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How a cult of elite anti-elitists took power

Populists Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are leading the British government, but they are struggling against consequences of their own making.

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In my book The New Elites (2000) I argued that Britain was increasingly dominated by an upper-caste elite of anti-elitists, and that top-down populism was a perversion of democracy, the sickness of the age. More than 20 years later our country faces its biggest crisis since the Second World War, in which the malign forces I wrote about are in power. In the guise of super-patriots, in their right-wing form the new elites have emerged as the principal threat not just to the welfare and stability of the country, but to the very existence of a United Kingdom.

Together the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit risk wrecking the economy, inciting social and ethnic unrest and breaking up the country. Our leaders cannot be blamed for the virus, but their bungled response has been conditioned by culpable insouciance and preoccupation with Brexit. Boris Johnson’s ministerial appointments were dictated not by talent or experience but clan-like loyalty on the issue of Europe, leaving us to face the onslaught of the virus with the lowest-calibre cabinet in memory.

How did we get here? From 1964 to 1997, whether from the left or right, state-educated leaders were in charge. Except for Gordon Brown and Theresa May our most recent prime ministers have been products of our most exclusive schools. Some of the best people I have worked with in diplomacy, politics and journalism have been Etonians, notably Lord Carrington, a former foreign secretary and tank commander. Yet we live in an era of supposedly open elites, which makes our reversion to entitled but unproven leaders remarkable. Today we are in a tank commanded by Boris Johnson.

In compensation for their social origins Tony Blair, Cameron and Johnson have adopted an insinuating style with the public, something neither Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher nor John Major felt obliged to do. It is no coincidence that the origins and endgame of Brexit were played out during our privileged leaders’ premierships.

Blair and Cameron were Remainers yet together they did much to bring Brexit about. The main driver of the Leave vote was concerns about immigration. Whether you support or oppose immigration is not the point; I was a Remainer troubled by the most likely public reaction to the biggest and swiftest inflow of migrants in our history.

In 1997 and in 2004, the policies of Blair, the patrician liberal and canny politico (immigrants vote Labour), initiated an increase that, including illegal immigration, would raise the population level sharply. In 2004, the non-UK-born population was 5.3 million. By 2018 it was 9.3 million – just over 14 per cent of the total population – of whom 3.6 million were from the EU and 5.7 million from outside. Callaghan or Thatcher would have been more conscious of the social risks. Secure in his sense of moral ascendency, Blair has never expressed regret for his role in Brexit. We see a similar self-certainty over the Iraq War.

Resentment was concentrated among those most likely to suffer from immigration, whether economically or from pressure on housing, schools and the NHS. BBC managers helped bottle up discontent by avoiding discussion of the issue on the corporation’s news programming. Repressed anger frequently focused on Muslims, whether for cultural or racist reasons or fears over terrorism, and because non-EU migrants were the majority.

Hence a huge paradox. In the 2016 referendum many voted Leave in the belief – fostered by Nigel Farage’s Ukip, Johnson, Michael Gove et al – that Brexit would stem immigration from all sources. In this sense Dominic Cummings’ slogan to “Take Back Control” from Europe was a lie: Britain controlled non-EU migration.

David Cameron’s responsibility lay mostly in a character failing not untypical of his caste. “Chillaxing” – the journalists’ term for his laid-back approach, was not just the style but the man. From Eton onwards everything in his professional life had come easily. A smooth and polished operator, his highly paid early career as a PR fixer for the downmarket TV company Carlton – the perfect new-elite gig – was followed by a comfortable Commons seat’ in the Cotswolds and the Tory leadership four years later, though like Blair he had no direct ministerial experience. Not that self-confidence was ever lacking, and elections had a habit of going his way.

So why not a referendum on Europe?

Fatally ill-equipped to gauge the depth of disquiet on immigration, it scarcely occurred to him that he might lose.

