In the November of 2007, I spent a few days in the Ladbroke Grove home of some friends. Both worked in the law. One had been state-educated, the other privately; both had been to university; each had just embarked on a career in one of the unimpeachable professions.
We were sitting in a pub of the sort that had just achieved modishness: sleek Victoriana, dark tones, smooth chalkboards displaying carefully printed copperplate specials. The conversation turned to the following year’s mayoral contest: Ken Livingstone was standing for re-election, and Boris Johnson had recently been named the Conservative Party’s candidate.
“I think we’ll vote Boris,” one said. “Yeah,” agreed the other.”He’s funny!”
I lost touch with this pair. But I wonder whether they’re laughing now.
In a New York Review of Books piece that has been getting a lot of traction on Twitter in the last few days, Fintan O’Toole pays serious attention to the role that humour has played in the rise of Boris Johnson: “his very weakness of character (the chaos, the fecklessness, the mendacity) provides for his admirers a patriotically heartening proof that the true English spirit has not yet been chewed up in the homogenizing maw of a humorless and excessively organized EU.” In other words, Boris was never “just” funny: the mood of his joking was pregnant with political purpose; he made people laugh because they recognised, in the contrast between his own studied carelessness and the sobriety of the established political codes against which he was even then ranged, a sort of authenticity.
The Johnsonian style is an end-of-the-pier patriotism, an ostentatiously ironic jingoism that appeals both to the sort of alt-right radicals who choose to see through the half-smiles … and the comfortable, middle-class professionals, often younger, who indulge in what the sociologists of contemporary class politics Annick Preur and Mike Savage have called “knowingness.” A facility with codes – he didn’t mean that, even though he said it – has been a breezy hallmark of sophistication for some time now. The joke is a means of distancing oneself from one’s message: if you only say something for a lark, nothing can stick. This is why Walter Benjamin wrote that “the cult de la blague … has become an essential constitutive element in fascist propaganda.” When is a joke not a joke? When it’s a strategy.
What, then, is the goal of the strategy? For Boris Johnson, it has always been power – to square the circle of appealing both to the Tory faithful and the Labour-leaning bourgeoisie, he adopted the role of joker-in-chief. Famously, he failed to win election to the presidency of the Oxford Union on his first attempt; for his second, successful, run, he hid his class privilege and fixed Toryism beneath a blanket of bonhomie. In 2016, this wilful irresponsibility inevitably fused with the similarly reckless cause of Brexit.
Fintan O’Toole has also written a book about Brexit. In Heroic Failure, he writes that, “Brexit is about many things, but one of them is the feeling that there is a much larger rot to stop, a natural order of things that is being eroded by feminism, multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation and Islam.” This instinctive sense of loss, this saudade, is not only a British phenomenon – it is, particularly in the developed world, an endemic meme. And in the last decade it has been harnessed, amplified and encouraged by innumerable actors.
That process of cultivation has been instrumental in, if not creating, then certainly codifying the so-called populism that currently moves through the liberal democracies. The important question about Brexit in particular, then, isn’t whether it can be done – it can, depending on your tolerance or enthusiasm for the consequences. It isn’t even if it’s a good idea – as a rule, the virtue of ideas in a democracy is less important than their capacity to corral together a majority. The important question is why. Only from there can we proceed productively.
In the summer of 2012, Anna and I attended a child’s birthday party. It was glorious weather, and we sat in a garden on plastic chairs, eating cake and watching a small person play with toys. His grandmother, whom I’d known since I was a child, was chatting to me about nothing: the weather, the roads, the television. Then she said something which struck me as merely wrong at first, but which later I realised was also significant. “I only watch Russia Today for news now,” she told me. “It’s the only place you can go to find out the truth.”
This was before even the channel’s transparent rebrand to the slightly-less-blatant RT. In 2012, here was a channel not so much partial as explicitly polemical. There was in those days no hiding the provenance of the information spat out by the presenters foolish or knavish enough to choose to work for Putin’s personal propagandists. My interlocutor was strongly Christian, but other than the fierceness of those beliefs she was the sort of woman you could meet any day on any street anywhere in Britain. What was it about these twenty-first-century Lord Haw-Haws that appealed to her?
Identity, of course. “A humiliated group seeking restitution of its dignity,” writes Francis Fukuyama in his recent book on this topic, “carries far more emotional weight than people pursuing their economic advantage.” One of the most astute observations made in the course of the 2016 referendum campaign which has – windingly, slowly – brought Boris Johnson to his lifetime goal of 10 Downing Street was, in fact, made by the man with whom Donald Trump hopes Johnson will soon work: Nigel Farage. When daily George Osborne filled the newspapers with the percentage impacts on GDP, on food prices, on inward investment of leaving the EU, Farage simply shrugged. Some things matter more to people, he said on national television. He meant their identity. It is easy to create a humiliated group if they feel their sense of self is in question.
“The idea that states are obsolete and should be superseded by international bodies is flawed,” Fukuyama – a man who in the 1990s believed we had reached a new consensus, a stable status quo – writes in Identity. The false move of the last half-century has been to invest the values of progress and justice exclusively in global institutions, without mirroring these clearly within national boundaries. In a recent Panorama presented by Nick Robinson, each of his interviews with EU officials – Michel Barnier, Martin Selmayr, Frans Timmermans – was decorated with the ephemera of banal nationalism, most notably a cushion with the EU flag on it. In the absence of an underlying enthusiasm for these reminders of European unity, however, EU pens and mugs are experienced by many as an imposition, as essentially alien – as an invasion, whatever the virtue of the message. To the mindset that is willing to believe in Russia Today more readily than they might the BBC, an EU cushion is not a token of trust.
