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10 November 2021

Behind Boris Johnson’s masks

Why the shape-shifting Prime Minister is immune to all scandal.

By John Gray

When the interwar Conservative leader and three-time prime minister Stanley Baldwin was asked if any great thinker had influenced him, he replied: “Sir Henry Maine”. The Victorian jurist, Baldwin continued, interpreted the history of society as a grand advance from societies based on hierarchy and status to ones founded on contract and consent: an inspiring vision of human progress. Then, what looked like an expression of puzzlement came over the wily elder statesman’s face. “Or was it,” he asked, “the other way round?”

It is a story worth retelling, for it illustrates the slipperiness of ideas in politics and the guile of politicians in contriving a public image of themselves. An astute, calculating operator, Baldwin presented himself as a bluff, pipe-smoking pig-breeder who ambled into power. Boris Johnson strikes a more elaborate pose. A facade of dishevelled clownery gives the impression he may be impersonating Harold Lloyd, the silent-era movie comedian and stuntman who was shown regularly blundering into deadly peril and miraculously surviving to take the stage again on another day. Look more closely at Johnson and you may glimpse a pensive Charlie Chaplin impersonating Lloyd. Somewhere beneath layers of masks a master shape-shifter is at work, eluding his legions of enemies and entrancing his audience.

A man who takes Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura with him on holiday, as the Prime Minister is reported to have done last year, does not sound given to instinctive cheerfulness. Beneath his boosterish, buoyant persona, one suspects a brooding fatalism. The ancient Roman poet-philosopher taught a cold serenity in the storms of life. The question for Johnson is whether he can withstand a whirlwind of forces he is unable to control.

A debate is going on as to whether Johnson is a conservative. Thatcherites are fulminating that he is not using Brexit as an opportunity to shrink the state but expanding the role of government throughout society. A different group of conservatives laments what they see as Johnson’s craven refusal to launch an all out culture war against modern moral ills. Both factions miss the sources of his popularity, and the risks that could undo him.

Asking whether Johnson is a conservative is absurd for a number of reasons. It is questionable whether a coherent conservative philosophy is possible in these times, and doubtful that the answer matters much. The Conservative Party has never identified itself with any single view of politics and government. Disraeli tilted it away from Peelite liberalism. Baldwin endorsed imperial preference, a protectionist scheme, in the 1930s. Harold Macmillan published The Middle Way in 1938, laying out interventionist policies of a kind he applied as prime minister between 1957 and 1963, by which time the Conservatives had absorbed much of Labour’s postwar settlement.

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However conservatism might be defined, placing the free market at its centre has been self-defeating. Margaret Thatcher’s political outlook was a blend of Burkean traditionalism with Hayekian libertarianism, a highly combustible mix. Unleashing the anarchic energy of free markets dissolves any social order that is based on traditional notions of duty and responsibility. Choice trumps other values, and everything is for sale. The result has been a culture of narcissism and the commodification of anti-capitalism. It is probably only an oversight on the part of their PR team that the Kardashians have not been marketed as daily readers of Karl Marx.

The Thatcherite assault on Johnson is nonsensical for another reason. Curbing the free market was always the logic of Brexit. In its economic aspects, Brexit was a revolt against globalisation. Asserting the state against the global market is in Brexit’s DNA.

Thatcherites swallowed a mythical picture of the European Union as being hostile to the free market—the same picture that befuddles much of the left. In reality the EU is now a neoliberal project. Immune to the meddlesome interventions of democratically accountable national governments, a continent-wide single market in labour and goods is hardwired to preclude socialism and undermine social democracy.

If Thatcherites wanted to entrench and extend the free market they would have been better off backing Remain. Failing to grasp this fact, they have also failed to understand Brexit’s electoral logic. While it cannot afford to lose too many of its traditional voters, the Conservative Party cannot retain the Red Wall constituencies on which its current majority depends without high levels of public spending, borrowing and taxation. Surrendering to Treasury orthodoxy would amount to returning to the austerity politics of the bungling Cameron administration, and would be an act of gross political self-harm. Rishi Sunak’s expansionary Budget, which included £5.9bn for the NHS and £6.9bn for transport outside of London, shows the Johnson government doing the opposite, and laying the ground for an early general election.

The attack on Johnson for not promoting conservative values also misfires. The reason Johnson has not prioritised culture wars is that most British voters are not cultural conservatives. They are tough-minded on crime and illegal immigration. They approve measures to penalise protestors who obstruct them going about their ordinary business. They are not ashamed of their country and demand patriotism in its leaders. But they have no special fondness for traditional family structures and are notably unfussed about sexuality and gender. On questions such as abortion and assisted dying, they are strongly liberal. They value communities based on tolerance, not a single system of values.

What cultural conservatives condemn as modern ills, such as casual sex and recreational drug use, are part of how many people wish to live. Fashioning their futures according to their changing desires is for them the good life. They are looking not for deliverance from the directionless flux of contemporary society, but ways of making it more durable.

