As Boris Johnson unspooled gag after gag in his speech to the Conservative conference this week, it was instructive to watch the real-time response of the UK’s social democratic intelligentsia.
Such is the loathing of the Prime Minister and all he sort of stands for that no quarter was given. On social media, each joke was met with a mix of contempt and anger. How dare he smirk and josh as his government cuts welfare for those who need it most. Who did he think he was fooling, with his sunny-side-up take on this reviled, isolated UK? Where were the policies, the details, the grasp? He was incoherent, insubstantial, blind to reality, a capering, gibbering purveyor of wishful-thinking clownery.
All of this manages both to be true and to miss an important point. The centre left’s loathing of Johnson has reached such a peak, and such a pique, that it has lost any ability to recognise and reflect on his strengths. It reminds me of the Tory hatred of Tony Blair in the first flush of his leadership – he was a fake and a fraud and historically illiterate. Why couldn’t voters see it?
As with Blair then, Johnson has a big majority and remains comfortably ahead in the polls, and his personal connection to enough of the electorate seems unlikely to be broken by any amount of scathing columns and thin-lipped tweets. His unquenchable optimism, relentless good humour and boosterish rah-rahing of all things British strikes a chord on the news bulletins – not in spite of the many difficulties we face, but because of them. In the wintriest of conditions, a little sunshine goes a long way.
There is more to people than worrying about the national debt and trying to get to grips with the trans rights debate. I saw a quote from Lucy Ellmann’s Goldmiths/New Statesman lecture on Thursday evening (6 October) – “flummoxed by fact, starved of whimsy” – that captures my point perfectly. You might not like this aspect of the public, but it’s flat-out dangerous not to recognise it. As Paul Goodman writes on ConservativeHome, “Many people want nothing more than being cheered up. Which Johnson does in spades… his connection to the unpoliticised… leaves the next election his to lose.”
It also struck me, as I twitched before the PM’s ready-fire-aim gatling gun delivery, how rare humour is in today’s politics. We are in the age of the earnest: performative wokeness, preachy intolerance, bad faith and bilious slander fired from one side towards the other, and back again. There is much to be angry about, but then there always has been. And by god, it’s a dull way to go about your business. It feels profane to crack a smile, to laugh at an edgy joke, to ever let down your guard. Politics is the kimono’d, bat-wielding Jolyon Maugham, puce-faced and spittle-flecked, entirely unaware of its own pomposity and ridiculousness as it hunts down wrongspeak. The rest of us are the poor bloody fox.
Perhaps the most tragically humourless place on the internet is where it used to be at its funniest. Scottish Twitter has all but given up on the lighter side of life. My stream is instead filled with exhausting screeds of anti-Tory and anti-Labour rhetoric, with denunciations of “the Brits”, with a relentless, high-pitched whine over the ongoing absence of a second independence referendum. The term “doom scrolling” has never seemed so apt.
As on Twitter, as in Bute House. One of Nicola Sturgeon’s more attractive qualities is her sense of humour – that dry, droll, sceptical, west of Scotland take on the world that always has a twinkle in its eye amid the gloom. It feels a long time since we have seen the fun side of the First Minister – an age since she was exchanging witty tweets with Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson. These days she appears hacked off, beaten down and wrung out.
There may be good reason for this. Two years of knocking her pan in while dealing with Covid and its terrible consequences, the trauma of the Alex Salmond affair, the march towards the conclusion of her reign with no sign that she will deliver – far less win – another referendum, and 14 years as a stressed-out minister must all have taken its toll. And to be fair, it’s probably harder to jest with Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar than it was with Dugdale and Davidson. But still…
Looking back at 2014, there was much to admire in the Yes campaign. Sure, as a No voter I took my share of abuse from the lunatic cybernats. But it was impossible not to be impressed by, and a little envious of, the swell of optimism, the swagger and the energy in the pro-independence movement. Its supporters were often very funny, endearingly self-deprecating and clearly enjoying themselves.
How things have changed. The tone today is bitter and anxious, and the movement has jumped from scepticism to cynicism. There is no longer any lightness of touch. The Scottish government seems to spend much of its time in court, fighting battles it knows it will lose in an attempt to turn the grievance machine all the way up to 11.
No one wants a Scottish Boris Johnson – god forbid. But jaded morosity hardly seems likely to appeal to the unconvinced, and the SNP needs support for independence to rise by at least another ten percentage points if it is to be confident of securing and winning a referendum. I’ve always thought that if Scotland were to choose to leave the UK it would do so from the crest of a wave, not from a pit of despond. Unless and until Sturgeon can make us smile again, and the Yes campaign can rediscover its sense of fun, it is Johnson who will have that infuriating grin on his face.
[See also: Why the opponents of Scottish independence are more divided than ever]