Who is Boris Johnson?

When he announced that his great-great-grandmother was a Circassian slave, was it just another "inve

The garden in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, was always packed during the Spectator's summer parties. Former Tory cabinet ministers like Lord Gilmour might be spotted conversing with Sir Charles Wheeler, the veteran BBC correspondent. A smattering of Pakenhams, the literary clan headed by Lord Longford, perhaps; Telegraph editors past and present, such as Charles Moore and Sir Peregrine Worsthorne; novelists, painters, political commentators and, darting hither and thither, shirt untucked and tie askew, the magazine's then editor, Boris Johnson. The guests, a mix of influential Tories, raffish writers, a few stray aristocrats and several young women whose purpose appeared mainly decorative, may have been what one would expect at gatherings thrown by the cheerleading magazine of the right.

But what would not have been obvious to many was the extraordinary degree to which the host was connected to a large proportion of those who were supping his Ruinart champagne - and not merely by ties from journalism and politics, but by much deeper, long-standing ones of school, university, family and extended kinship. Nor could the newcomer have any idea that if history had taken a different turn a century ago, the Tory MP and former Spectator editor of today, whose Wodehousian circumlocutions seem the very quintessence of Englishness, might have found himself named not Boris Johnson but Iskander Ali.

Whether Boris's great-great-grandmother was indeed a Circassian slave is an unprovable matter of family legend. Her son's life, however, is better documented. Ali Kemal, Boris's great-grandfather, was the last interior minister of the Ottoman empire after the First World War. Soon after Atatürk's nationalists took power in 1922, Kemal, who had been one of their most vehement opponents, met a sticky end. He was kidnapped and taken to Izmit, where he was handed over to a mob who attacked him with sticks, stones and knives, then hanged him from a tree in the square.

Before all this, though, Kemal had fathered a son, Osman Ali, by his half-English first wife. Born in Bournemouth in 1909, the child was brought up by his grandmother, whose surname he took; so Osman Ali became Wilfred Johnson. (If this change of surname and religion had not taken place, then Alexander Johnson could have been Iskander - the Arabic version of Alexander - Ali.) The Johnsons' relations through Kemal's second wife, with whom they are in contact, include two past Turkish ambassadors, to Britain and to Norway. So when the member for Henley holds forth on Turkish accession to the EU, he has more insight than he is often given credit for.

Through his father's side Boris has not only Muslim ancestry but a connection to one of Britain's most prominent Jewish families. Boris's stepmother Jenny, the second wife of his father Stanley, is the stepdaughter of Edward Sieff, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer. This also provides a link to two politicians he was later to encounter in the House of Commons: Edward Sieff's son Adam, the urbane record executive, has the distinction of having been in a Seventies rock band, Jaded, that was promoted at different times by both Tony Blair and Chris Huhne.

Stanley is in the unusual position of both preceding and attempting to succeed his oldest son in public office. An early environmentalist and a Tory MEP from 1979-84, Johnson père stood for the Devon constituency of Teignbridge in the last election. Son and father campaigned together, forming a double act that failed to win Stanley the seat but produced some memorable bons mots. Discussing higher education with a small crowd, Boris dismissed "loony degrees in windsurfing from Bangor University". Added Stanley sagely: "They also surf, who only stand and wait."

Andrew Gimson, Boris's biographer, theorises that the almost caricature Englishness stems from Stanley's side of the family, that it is a front to conceal the very non-English paternal inheritance. Possibly more surprising, however, is that Boris's mother, Charlotte, has an impeccable left-wing pedigree. Her father, Sir James Fawcett, was a prominent barrister and a member of the European Commission of Human Rights. The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality for women, is named after a 19th-century forebear, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and wife of the Radical MP Henry Fawcett.

