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Boris Johnson wants to be a people’s politician, but his elitism will always stand in his way

References to classical battles and the “liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment” will do the Vote Leave campaign more harm than good. 

By Barbara Speed

There’s a quote popular on the internet, possibly first posted by a reddit user, which summarises exactly what it’s like to be uninterested in football and yet live in a world where it is constantly referenced. “First, imagine every time within a day that football is mentioned by someone else,” it begins. “Secondly, replace it with something that you don’t want to hear about every day. Say… Archeology. Then, think carefully about how an average day would pan out.

“So, you awaken to the clock radio. It’s 7AM. Just as you awaken, it’s time for the news and archaeology already… What are the colleagues talking about, I wonder? Oh, Jones dropped a 3,890 year old pot and smashed it? What a useless wanker!… All well and good, but archaeology isn’t your thing. It would be nice to hear about something else.”

I was reminded of this quote today when I saw that Boris Johnson had taken the opportunity during his Vote Leave speech to make a reference to the Ancient world. In what has been called his most “emotive” speech to date, the ex-mayor concluded by arguing that the Leave camp will be “vindicated by history”: “we will win for exactly the same reason that the Greeks beat the Persians at Marathon – because they are fighting for an outdated absolutist ideology, and we are fighting for freedom.”

As a non-football fan, I suppose I should be grateful that Johnson didn’t, as another politician might have done in his position, reference Leicester City to illustrate his narrative of the underdog triumphing over the Establishment. But I’m about as interested in Classics as I am in football – that is to say, like the writer of the quote above, uninterested and a little baffled by how often it seems to come up. I had never heard of the Battle of Marathon, or why it was won or lost. I’d hazard a guess that you might not have done either.

So why did Johnson say it? He is undoubtedly personally interested in the Classics – it’s a passion he speaks of often. But he has also referenced this specific strand of history, rarely taught in non-public schools, ad infinitum in the course of his political career. That he used a fairly obscure battle as the resounding end to a speech aimed at all UK citizens, and earlier in the speech implied that the Classical world is the foundation for European culture as a whole, suggests one of two things. Either he genuinely believes that everyone has had the same education as he has. Or he believes that if they haven’t, they’re not worth reaching.

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There is enough evidence for the latter explanation that we shouldn’t dismiss it outright. In 2013, Johnson argued in speech at the Centre for Policy Studies that it was “relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85” and that more focus should be put on encouraging the “2%” with IQs above 130. (Ironically, when presented with actual IQ test questions on LBC following his comments, Johnson failed to answer and retorted: “No one said IQ is the only measure of ability”.)

In case these comments weren’t clear enough, he added: “I stress – I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential to the spirit of envy.” At the time, Suzanne Moore described Johnson’s arguments as “a sub-Ayn Rand adolescent fantasy presented as intellectual discourse”.

Johnson’s IQ argument is not so far from the idea that referencing things your listeners don’t understand will spur them to be better; to be embarrassed by their ignorance and educate themselves. And if they don’t? Presumably he believes they’re too stupid to bother with anyway.

We could, of course, simply see Johnson as an eccentric politician who refers to his own interests in speeches a little more than he should. At a push, I can imagine myself dropping in one too many Friends references to liven up my public speaking – “As Ross learned,” I’d argue, “We need to ensure the terms of our ‘break’ from the EU before we go shagging anyone else”.

But the reality is that most politicians’ interests are easier for non-devotees to parse. Football is played in most schools, and it appeals across classes, ages and backgrounds. A knowledge of Classics, meanwhile, still comes heavily tinged with class connotations, despite efforts by those including Johnson to get it taught across all curricula. Outside Britain, it’s seen as positively niche. But thanks to our public school system, and its absurd over-representation in government, we’re expected to at least pretend that we have any idea what “Sisyphean” or “Promethean” struggles are. I’m guessing the insertion of a phrase in Arabic to illustrate a point in the Commons wouldn’t go down quite so well. 

I can buy into the argument that we can learn from politicians’ speeches, and it would be patronising to expect them to contain only points that 100 per cent of the population would understand. But it’s worth noting that Johnson doesn’t usually use Classical stories in his speeches as illustrative, but as asides, dropped in, one suspects, because they sound clever. In 2009, Johnson began his reply to an interview question with “If, like Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plough…” This reference doesn’t educate – it alienates. The idea that ordinary people should be able to decode this stuff just so they know what their politicians are saying is particularly galling.

We all have a passion that we wish could be second item on the news and that could be used to illustrate and enliven political points. But the idea that it’s acceptable to communicate as a democratically elected leader only to those who share your background is a fantastically arrogant one.

And this is just an instinct, but I have a feeling Johnson’s quasi-intellectual speech, and his announcement that the Vote Leave camp is the only one following in the “tradition of the liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment”, won’t win him voters in the way he expects.