The role of parties in undermining the government has been a recurring theme over the last few months. First there was partygate, where No 10 apparently hosted all manner of parties while the public was being told to stay at home for the sake of the NHS. Now, after the invasion of Ukraine, stories abound about ministers at parties hosted by wealthy Russians such as Evgeny Lebedev. In a Twitter exchange on 14 March, the sociologist Will Davies asked: “Is it normal for an entire political and media elite to collapse simultaneously, because none of its members can resist high-budget parties?”
Yet this perspective, while useful, misses something important. The kind of elite parties we are talking about are not simply bonding exercises, nor business with an epicurean veneer. Rather, they are part of a certain kind of politics of transgression, in which privilege and power are cemented through acts of boundary-breaking and irresponsibility.
Would you want to go to a party attended by Johnson or Lebedev or sundry Tories and oligarchs? As an anthropological or intelligence-gathering exercise, I absolutely would. If I were seeking power or influence, I absolutely would. But would anyone go to such a party just to have fun?
Fun, as I understand it here (other definitions are available), is something lighthearted, even trivial; there is no better word for defining a fun atmosphere than the now obsolete “gay”. The repeated scandals of the Johnson era, while they often involve parties and other social occasions, are anything but gay; they are weighty and significant in their implication. Acts of irresponsibility such as holding an Abba disco at Downing Street during a pandemic or ditching your bodyguards to attend one of Lebedev’s parties in Italy — as Boris Johnson is alleged to have done — may seem like naughty japes. Yet irresponsibility does not abolish responsibility, it just deflects it to those who feel its weight: those who sacrificed for the pandemic, those whose national industries were sold off cheap to oligarchs, those who have no access to informal networks of graft and influence-peddling.
Transgression is sometimes mistaken for fun, since it often adopts the forms that most of us recognise as fun (such as parties). This underestimates the significance of transgressive ritual. When Lebedev holds a party it is doubtless fabulously bacchanalian, yet this is only one small part of a wider, even more orgiastic transgression of democratic norms and principles of good governance. Similarly, when staff members were sent out to the Co-op to buy booze for Downing Street, they were enabling not just casual drinks with workmates but an even more carnal expression of secret privilege over those who had no choice but to obey the lockdown rules.
Johnson owes much of his success to presenting his transgressive irresponsibility as impish fun. If only it were. There would be nothing wrong with having a prime minister with a capacity for gaiety. But the ambition required to attain such an office almost precludes fun-for-its-own-sake or a less nihilistic form of transgression. This is one of the many systemic problems that the Johnson era has revealed.