Have We British Found It?


Margret Laird

Boris Johnson told us that on 19 July 2021 all the laws associated with Covid controls were to be terminated. We would no longer need the inhibitions of masks or social distancing. But now, almost immediately, new regulations have come in, for example, Transport for London has told the public that they must continue to wear masks on public transport. At the same time, social distancing, although not required by law, is still deemed to be, to all intents and purposes, essential. Furthermore, Covid or vaccine “passports,” about which the government has been prevaricating for months, are now to be made a legal requirement for entering nightclubs and football games, etc., from  September.

The only advice to cover the interim period has been couched in terms advising the application of personal common sense. Currently, this mish-mash of “advice” is crowned by the fact that, because of the rise in the incidence of the Covid virus, so many people are being “pinged” by the Covid app that industries such as supermarkets, public transport and – of course- the NHS, are suffering severe staff shortages, due to the imperative to self-isolate for 10 days. Even the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are (reluctantly) self-isolating because they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid.

Many of us were hoping that holidays might be planned, but we are all familiar with the confused colour-coded, wish-fulfilment-laced exchanges we have with others, due to constantly changing rules and conditions. Who can be blamed for wanting a holiday from being forced into acknowledging the realities of the overstressed NHS and the real possibility of strikes by staff in the face of Scrooge-like pay increases, the looming threat of climate change disaster, increased unemployment and the possibility of new variants of the virus.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that there has been a renewed focus on the Prime Minister in all this confusion and disappointment. Does he know what he is doing? And who is he, actually? We all know the Boris that likes to play the clown, the jolly mayor, stuck on a zipwire, the shock-headed prankster who loves to don boxing gloves to spar in a youth club or to pose outside number 10 clutching a tin of coke. He seeks the spotlight. But many of us have not enjoyed watching Johnson play the archetypal Clown during the pandemic, and he has only been saved so far, by the success of the vaccine programme (nothing to do with him!) A recent article by the novelist and journalist, Edward Docx, points out that clowns are very serious and important people, who remind us of the silliness of things, relieving the tension  and trauma of reality. He quotes a scholar in the study of clowning, Paul Bouissac, who tells us that clowns are transgressors, cultural subversives who enact rituals and dramatic tableaux that “ignore the tacit rules of social games to indulge in symbolic actions that… toy with these norms as if they were arbitrary, dispensable conventions.” The clue to this observation is the use of the word “dispensable.”  And then we think of the Prime Minister, displaying his artfully unkempt hair, baggy clothes and assumed clumsiness relentlessly in public. Is he, actually, a knowing and wily clown?

For many of us, however, the key aspect of Johnson is that he is an old Etonian. Eton, a registered charity, which charges high fees, provides academic excellence to the sons of the super-rich, and the powerful and influential, and has dominated British public and political life for many years. Above all, Eton instils self-confidence and life-long camaraderie or freemasonry amongst its pupils.

Eton was just right for Johnson, who, although not from an aristocratic or plutocratic background, was a classic Eton type: a bright boy from a thrusting Tory family, with an interesting international pedigree, who became captain of school (head boy). Johnson also garnered valuable patronage at Eton in the form of Douglas Hurd, Mrs Thatcher’s former Foreign Secretary. It was natural for Johnson, like generations of Etonians before him, to gravitate towards leadership in politics.

It is not clear whether Boris Johnson was totally created by Eton or whether he was merely influenced, but he was certainly already an outsized egotist, with a “vision of greatness.” Here is a revealing report on Johnson, from his Eton housemaster:

“Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies. It is a question of priorities, which most of his colleagues have no difficulty in sorting out. Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time, that he was not appointed Captain of the School for the next half.) I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”(Martin Hammond,  Master in College, Eton. Letter to Stanley Johnson, 10 April 1982.)

It is common knowledge that Johnson’s career as a journalist was marked by the use of untruths and subsequent sackings. However, it is interesting to note that, although Johnson is often characterised as lazy, those who know him better, tell another story, that he is often very successful at his second attempts; that he may disregard detail, but that he works hard at that which interests him, and that he is particularly tenacious when rebounding from a failure. One rival from student days said this: “Sure, he’s engaging, but this guy is an absolute fucking killer.” And anecdotes and quotes from former colleagues, observers and rivals abound, most of which deplore his Eton-driven force. For example, Max Hastings on his former colleague, “a cavorting charlatan,” “a moral bankrupt rooted in a contempt for truth” and, on his verbal repertoire, “self-parodying skills as a waffler.” It is impressive that one person can accumulate this amount of attention, venom and publicity.

But now that Brexit is “done,” and the pandemic (possibly) muddled through, where can we expect Prime Etonian Johnson to turn his attention? Does he have plans for our country? The cynics among us will reply, Union Jacks with everything! They cite glib populist catchphrases instead of strategic ideas, for example, “Global Britain,” “levelling up,” “war on woke,” and futile trade deals such as the Australian one, which will offset Brexit trade losses in Europe with an increase in national income of about 0.02 per cent. We will send the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to cruise around the Indian Ocean, and we will “tilt towards the Indo-Pacific” in trade.

None of this is surprising to those who remember Johnson as Mayor of London, where it quickly became apparent that what he was really interested in was grand projects, with his name on them – Boris bikes, Double-decker buses, Crossrail, the London Olympics and so on. An odd point about Johnson’s grand projects is that he doesn’t seem to worry if they don’t come to fruition. For example, “Boris Island,” a bridge to France, and that Garden Bridge across the Thames. It seems to be enough that they are talked about. Another “idea” was that of the huge bridge or tunnel across the Irish Sea, as a means of maintaining the Union with Ireland.

But tellingly, it seems that what Johnson really does spend money on is opinion polls. We learn that, apparently, the first thing Johnson looks at every morning is the latest private polls. A case in point is that, despite having pledged support to his education recovery commissioner for the £15bn education catch-up programme, recently, he let Rishi Sunak veto it, because private polling showed that the longer school day, a key component of the plan, was unpopular with the “red wall,” working class parents. This happened despite the fact that the programme would have been a vital educational boost for pupils who had lost out due to the pandemic. A parallel case can be seen as regards Johnson’s attitude to Overseas aid. He simply does not seem to care about these matters, although the long-term implications of this penny-pinching can be imagined by anyone with a heart.

A weakness or vulnerability in Johnson’s current position is that he does not yet have key advisers around him – no obvious Cummings-type figure has emerged to “run” our Prime Minister, although names are mooted.

In July, we British found Freedom Day to be a mixed experience. How long can a practised, clever clown, an egotistical showman, maintain his footing under the spotlight without providing ideas and policies of substantial benefit to Britain?

Many of us are desperate for a new beginning. We want to know that decent, able, principled and caring, non-Etonian opposition leaders are ready to bring down the curtain on Johnson’s self-serving act. We can certainly wring plenty of theatre out of the building of affordable housing, a properly-funded NHS, improved education and work, a decent police force, a humane Home Office ….. and more ….

We have had enough of Bread and Circuses.

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