Editor’s Note: Boris Johnson’s elite cadre of fallen intellectuals, and Rabbi Sacks and the common good

Last week, in an unedifying spectacle, the clercs in and around the Court of Boris in Westminster were tearing one another apart as they fought their various wars of position. 

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The gods continue to mock our pagan Prime Minister. After a week of resignations, tantrums and turmoil inside No 10, Boris Johnson made it known, through the usual anonymous sources, that he was determined to relaunch, or reboot, or remake, or reset (choose your preferred cliché!) his struggling premiership. Now he is absent again, self-isolating after a meeting with a Tory MP who later tested positive with the virus. On 15 November Johnson posted a video to Twitter that emphasised his virility: he was “bursting with antibodies”, he said. He once told Sonia Purnell, a former colleague and one of his unauthorised biographers, that he was “bursting with spunk”. He always seems to be bursting with something – bullshit, mostly.

The late American novelist Philip Roth dismissed Donald Trump as the “boastful buffoon”. Johnson is an inveterate boaster. For him, everything is the best in the best of all possible worlds. Or will be. Is he also a buffoon? His opponents have long dismissed him as such. But he is much more dangerous than that. After all, here is a man who is relentless in his ambition and self-promotion and who always seems to get what he wants if not exactly when he wants it. The phrase “bursting with antibodies” was ridiculous but it was widely reported, as Johnson expected. Ridiculousness is fundamental to who he is. The joke is on us, of course. But the gods are watching and they are seldom benign.

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In her book Twilight of Democracy (much-favoured in our Books of the Year special last week) Anne Applebaum describes how the new right-wing authoritarians who have attained power in Western democracies – some of them her former friends – “[rely] upon a cadre of elites to run the bureaucracy, the state media, the courts and, in some places, state companies”. She calls this cadre of elites “clercs”, a reference to Julien Benda’s book La Trahison des Clercs (1927). Benda called the “fallen intellectuals” who enabled authoritarianism clercs, or “clerks”. Our modern-day clercs, Applebaum writes, “understand their role, which is to defend the leaders, however dishonest their statements, however great their corruption, and however disastrous their impact on ordinary people and institutions”.

We have our own cast of clercs in and around the Court of Boris in Westminster, and they understand their role all too well. Last week, they were tearing one another apart as they fought their various wars of position. It was an unedifying spectacle, especially during this dark time of polarisation and pandemic, but predictable. It was also revealing of how the English chumocracy operates through its political and social networks: there seems to be an open door between the upper reaches of the right-wing press, the BBC and Downing Street.

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The new right, Applebaum writes, “does not want to conserve or to preserve what exists at all… Although they hate the phrase, the new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.”

Dominic Cummings delighted in his reputation as an abrasive, anti-establishment destroyer and disrupter, though he was as much part of the establishment chumocracy as Dido Harding, the failed former TalkTalk CEO and Jockey Club insider, who has absurdly re-emerged as the head of the NHS Test and Trace programme. (Her credentials seem to be that she once studied PPE with David Cameron at Oxford.) Cummings came in through the out door of No 10, and left via it as well, another of the new generation of clercs who believed himself to be indispensable, until he wasn’t.

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The novelist Ben Myers writes in this issue about the long shadow cast by the Yorkshire Ripper murders over his northern boyhood. The period was evoked expertly by David Peace in his Red Riding quartet, later adapted into a Channel 4 series. I was a young paper boy in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and I’ve never forgotten reading about the murders, and seeing the grid of faces of the female victims, on the front pages of the tabloids I delivered. One afternoon, after school, some friends and I rang the phone line on which you could hear the voice of the Yorkshire Ripper as he taunted George Oldfield, the senior police officer leading the investigation.

The voice message was eventually revealed as a hoax, as were three letters that had been sent to Oldfield by the same man. He was known as Wearside Jack, because of his north-east accent. In 2005 the Wearside Jack cold case was reopened; DNA taken from an envelope was matched in the national database. The hoaxer turned out to be John Humble, who lived in Sunderland. During police interviews, Humble expressed shame for what he had done: the hoax call and letters had set Oldfield off on a false trail, which allowed Sutcliffe to carry on killing. The strange case of Wearside Jack is reimagined in a 2015 novel, I’m Jack, by Mark Blacklock, just one more curious contribution to the canon of literature inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper murders.

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Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi who died on 7 November, was one of our greatest contemporary moral guides, and he championed the common good over hyper-individualism, most recently in his book Morality. Reflecting on the early weeks of the pandemic in a Diary he wrote for our spring special issue, Rabbi Sacks urged us all “to build into our culture a greater concern for the welfare of others”. He continued: “Rarely has it been clearer what we lose by focusing on the ‘I’ and gain by caring about the ‘we’. When this is all over, society will emerge with a stronger sense of ‘we’.”

These were wise words and we should heed them now more than ever before.

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Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation

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