Johnson’s genius is that he is the political voice of what the late Polish neo-Marxian social theorist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity”. It describes an environment for which the Prime Minister is ideally suited, while pointing to the risk that is most likely to undo him. In the foreword to an updated edition of Liquid Modernity, first published in 2000, Bauman wrote: “unlike our ancestors, we don’t have a clear image of a ‘destination’ towards which we seem to be moving… To ‘be modern’ means to modernise – compulsively and, obsessively, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying undefined… Liquid modernity is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’ – now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired.”

The idea of progress has not been abandoned, as postmodern thinkers such as Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard believed. Instead, it has come to denote a condition of perpetual motion in which new desires and satisfactions come and go along with novel technologies. A solvent of traditional values, neoliberal capitalism liquefies the structures of society until they seem to be melting away. Bauman believed liquid modernity was an interregnum, which would be followed by a different and, presumably, post-capitalist order. But this was a relic of his Marxian faith, not rational analysis. In fact, capitalism has mutated, merging with the structures of a more extensive government apparatus, while the liquid life rushes on.

At this point a tension within liquid modernity needs to be noted. Alongside a succession of satisfactions, there is a persisting need for solidity. As Bauman wrote:

“I did not think… of the solidity versus liquidity conundrum as a dichotomy; I view the two conditions as a couple locked, inseparably, by a dialectical bond… After all, it was the quest for the solidity of things and states that most often triggered, kept in motion and guided their liquefaction; liquidity was not an adversary, but an effect of that quest for solidity…”

Modern populations may be in love with change, but they fear it when it seems to be slipping out of control. With all their experiments in lifestyle, they need the assurance that their everyday world is secure. In political terms, this implies a protective state. In economic terms, it suggests a shift from neoliberal to state capitalism.

The enigma of Johnson becomes less puzzling if you think of him this way. A liberal by temperament, he has stumbled on a paradox of freedom. The more their choices expand, the more human beings demand a stable space in which to make them. When this is threatened security eclipses liberty, for if order in society can no longer be relied on freedom has little value.

As the recent cross-party parliamentary inquiry has shown, Johnson’s government made grievous mistakes in handling the pandemic. Some may have come from mistaken expert advice (not least by behavioural scientists). But what the report regards as a “serious early error” – not locking down sooner – was an essentially political misjudgement: the belief that the British people would not endure a lengthy curtailment of their liberty. It was a mistake Johnson soon recognised. In a meeting with staff this May, he is said to have joked that it seemed easier to take people’s freedoms from them than to give them back. The lesson of the pandemic is that most people will welcome an extension of state power if they think it will keep them safe.

Johnson faces mounting economic difficulties. Brexit is a factor in these, but the schadenfreude of Remainers is parochial and misplaced. Stretched and fragile supply chains, rising energy prices and labour shortages in Britain are part of a global readjustment. The world is moving from a just-in-time regime to one based on resiliency, a change that will take years to complete. Energy scarcity will not abate, especially now that Europe has manoeuvred itself into dependency on Russian gas.

The cumulative effect of these pressures will be another expansion of the state’s reach. There can be little doubt that Johnson will go for some kind of semi nationalisation of the energy industry if that seems the only means of keeping the lights on. Steel and other struggling industrial sectors will be bailed out. A more interventionist economic regime is emerging inexorably from the aftershock of the pandemic and the unravelling of globalisation.

There are obvious risks. Much of the machinery of the British state is not fit for purpose. If it is required to operate on a larger scale, the result could be bigger disasters. Again, Johnson is aiming to reboot Britain as a high-wage economy – a desirable objective, but one that could send inflation spiralling. His green agenda is a colossal gamble on the falling costs of renewable energy, but even if it comes off – a big “if” – “levelling-up” spending could be badly hit. The government’s economic strategy does not add up. Something will have to give, though not necessarily any time soon. In addition, Johnson could be weakened by his hubristic behaviour in the Owen Paterson affair, in which he tried to axe the process through which parliament regulates MPs – including himself. The result – shambolic incompetence combined with a reek of complacent corruption – could do him lasting damage. In turning from market liberalism to state intervention, Johnson has put public safety in his hands. A loss of trust in him, for whatever reason, is his greatest threat.

A signal of the public mood may be heard in forthcoming by-elections in Old Bexley and Sidcup, after the death of James Brokenshire; Southend West, where David Amess was killed at a constituency surgery; and North Shropshire, where Owen Paterson has resigned. If voters slash the substantial Conservative majorities in these constituencies, it will be because they see Johnson as having sunk below the low standards of reliability they expected of him. In that event the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss could become a serious rival, though she will have to outmanoeuvre Sunak, a consummately skilful strategist.

So far, everyday life is much less impacted than it was in the winter of discontent of 1978-79. Whether a worsening crisis will destabilise Johnson’s government depends partly on the weather – literally. But his position will be seriously endangered only if Labour can take advantage of his troubles, and here he benefits from a gigantic stroke of good luck.

British politics is a contest between two sorts of progressivism. The Conservative Party is driving change, while Labour is acting as an ineffective brake. This was so in the 1980s, when Labour looked on aghast as Thatcher dismantled the failing postwar settlement. It has again been left gawping as Johnson tosses aside the free market regime that Thatcher installed.

Keir Starmer’s response has been to revert to something like Blairism, without any of Tony Blair’s formidable political skills. An effective but plodding lawyer, he has nothing of the nimbleness of mind needed to snatch opportunities to damage the government. If Labour wants to be electable, it should replace him at once. Andy Burnham or Dan Jarvis could do a far better job. So could any one of a number of women in the shadow cabinet, though that would involve the daring step of making her head of the party only 47 years after the Conservatives elected Thatcher as their leader. Yet Labour’s fundamental problem is not that it is led by someone with no talent (or taste) for politics. Worse, the party has become identified with a type of progressivism that is hostile to politics.

The core of this ideology is not any particular policy agenda but the belief that some policy options should be insulated from mainstream political debate and decision-making. Issues such as immigration and terrorism must not be left to the vagaries of elected lawmakers, but governed by human rights as interpreted by courts. When rights clash, the solution is not negotiated compromise but judicial arbitration. Where ethical dilemmas cannot be framed in terms of rights, they should be resolved by experts. Democratic politics is too chancy and grubby to be allowed to decide vital issues. (For these progressives, the appeal of the EU is that it limits the scope of democracy in precisely these ways.)

Of course, progressives of this kind do not actually renounce politics. They wage fierce political warfare in contexts where they are not democratically accountable. By acquiring control of NGOs, universities, sections of the media and business, they can dictate the parameters of public discourse. A march through the institutions can produce a transformation of society more radical than any that can be achieved by normal democratic methods.

By the same token, however, any party that adopts this progressive mindset ceases to be a party of democratic government. Focused on its own debates, it lacks the capacity to speak to ordinary people. Rather than crafting policies the mass of voters can recognise as answering their needs and values, it follows the lead of protest movements. That the values of these movements are accepted by only a fraction of the population, heavily concentrated in cities and university towns, does not matter. They are self-evidently right, and it is the electorate that must change.

The influence of this mentality can be seen in Labour’s attempt to rebrand itself as a party of the centre. Large numbers of voters favour nationalising public utilities and firms such as the Tata steel plant while supporting stiffer penalties for law-breakers and strict border controls. “Left-wing” economics and “right wing” policies on crime and immigration are not at odds. Both come from a concern with social cohesion. If there is a centre ground in British politics, this is it. Old Labour occupied much of this space. But it is almost unthinkable that any senior Labour figure should attempt to do so nowadays. The party is reprising the etiolated centrism of Change UK, an entity that existed only in Westminster television studios and vanished without trace at the last general election. If Labour remains on this path it courts irreversible decline.

For their part, Conservatives have always accepted the primacy of politics. By remaking itself throughout its history, the party has repeatedly gained power over the past 200 years, a period that encompassed several different iterations of modernity.

In reverting to Blairism Labour has repeated Blair’s mistake of assuming the meaning of modernity was settled in the post-Cold War years. Being modern meant transcending national governments and melding into a global order founded on “democratic capitalism”. Nearly a quarter of a century after Blair came to power, the same illusion pervades Starmer’s fusty Fabian tract. It is as if the fiascos of regime change in Iraq and Libya, the financial crisis, the Trump administration, the European migrant crisis, the rise of illiberal democracy in Hungary and Poland, Xi Jinping’s shift to totalitarianism, the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan never happened. Brexit has been accepted, but only as an unfortunate detour on the way to global governance. Labour is in thrall to a modernity that is history, if it ever existed.

The world-wide regime change under way is a transition from states that offer ever-expanding choices to states that promise to protect those they rule from insecurity. It is a reversal of the dominant modern idea of progress, sometimes described as the Whig interpretation of history, which Baldwin slyly mocked when he affected to have forgotten Henry Maine’s big idea. Versions of Maine’s concept continue to inform all the main parties. Yet it misses the conflicting forces at work in our floating world, and what they imply for politics.

Boris Johnson is as wedded to progress as any other contemporary politician. But in our time progress consists in channelling the stream of experimentation in technology and lifestyles while avoiding any breakdown in daily life. An equipoise between liquidity and solidity is the unstated objective of practically every government at present. The quest for this impossible balance is the defining feature of the age.

The grand advance has dissolved into a never-ending flow in which progress means staying afloat. In this liquid world, Johnson is in his element. If he somehow falls from power, it will be by a twist of fate he half-expected. Behind all the masks, the ruthless shape-shifter may be concealing a thin smile.

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life” (Allen Lane)

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This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks