To understand Boris Johnson, you have to understand the figure who has inspired him, shaped his worldview and accompanied him throughout his career. Admittedly Samuel Johnson has been dead since 1784, but his importance to Boris is unquestionable. Our next prime minister thinks the other Johnson is a ‘genius’ who ‘gave the world compassionate conservatism’. Britain, Boris once wrote, ‘has never produced an author with a better or more generous understanding of human nature’.
It’s not just that Boris admires Samuel’s essays, his poetry and the pioneering Dictionary of the English Language. The influence goes deeper than that.
When asked about offending everyone from Muslims to Scousers, Boris regretted hurting anyone’s feelings, but said the electorate was tired of politicians tiptoeing around controversial subjects. ‘I will continue to speak as directly as I can,’ he promised, ‘because that is what I think the British public want to hear.’ How did Boris come to this insight into the national character? Part of the answer can be found in a 2009 Telegraph column in which he reflected on Samuel’s legendary rudeness. (On Americans: ‘They are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.’) This, Boris suggested, is the source of Samuel’s enduring popularity. ‘In a nation addicted to evasion and embarrassment, we treasure people who are rude, because we assume (rather primitively) that they are more likely to tell the truth.’ It is a theory he has tested to the limit.
When invited on to Radio 4’s Great Lives, Boris nominated Samuel as his personal hero, and drew an intriguing character sketch: Samuel was a ‘fantastically competitive’ man who ‘always longed for recognition’ and liked to debate in ‘a very exuberant and hyperbolical way’.