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So it was that, each in his patrician way, Blair and Cameron unwittingly brought the Tory right-wing nationalists to power, in the form of their new-elite brother Boris Johnson. A showman par excellence, Johnson’s soft sell to a celebrity-soused public, complete with quasi-aristocratic flippancy, indolence and quirkiness, came with a ruthlessly diva-like ego. In him new-elite populism – the circus barker rhetoric and scarcely suppressed smirk in the midst of national peril – blends with a hard core of vengefulness and intolerance that is frequently meted out by his chief adviser/chief executive Cummings.

Without rooted opinions or economic understanding, in some respects Johnson is an accidental leader. Deep in himself I doubt whether he seriously wanted the job; too much like hard work. With his old schoolmate Cameron to rival, above all he wanted to once have been prime minister. At heart he is not a politician at all, but a new-elite chancer, not unlike the roguish cardsharp Khlestakov in Gogol’s The Government Inspector who, when mistaken by impressionable rustics for the titular visiting bigwig, goes along with the game.

Attacks by Johnson and his well-heeled coterie on pro-Europeans as the true elitists are mere student politics, yet there are echoes of Roundheads versus Cavaliers – the flamboyant, rabble-rousing roustabouts against the colourless administrators of the system. If Johnson falls or resigns, someone from his magic circle is likely to replace him; the favourite is Rishi Sunak, an able Wykehamist and ultra-patriot married to the daughter of an Indian billionaire. It is curious to see expensively educated people of South Asian descent promoting Brexit to racist-inclined folk on the right.

Meanwhile, for the first time in his life Johnson faces unshirkable responsibilities (being mayor of London, elected by a mere million voters, was largely another ego trip). With no strategy to handle coronavirus, his casual sub-Trumpian mendacities and lethal blunders have helped bring sickness and death beyond that suffered by any European country. As the corpses mount, the image of him grinning and demonstratively shaking hands in a hospital in early March as the virus took hold will not easily fade

What links Johnson the Latin-spouting wordsmith to the dumbing-down new elites on the cultural left? One example suffices. Proclaiming a wish to level up educational opportunities, he made Gavin Williamson Education Secretary, a man widely derided as much for his simple-minded incompetence as for his slavish loyalty to his boss on Brexit. Our Prime Minister’s convictions on education are as shallow and self-serving as on so much else. The OECD tells us that the gap in Britain between state and private educational achievement is among the widest in the Western world, but for Johnson Brexit comes first. Snug in his small entitled world, why would he promote competition?

Governing is a fag, though he is not really in charge of No 10. Much of his administration is devolved to Cummings, his Mosca. In Ben Johnson’s satire Volpone Mosca (the fly) is a smart factotum to his eponymous boss, coming up with the necessary ruse or deception when his master is in trouble.

The first thing the two have in common, beyond a privileged background and indifference to the truth (see Cummings’ retrospective adjustment of a blog to suggest he had foreseen Covid-19) is a status-enhancing affectation of down-dressing. Clothes – “topmost evanescent froth” in Thomas Carlyle’s words – are to them mightily important. From Mosca’s sagging trousers to his master’s protruding shirt, everything is a meticulously cultivated fraud on the public.

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Unwilling to believe that the next generation would continue to play along with the anti-elite charades of their betters, in the original book I finished on a hopeful note. Faced with painfully similar populist leaders in Britain and America, and with the profoundly cankered Conservative and Republican parties mishandling the pandemic in depressingly similar ways, today I would have been less upbeat.

Instead of bounding about touting the “world-beating” economy of “global Britain”, our leader is more likely to spend the rest of his term struggling against the malignant consequences of Covid and Brexit – many of them of his own making.

We must hope that, along with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson turns out to be a one-term, one-man show. So much is poorly staged histrionics that again theatrical parallels recur. Already our showman Prime Minister, like Archie Rice, John Osborne’s failing music-hall performer in The Entertainer, is looking down at the gills. Rice, according to the director Tony Richardson, embodied where Britain was heading in the Fifties: “the decline, the sourness, the ashes of old glory”. After only a year on stage, already the Johnson jokes are not going across the way they once did. 

George Walden is a former diplomat and Conservative minister. “The New Elites” has been reissued by Gibson Square

This article appears in the 11 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour