Boris Johnson: A Brief Assessment


Boris Johnson: A Brief Evaluation
Sean Gabb
28th July 2019

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I have been asked to comment on Boris Johnson’s appointment as Leader of the Conservative Party and therefore as Prime Minister. Since I recently called him “a bag of living offal,” my view is unlikely to be positive. However, I will try to be fair. More to the point, I will try to relate this latest turn of events to my general analysis of British politics.

Last month, I wrote that membership of the European Union was a peripheral issue for our ruling class. The main agenda for this class is to carry through a neo-Puritan remodelling of our institutions, and indeed our minds. The details of a customs and regulatory union are less important than control of education, the media and the criminal law. This being said, membership is useful so far as it blurs the lines of accountability. It is also an article of belief among some elements of the Ruling Class. For this reason, the verdict of the 2016 Referendum was unwelcome. It meant a diversion of effort from the main purpose. It upset various important people. The obvious solution was to give us a minimal departure that would satisfy us, but would keep in place those elements of the European Project that really are important to the Ruling Class.

Here, I come to a digression on the nature of how we are governed. There is no cabal of evil persons directing all events and appointments from behind the scenes. This is generally not how ruling classes operate. A more realistic model can be taken from Ian Kershaw’s analysis of the National Socialist revolution in Germany. This proceeded with limited central direction. Before 1939, the leaders were concerned mostly with foreign policy, after that with fighting a big war. Instead, the revolution was decentralised. Reliable men were put in key positions and told to “work towards the Fuhrer” – that is, to act in any situation as they might imagine Hitler himself would act. The result was often administrative chaos. The benefit was that the leadership could concentrate on what it saw as the essentials, and more local knowledge could be used in the overall revolution than would otherwise have been possible.

This is largely how things work in England. Our own transformation is not driven by detailed orders from the Shadowy-Ones-on-High, but by creating a bias within every useful institution to those who are broadly in favour of the transformation. The benefit is a constrained diversity of approaches that can be presented as a genuine diversity of opinion. The disadvantage is that executive power lies in this country where it has since 1701 – that is, in the hands of the Ministers of the Crown, who are accountable to the House of Commons. If the Prime Minister turns out to be a fool, and the other ministers are too cowardly to stab him in the back, there is no easy way to remove him.

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On balance, Theresa May was more stupid than malevolent. Her job was to produce the minimal departure I have mentioned. The question of who wrote her Withdrawal Agreement is less important than the fact that few who mattered wanted or dared to accept it. She should never have thought it would be accepted. Having discovered it was unacceptable, she should have tried something else. Instead, she tried four times to ram it through the House of Commons. She also reached out to a Labour leader who is feared or just hated by important strands within the Ruling Class. At first, the damage was confined to the possibility of a Labour Government. It then widened, with the emergence of the Brexit Party, to the threat of a general delegitimisation of the system as it has emerged since 1997, or perhaps 1979.

At last, however, she was forced out. It was always so likely that Boris Johnson would replace her that there was no need to help him. With the votes that mattered effectively in the bag, liking him or disliking him could be an open issue within the Ruling Class and its various clients. His job is to produce any departure from the European Union that will satisfy a majority of those who have been accidentally and annoyingly radicalised by the previous botched effort. This means a more genuine departure than was ever intended. As said, however, membership is a peripheral issue. If there are dangers to giving the people something of what they want – the danger, that is, that they will be tempted to start demanding much else – some deal or No Deal are both manageable risks in the short term.

If I am right, the Government’s lack of a majority in the Commons will not be allowed to stand in the way of producing an acceptable departure. Officials who have pretended to incompetence will suddenly turn competent. Those who have been actually incompetent will be replaced. The Government will go about the world calling in favours or trading favours. As I wrote last year, we are objectively in a strong position to make demands on the Europeans, the Americans, the Chinese and everyone else who matters. We can make demands with limited reciprocity. It would be useful to have another Talleyrand in the Foreign Office. But Dominic Raab will probably do.

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Again if I am right, neither denunciation nor an overflow of joy is appropriate from those of us on the political right. This is not a particularly conservative government. And it is not in place to sell a repackaged version of the Withdrawal Agreement. Its job is to produce a departure from the European Union on terms that avoid a crisis of legitimacy and that do not themselves cause a recession. Except in the rhetoric of government, nothing else will change.

Of course, if we do leave on reasonable terms, the fact will remain that the people have, for the first time in living memory, been given something of what they want. This is a precedent that cannot be made to go away. On the other hand, the main job of politicians is to deal with the things in hand, and to let the morrow take care for the things of itself.

Because I may be wrong, here is a rescue hypothesis. Mr Johnson may turn out as big a fool as his predecessor, in which case, we shall still be here a year from today, debating the merits of the WTO Option and the Irish Backstop. Whatever happens, therefore, I can still say I was right. But I suspect the above is a fair approximation of what is happening and of what is now desired to happen by those who count.

10 comments

  • Well Sean, I can agree on a few of your points, but not on much.

    I consider Johnson to be a breath of fresh crap. Might look a bit different, but the stench is still the same. I’m glad he beat Hunt, but that’s only because Hunt is “my” MP; and has been hostile to me ever since I first met him back in 2003.

    And I disagree with your assessment of Theresa May. May was the worst Home Secretary yet. Who initiated the “snoopers’ charter?” As prime minister, she was dishonest on her Brexit promises, as I’m sure you’ll agree. She said she would leave on May 7th, and didn’t. And she supported that idiot Michael Gove on the non-existent “climate crisis.”

    For me, far more radical change is needed. For now, I’ll give Johnson the benefit of the doubt for a few weeks – as long as he works towards an unconditional Brexit. Just as I’m giving Nigel Farage the benefit of the doubt while he builds his party.

  • I’m not sure I agree with your underlying understanding of the situation. I used to think this way years ago and regarded membership of the EU as relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of where I wanted things to go; but when I thought about it more, I realised that coming out of the EU would put in motion further changes that could put British politics on a whole new course. It’s not that Brexit is a solution in particular, rather it’s part of a process, merely a stepping stone – but vital.

    And I think the opponents of Brexit have a similar understanding to mine. It’s not that they see Brexit as apocalyptic, more that they recognise that the struggle for Brexit, the actuation of Brexit and the consequences of Brexit are part of a general direction of travel away from cultural leftism (and all its components) towards the Right, the keystone of which is sovereignty. Sovereignty – remember – is a feature of political localism and devolved arrangements. My position on the British civic union is that Britain itself is the natural political arrangement for the archipelago – by devolving from the European Union, we are re-asserting natural sovereignty over our own domain.

    That’s not to suggest that European integration is, metaphysically, in contradiction to an organic right-wing attitude: you could have a civic union along Aristotlean lines among kindred European states that is still consistent with sound sovereigntist principles. Sovereignty and political legitimacy can be a concrentric complex. But under present circumstances, European integration is in service of leftism.

    Turning to the personalities involved, undoubtedly Jeremy Hunt would have been the better choice for the country, simply because he is a typical tin-eared elitist who would have brought down the Tory Party for good. And once the Tory Party was destroyed, Labour would have followed, and we could have been on our way to a realer politics.

    But we got Boris Johnson and we are where we are. Mister Johnson has repeatedly stressed with specificity that we will leave the EU on 31st. October 2019, and without a deal, if necessary. Today one of his senior ministers repeated that we will definitely leave on 31st. October 2019.

    Politicians lie, but it’s rare that politicians will lie in literal terms. This is due to mass democracy and mass information, and the need it creates for an appearance of moral and ethical legitimacy. The medieval kings and their clerical executives would lie all they wanted and put to the sword anybody who argued with them about it. Modernist politicians cannot do this. Instead, the norm is that they are careful to lie semantically, as Theresa May did.

    Unlike most people, I don’t think and read in soundbites. I actually read what people write and listen to what people actually say. You will note, if you study her words carefully, that Theresa May did not tell literal lies. She did not, in so many words, promise any specifics, and even the 2017 Tory Manifesto was sufficient flexible to allow for the deal she negotiated with the EU. Nevertheless, these politic precautions failed her – through a combination of her semantic wordy evasions and treacherous deeds, it became clear she was lying, thus she lost credibility and authority and she was removed.

    Enter Boris Johnson. He has not taken these same politic linguistic precautions as May. Why not? Is it because he is telling the truth and is confident that he can deliver on what he says, proroguing or dissolving Parliament, if he has to? Or is it that he is taking a punt in the belief that: (a). faced with a resolute British Prime Minister, the EU will have to come to the table and (b). if the ploy fails and his position collapses he can save himself by claiming that it was all a negotiating ploy?

    Or is he just even more arrogant than Theresa May and thinks he can lie brazenly?

    We’ll soon see.

    • We shall indeed soon see. As for the EU, I have a mild inclination towards a European Union – none to the European Union that we have.