The alternative has been provided. Since its rejection during the presidency of George W Bush, Putin’s Russia has recast itself as the champion of ‘conservative’ values: family, tradition, the nation state. The irony, of course, is that these values, in being held in opposition to the liberal democracies that unwisely refused Russia entry into the structures of global governance, have now been formulated in such a way as to undermine those self-same nation states. Nationalists garland Trumpism or Brexit even as these visions place untold stress on the structures of the states they purport to defend. Today, a certain stripe of conservative views themself as the true radical: I believe Russia Today, they might say, because I see through the lies of a calcified establishment – and I arm myself with the alternative knowledges I need to defeat it. This is the urge at the heart of Brexit. The architect of the Vote Leave victory, and Boris Johnson’s new senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, has quoted Bismarck:“If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it.”
Around this time last year, I was a passenger in a septuagenarian’s car, driving home from a day-trip to Buxton. Two years earlier, they had assured me that their vote for Brexit had been unselfish: they had voted to leave the European Union because they thought it was not just best for the country … but for me and Anna. They believed that the UK would be more successful outside of the EU, and that this would benefit their younger compatriots directly.
Since that blissful dawn, of course, the Brexit negotiations had demonstrated the impossibility of delivering a seamless Brexit. Something would have to give, some compromise would need to be made. The compromise for our companions, it turns out, was us: there would, after all, be some suffering – perhaps years of it. But as long as we achieved something called national sovereignty, that’s what really mattered. Of course, they rejected Theresa May’s deal, at that point still known as “Chequers” – a sneering sobriquet redolent of a contempt for the privilege of the governing class.
Brexit is a consequence of this slow process, by which anti-politics has been expressed in increasingly obstreperous ways, first reform then leave then no-deal. Each successive iteration has for years been met by the supposedly detached ruling class with dialogue and co-option – Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ trucks, Ed Miliband’s ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs. Each demand, once met, has given way to a marginally more demanding, subtly more aggressive, form of the same complaint. When, in the noughties, the BBC took to inviting Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage onto programmes such as Question Time, it did so using the defence that to debate issues was to neutralise the most unpleasant. The best disinfectant, the argument went, was rhetorical sunlight. How has that gone?
In his The New Faces of Fascism, Enzo Traverso argues persuasively that “anti-politics is the result of the hollowing-out of politics.” That is, when the public sphere seems to significant numbers of those acting within it atrophied, they will adopt increasingly oppositional positions. It follows, then, that the solution is not to debate those positions, but to revivify the political culture whose withering has led to the proliferation of disaffection.
Influenced by the ructions of the ideological 1970s, the managerialism of the 1990s feared the sort of political culture it urgently needed to nurture. It preferred, in its place, a narrowed space that focused on “efficiency” and “delivery.” In the neoliberal form this new technocracy took following the 1980s, the goals that leaders such as Tony Blair set themselves resulted in the transfer of vast tranches of wealth to an increasingly tiny elite; the austerity of the Cameron years – itself a purely political response to the 2008 banking crisis, which had the sole aim of laying the blame for an international financial collapse on the British Labour Party – only exacerbated this shift. In the US, meanwhile, fewer than 400 families supplied almost half the money raised by presidential candidates up to 2015. This is the hollowing-out of politics in action. The result is a strain of anti-politics ripe for exploitation.
What the anti-political want to be true is that there is a way to – yes – take back control. In the absence of levels to pull or buttons to push, they merely grind away at their masters. Anything, including mere financial well-being, seems worth sacrificing in order to achieve their destruction. One means of asserting control, of course, is to shape reality. This includes identity and politics, both of which are to one extent or another about self-perception. If control is about imposing your understanding of the world upon it, however unwilling the world or ill-fitting your understanding might be, then he who asserts most loudly, most brazenly, will be rewarded – perhaps the more egregious and obvious his absurdity, the more control he is visibly trying to stamp upon the unyielding matter of a reality that has got so far away from us.
In this context, the conservative radicals are through Johnson now taking their turn at the wheel: Dominic Raab at the Foreign Office, Priti Patel as Home Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons. They will say they seek restitution of national sovereignty; their project, of course, is different – to end at last neoliberalism’s managerialist moment (which many of them believe to have been a sort of stealth leftism) … and re-embrace creative destruction. Their failure would open up another space for a different kind of political revivification – one in which we might actively create inclusive identities and sustainable societies that deliver not just efficiency but a new kind of shared pride, one we might take in mutual care. Either way, surely the old order – the political culture at which in the last decade we were encouraged first to laugh, then sneer, and finally lob dynamite – is gone.
And what of our new PM, the man who in a West London pub during the days before Northern Rock was such a figure of no-risk fun? “The British have long held a liking for rapscallions,” Tom Crewe wrote in the LRB back in June. “After all, there’s a sort of authority about a man who lies straight to your face.” Oh, Boris – he’s such a card, such a breath of fresh air. And yet a few months earlier, in April, Crewe’s colleague Jonathan Parry had suggested that, “politics is a matter of the patient and careful handling of awkward issues by means of continuous compromise.” Both of these things can be true at once, in the circumstances we have now reached, after a decade of crisis and mismanagement. But, like hypergolic compounds, they cannot co-exist for long. Boris Johnson isn’t funny; he has become Britain’s ragnarok personified. We’re all revolutionaries now.