaking the Mould
In the early 1990’s Christopher Lasch, an American history professor, penned a prescient essay called Revolt of the Elites: the Betrayal of Democracy. He argued, inter alia, that the business and professional elites in America no longer shared a common culture with their less affluent, less sophisticated fellow citizens. Huddled together in the coastal cities they felt more in common with their counterparts in Hong Kong, Korea and Japan than Middle America. What we would now call flyover country was dull and dowdy and, although Lasch does not use the word, “redneck”. The old elites endowed libraries and public buildings in their home areas whilst the new metropolitan elites were rootless, cosmopolitan and withdrawing from the national community. The division between increasingly denationalised elites and the more rooted sections of the population that Lasch noted in the US in the 1990s was destined to deepen and become apparent elsewhere. With the West dogged by Islamic terrorism, financial crisis, economic stagnation and open borders chaos the 2016 the outcome of the Brexit referendum in the UK re-emphasised old divisions between Scotland and England and Unionists and Republicans in Ulster but also a chasm separating London and the university towns that voted Remain on the one hand and the rest of the country that voted Leave on the other.
Whether and to what extent Johnson will be able to break the mould of British party politics to reflect the new alignments in society will determine whether he stays Prime Minister after the upcoming election. A crucial element in the Trump-Bannon strategy of 2016 was the promise to stop massive illegal immigration, limit legal immigration, get back sovereignty and protect American workers and businesses. The strategy brought victory Trump with the forgotten people of previously Democrat voting states such as Wisconsin and Michigan abandoned by a political establishment comprising liberals concerned with faddish identity politics and mainstream conservatives concerned with capital gains taxes and other chamber of commerce concerns. If Johnson is to win he must similarly win over traditionally Labour areas in the Midlands, the North of England and Wales that voted Leave in 2016. But that will mean more than just delivering Brexit and ending free movement of workers. It will mean more public spending on the national health service and schools, a tough line on law and order, ending talk of amnesties for illegal immigrants and taking a distance from the fashionable metropolitan causes of the day. And he must do so without losing too much ground to the Liberal Democrats in the south of England and the Scottish nationalists. Achieving all this would be no mean feat.