      • Yes, but you must surely agree that Brexit is about more than the “details of a customs and regulatory union” (a quote from your essay). I’m just a little surprised you can be so neutral and bloodless about it.

        Even when Britain joined in 1973, it must have been obvious it was more than just a trading area and that we were entering into a pact with proto-federalist designs. Anybody not surmising this must have been rather dense. Yet whether out of a lack of national self-confidence or some other reason, people went along with it in the 1975 referendum – though, in fairness, by then it was difficult to come out and the Left was not hegemonic at that point.

        By 2016, the momentum for Brexit had been 45 years in the making, gathering speed after 1997. This momentum is manifesting in some quite startling radicalism. I have been on some of these forums and seen the blood-curdling comments from angry people. Although I think sovereignty and nationalism do touch something primal in people, a tribal imperative, if you like, and it’s something you dice with at your peril. The Soviet Union was brought down not by technology, sexual politics or economics, but by nationalism. Yugoslavia, a modern, civilised, peaceful state within the Eastern Bloc (albeit somewhat detached and more advanced than the others), was turned into a bloodbath by nationalism.

        It’s not something I can just shrug my shoulders about.

        • Then let us hope it is a constructive nationalism than something based on a grudge.

          • @Dr Gabb

            Nationalism is nationalism. It’s both constructive and destructive. It constructs its own and is tolerant, at best, of outsiders. It can only be based on nationhood, which ultimately is a test of ethnicity. You’re either in (or assimilable to) the tribe/extended family, or you aren’t. I don’t personally accept that we in what is called the ‘West’ have some extraordinary ethical obligation to be more civil than everybody else in the way we go about practising our culture.

        • Now that you’ve mentioned it, Tom, it does seem amusing to me that the final “shot” that killed the Soviet Union, the withdrawal of Russia, was “fired” by someone called Boris. Maybe Mr. Ivanovich is aiming to emulate him? We can only hope.

          Though I wouldn’t agree that the popular revulsion against the USSR was by any means all down to nationalism. More of it, I think, was due to hatred of the Soviet system and its effects on ordinary people. And Yugoslavia was a creation of Clemenceau, a fusion of unlike parts that could never have held together for the long term. A perfect demonstration of why top-down politics doesn’t work.

          • @Neil Lock

            We are actually both making the same observation and arguing for the same thing: politike philia. I realise your concept of conviviality is meant to imply a rejection of politics, so is not Aristotlean. I see nothing especially wrong with a political community and minimal moral privilege because I see things in terms of ethnos, whereas you reject this because you reject community in favour of the free association of individuals. [Which is not to say individuality is unimportant to me – you should not make the mistake of assuming that – but that’s another discussion].

            Despite the difference between my politics and your anti-politics, I’ll use the term philia to describe both our positons, partly just for brevity and convenience, but also because my philia is not mutually-exclusive of your conviviality. As I see it, both concepts can be explained the same way.

            The difficulty we have is that we are arguing from slightly different axioms because we each have a fundamentally different understanding of what the cause of philia is. I do not believe philia (or conviviality) is possible without shared values, and I do not believe shared values are possible without either shared ethnicity or kindred ethnicity. I put this down to certain immoveable facets of human nature: including territoriality and tribalism, which mean that diverse co-existence is difficult and eventually leads to conflict and war.

            This brings me to the immediate point under discussion. I believe the collapse of the Soviet system was ultimately down to a lack of ethnic homogeneity. You, in contrast, believe that the collapse of the Soviet system was down to hatred of the system among ordinary people.

            The two views are not incompatible of course – the hatred of the system may fundamentally have been down to the lack of ethnic homogeneity – but you ultimately believe (or it seems you believe) that values/culture come before genetics rather than the other way round, therefore all that’s needed is for people to agree on things and they can happily live together. This is essentially the materialist positions shared by Marxists, classical liberals, some civic conservatives, anarchists and anarcho-capitalists. I don’t accept that such an arrangement could work for a lengthy period in anything other than highly contingent circumstances, such as a large-scale environmental disaster and/or a massive reduction in population and/or a situation in which everybody was the same or of similar ethnic stock. Yugoslavia is, surely, a case in point. As I have stated, it collapsed into civil war because it was an artificial civic arrangement without any harmonious ethnic basis.

  • I have admired your writings for decades since “Candidlist” and still refer to your 2001 “Enemy Class” Free-Life-Commentary #47(?).

    Would you care to update this essay for today’s events and people, please?

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