Germany’s Die Welt asked me to tell its readers how on earth someone like Boris Johnson could become prime minister. I gave it my best shot.
Whatever else happens to Germany, I cannot imagine a German Boris Johnson coming to power. To assemble such a creature, you would have to create conservative German whose parents bought him the best education money could buy – Johnson went to Eton, one of Britain’s most expensive private schools, and Oxford, an elite university that dominates the upper reaches of English culture with a thoroughness no German university can match.
Imagine then that he gets a job on a respected German newspaper through his family’s connections. Its editor fires him for inventing stories – as the editor of the London Times fired the young Johnson in 1988. Imagine that, far from being deterred, the editor of a conservative newspaper appoints him its Brussels correspondent, as the editor of the Daily Telegraph did to Johnson in 1989, from where he lies in the Johnson tradition about the EU threatening traditional German sausages or planning to regulate the size of condoms German men can use. Far from regarding him as a charlatan, equally respectable German broadcasters rush to put him on air, as the BBC rushed to broadcast Johnson, and Christian Democrats clamour for him to go into politics, as British Conservatives cheered Johnson on. The broadcasters’ indulgence allows him to merge opinionated commentary, show business and politics, and become loved as a ‘character,’ who entertains while other politicians bore.
Everywhere he is petted and called by his first name, as Johnson is referred to as ‘Boris’ by the right-wing press and the BBC. He is treated as an amiable eccentric because he plays to their prejudices by posing as a comic caricature of an aristocrat from the old Prussian ruling class.
It is at this point that my imaginings go off into fantasy. If an ambitious German were to affect the style of a junker, he would be greeted with incomprehension. Prussia no longer exists. With the Second and Third Reichs, its ruling class discredited and destroyed itself. Britain, by contrast, appears to be a lucky country. Fascists never took power, and its ruling class was never disgraced by collaboration. Communists never took power and seized their wealth. Our old order can still appear cuddly rather than sinister.
Nostalgic nationalism has become an ever stronger force here as the financial and Brexit crises have torn up old certainties. Although hardly anyone who fought in the Second World War is still alive, a longing for a conflict they never risked their lives in animates older Brexit’s supporters. Germanophobia always motivated an element on the anti-European right. Now it less a fear of Germany but a pride in the Britain that stood alone and carried on fighting in 1940 that moves isolationist sentiment. Johnson wrote a second-rate biography of Churchill to exploit it. As critics pointed out, the reader was meant to see him as Winston regenerated. Napoleon and Hitler had tried to unite Europe, he cried in 2016. ‘The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.’ The lessons of 1940 applied today. Brexit would be “a chance for the British people to be the heroes of Europe”.
If Germany suffers from war guilt, Britain suffers from war euphoria.
Despite all they have in common, the snobbishness in Johnson’s appeal sets him apart from Donald Trump. Johnson fawns over the US president: ‘Imagine Trump doing Brexit,’ he said with approval in 2018. ‘He’d go in bloody hard’. Trump returns the favour and says Johnson would make a ‘great’ prime minister – unlike Theresa May who, unforgivably, ‘didn’t listen to me’.
But while Trump is a plutocrat who poses as an ordinary guy, Johnson revels in exhibiting class privilege. His descents into obscenity and racism are done in a language that has the uninitiated reaching for their dictionaries. He uses Etonian slang and Latin quotes.. He has called black Africans ‘piccaninnies’ and gay men ‘bumboys,’ then pleaded he only meant it as a joke. He poses as a gentleman amateur, which remains the apogee of sophistication in our class-ridden culture. The gentleman does not worry about details: technicalities are for the tedious little men and women from state schools. Facts get in the way of the grand gesture and crowd-pleasing rhetoric, which are Johnson’s specialities both a as journalist and a politician. Tellingly, the one statement from the 2016 referendum campaign everyone remembers came from Johnson’s fellow anti-EU campaigner Michael Gove: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.
Johnson would not now be certain to secure the majority of the votes of the 160,000 Conservative party members and become Britain’s next prime minister, if he and they had not fled from the realities of Britain’s position in the world. The referendum was won with promises that German car manufacturers would protect their export market by insisting that Britain must retain the benefits of being in the European Union while leaving it: we could have our cake and eat it, as Johnson said. The hard experience of Theresa May’s negotiations with the EU, which despite all the predictions of the leave campaign remained united, ought to have taught British conservatives there was no cake.
Not a bit of it. Led by Johnson, they denounced May for not trying hard enough and cocooned themselves in a fresh fantasy. Johnson will win the premiership by maintaining that, if Britain pretends we can leave with no deal, if he shouts loudly enough and bangs the table hard enough, the EU will give us better terms. Not that he is frightened of leaving without a deal, he adds. On the contrary, he insists, that deal or no deal we must leave on 31 October. ‘It’s only by getting Brexit done by October 31 that we can turn this thing around,’ he said last week. Worries about the Irish peace process can be pushed to one side. He will sort them out at an unspecified later date. Worries that Scotland, which voted heavily to remain in the EU, could react to the sight of a loudmouthed English nationalist in Downing Street and move towards independence, are ignored as well. Nothing can stand in the way of the belief that we are the country of 1940 again: strong, independent and feared.
I do not see how the conservative myth that the English are a pragmatic people, with no time for the wild, utopian ideologies that have stirred continental Europeans, can survive this descent into make-believe.
I don’t know what will happen to Britain’s place in Europe in October either – no one does. But I know why my country is in the grip of delusion. The ascent of Boris Johnson shows that the boundaries between politics and entertainment, fact and fiction, have collapsed. Johnson is the worst type of newspaper commentator, who tells the readers only what they want to hear. He has become prime minister by deploying sweeping narratives without a basis in reality but with deep roots in our class structure and history. Boasting about making Britain Great Again, saying we can stand alone and triumph, worked well for him in journalism and politics. It won’t work for him when he’s prime minister, and has nowhere to hide. He, his supporters and the rest of us will soon discover a history that was once a blessing is now a curse.