Charlotte's parents were close friends with Lord and Lady Longford. Their daughter, the novelist Rachel Billington, is godmother to Boris, providing him with further unlikely socialist kith on top of the Fawcett kin. But through the Longfords come also ideological fellow-travellers: Billington's cousin, the writer Ferdinand Mount, is a former head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit at No 10, and his son Harry is a vigorously right-wing Telegraph columnist. These paths happily cross, as does Boris's with that of Orlando Fraser, son of Billington's sister Lady Antonia Fraser from her first marriage to the late Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser. In 2005, Orlando himself tried to win a Devon constituency for the Conservatives, but did not prevail despite (or, dare one suggest, because of) support from Boris and Stanley. More distantly, Ferdy Mount's cousin Mary is the mother of a junior of Boris's at Eton and Oxford, the Tory leader David Cameron.

Johnson & Johnson

Boris almost derailed his career in journalism at the very beginning, when as a Times trainee he made up a quote from his godfather, the historian Colin Lucas. The quote was not only fictitious but also inaccurate, exposing Lucas to considerable academic ridicule. Lucas overcame his godson's thoughtful attempt to bring his name to a wider audience, and later became Master of Balliol and vice-chancellor of Oxford University; but his angry complaint at the time got Boris the sack.

Such incidents did not deter his younger siblings from entering the fourth estate. Regular Johnson bylines include those of his sister Rachel, a novelist and Sunday Times columnist whose husband, Ivo Dawnay, is communications director of the National Trust and a former foreign editor of the Sunday Telegraph; and his brother Jo, recently appointed editor of the Financial Times Lex column and married to the award-winning foreign correspondent Amelia Gentleman.

At one point during Boris's editorship of the Spec, the Johnson surname appeared so often (his predecessor, Frank Johnson - no relation - was a regular columnist as well) that no one noticed when the diarist one week was a Leo Johnson. Surely, readers thought, it can't be another member of the family. But close inspection of the article, an account of Leo's bizarre pitch to a movie mogul, revealed a certain similarity of style:

"It is the mainstream, genre movie of Stanko the Bulgarian pastry chef who casts off the shackles of liberty, deflating the soufflé of capital and licking clean the spatula of injustice," said Leo to the mogul. Goldwyn spoke. "Let me tell you something. I have been in this business a long time. This is the worst story I have ever heard." It is believed to be Leo's sole foray into journalism.

The media connections do not end there, however. Sir Charles Wheeler is Boris's father-in-law through his second wife and the mother of his four children, Marina. The affair that Boris tried to deny with his line about an "inverted pyramid of piffle" was with another writer, the former Spectator deputy editor Petronella Wyatt, daughter of the News of the World's "Voice of Reason" columnist, the late Lord (Woodrow) Wyatt. And many of the writers whom Boris championed during his editorship of the Spec were friends from Oxford, including the Tory MP and former Times executive Michael Gove, the magazine's regular Africa correspondent Aidan Hartley, and its theatre critics Lloyd Evans and Toby Young.

Other friends from Oxford include the US pollster Frank Luntz; Earl Spencer; the fraudster Darius Guppy (who once telephoned Boris for the home address of a NoW journalist he wanted beaten up; although he did not supply it, Boris did not refuse the request, and the incident was to cause him no end of trouble); Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski (who is married to Anne Applebaum, another former deputy editor of the Spectator); and the barrister Justin Rushbrooke, the son-in-law of the former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, to whose house Boris escaped when Marina threw him out temporarily in 2004 after his escapades proved too much for her.

Many of the above were to be seen at the parties Boris held at the Spectator, and are familiar with each other's homes in north and west London. Broad networks in media and politics are not unusual. The extent of the ties that Boris can draw on, however, harks back to a different time: to that of the Salisburys and Balfours at the end of the 19th century, to the Bonham Carters and Asquiths in the early 20th century, or later, up until the fading of the grouse moor Tories in the Sixties, to that vast tree that encompassed the Churchill, Eden, Sandys and Marlborough families. Boris's network is less Establishment than that - there is a whiff of the demi-monde about all those literary types - but it is wider-reaching and more deep-rooted than that surrounding any Tory leader from Ted Heath to Michael Howard, and, unlike their circles, its foundation is class and family, not pure politics.

If anyone can confirm Boris's great-great-grandmother's origins, however, I'm sure he'd be grateful. The election's going to be close, and the ex-Circassian slave vote could be crucial.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

***


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge