Boris Johnson seems to find all of this tremendously fun, and that actually tells you a lot. It is easy, when politics will have no real material consequences for you or any of your friends, to see it as a kind of game, a continuation of your roguish school days. Here in the United States, we have the West Wing fantasy: boys from Ivy League schools who dream of strutting down White House corridors and outfoxing Republicans. Boris Johnson does a different kind of Live Action Role Play: He sees himself as Winston Churchill, tempered with some self-deprecating buffoonery from the pages of Waugh and Wodehouse. I don’t know if there is anybody in Britain who believes Boris Johnson is in politics because he genuinely believes in effecting positive social change. From the time he was a boy, he had the disturbing fantasy of being “world king,” and he now enjoys being a famous person who gets to sleep with a lot of women. (Johnson once made the unbelievably revolting comment that he had to have a lot of affairs because he was “literally bursting with spunk.”)
To Boris Johnson, politics is a lark. He makes that very clear. He has no moral core. Those who have known him closely have described him as a person almost completely without principles. When he began his career as a journalist covering Europe, he invented quotes and exaggerated stories, because to him being a foreign correspondent was just a chance to act out Waugh’s Scoop. He made up nonsense about the European government, nonsense that had the direct consequences of fomenting anti-European sentiment and helping to precipitate Brexit. Did Johnson care? Did he think that perhaps telling lies has consequences and could hurt people? He did not. Life, to Boris Johnson, is a novel about a cheeky, witty Oxford lad who pokes the Establishment in the eye. To you and me, politics is something serious, something that determines whether dozens of working class Londoners will be burned alive in their flats. To Boris Johnson, politics is a jolly jape.
Let us consider racism. Why isn’t racism funny? Why is it acceptable to make fun of someone’s big floppy hat but not to make fun of their race? Because the history of racism is a history of terror and mass murder. Now, you and I understand this quite easily. Boris Johnson does not understand this. Racism, to Boris Johnson, is a laugh. When he became the editor of the conservative Spectator, the magazine had an openly racist columnist on staff, Taki Theodoracopulos. And I do not mean “openly racist” in any debatable sense. His columns literally contained racial slurs. Theodoracopulos referred to Puerto Ricans in New York as:
A bunch of semi-savages … fat, squat, ugly, dusky, dirty and unbelievably loud. They turned Manhattan into Palermo faster than you can say “spic.”… There has never been—nor will there ever be—a single positive contribution by a Puerto Rican outside of receiving American welfare and beating the system.
At the time Johnson became his editor, Theodoracopulos was known to “peppe[r] his conversation with words like ‘wop,’ ‘yid’ or ‘dago.’” Of Africa, he wrote: “Democracy is as likely to come to bongo-bongo land as I am to send a Concorde ticket to my children.” Here is a writer’s 2012 report on what it was like to dine with Theodoracopulos:
During lunch, Mr. Theodoracopulos employed a number of epithets for various ethnic and racial groups. The n-word rolled off his tongue. He was unapologetic about his use of such terms, and made us uncomfortably complicit by leaning in conspiratorially and smiling while saying some of the more horrific things we’ve ever heard outside of a Quentin Tarantino film. He expressed disgust for professional athletes: “They have 12 kids and beat up on their wives, and she can’t go to court because she’s black and doesn’t have an education.” He praised Robert E. Lee and condemned Abraham Lincoln as “a murdering traitor.” He chuckled as he told us the story of a controversial Sunday Times editorial he once wrote: “I said that I thought I saw a gorilla once at Wimbledon. It was Venus Williams.”
Theodoracopulos was such a racist that he appointed Richard Spencer as managing editor of Taki’s Mag, his online journal that became an outlet for white nationalism. Last year, Theodoracopulos published a column called “In Praise of the Wehrmacht” in Johnson’s former magazine arguing that “the real heroes of D-Day were the German soldiers.”
When he became editor of the Spectator, Johnson knew Theodoracopulos was an infamous racist and anti-Semite (interesting that Jeremy Corbyn gets scrutiny over his associations but Johnson does not), and there was public pressure on Johnson to fire him. Johnson refused. He said that sacking Theodoracopulos “would be such a contemptible thing to do” and that if forced to do it he would resign himself. Instead, he said of Theodoracopulos that: “I really think that, at his best, he is a hugely entertaining columnist of exemplary professionalism.” A journalist reports asking Johnson about Theodoracopulos’s use of the word “sambo”:
Johnson looks thoughtful. “Yah. Mmm. In what context did he say ‘sambo’? Was he quoting Little Black Sambo?” No, he was discussing a black man who wanted to be involved in the upbringing of his child: “Good for sambo,” wrote Taki. “Go for it sambo.“
“Well. I dunno.” [said Johnson.] “I wasn’t editing then. I can’t remember the piece. But you’re right, on the whole, I’m not mad for that stuff.”
So Theodoracopulos continued to provide his signature brand of “exemplary professionalism” under Johnson’s leadership. In 2003, Theodoracopulos wrote a column praising Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech, saying it was “prophetic as well as true, and look what the bullshitters of the time did to the great man.” Theodoracopulos’s article included the lines:
Only a moron would not surmise that what politically correct newspapers refer to as “disaffected young people” are black thugs, sons of black thugs and grandsons of black thugs … West Indians were allowed to immigrate after the war and multiply like flies.
When a black lawyer publicly complained about the article, he immediately began receiving death threats from racists, leading Johnson to be investigated by the British police on suspicion of inciting racial hatred. No charges were filed, and Johnson kept Theodoracopulos on staff, where he continued to produce his “hugely entertaining” and professional column.
It is unsurprising that the most Johnson could bring himself to say about his openly racist columnist was that he was “not mad for that stuff.” Johnson himself wrote columns like “Africa is a mess, but we can’t blame colonialism,” discouraging Brits from feeling bad about their imperial past—saying “the best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty”—and used offensive terms about Africans. (Ah, but he was using the term “piccaninny” ironically, you see.) In the 1990s, he published a sympathetic interview with the last Apartheid-era South African president F.W. de Klerk, and wrote of “the majority tyranny of black rule.” (Of de Klerk, he asks: “did he realize that the gig was up for white rule, that dark thumbs were about to close on the National Party’s windpipe?”) Johnson declined to apologize for having called gay men “tank topped bum boys.” Instead he simply said that if you go through his writings, “there is no doubt you can find things that can be made to seem offensive.” Made to seem.
It’s not difficult to see why Johnson thought Taki’s columns were amusing bits of provocation, or he could himself be “ironically” racist. Nothing matters to Boris Johnson, and nothing he does has any negative consequences. He is not the person who will have to receive the racist death threats. He can invoke the Scramble For Africa as a good thing, and encourage some new scrambling, because nobody he knew was the victim of colonialism’s crimes. Johnson infamously conspired to have a journalist physically attacked, and today laughs about it (the attack did not end up taking place, thank God), because he, after all, was not the one being terrorized.
At Oxford, Johnson was a member of the infamous Bullingdon Club, whose specialty is getting drunk and trashing restaurants. The rich do not have to clean up their own destruction. So much can be a joke to them that isn’t a joke to the people it falls on. As Fintan O’Toole puts it in an overview of Johnson’s career for the New York Review of Books, Johnson has “the studied carelessness affected by a large part of the English upper class… Consequences are for the little people, seriousness for those who are paid to clean up the mess.” Johnson’s Spectator could run a headline like “LONG LIVE ELITISM” and sneer at democracy. There are real world effects to the belief that the rich should rule, however. For the residents of Grenfell Tower, “elitism” meant that political elites ignored desperate pleas from poor, non-elite residents for adequate fire safety protection. Ah, but I’m sure the Spectator headline was a joke. And yet not one. See, when you’re Boris Johnson, you always get to have your cake and eat it too. You’re bad, but with a wink, so you’re not really bad.
It has been extensively documented that Boris Johnson, because he has no principles, does not care whether the things he says are true or not. He lied in his career as a journalist, he told giant whoppers as part of the Leave campaign, and now, on the campaign trail, he has been fabricating the number of hospitals the Tories will build, fabricating figures about Labour spending plans, and fabricating numbers about how many new police officers he will add. His achievements as mayor of London include a catastrophic multi-million dollar infrastructure boondoggle and the alleged unethical funneling of public money to a possible lover. To the extent that he has a political philosophy, it is simple plutocracy, and his will leave more Britons poor and overworked, their lives controlled by rich imbeciles who do not care about them. (“Can you think of anyone who stuck up for the bankers as much as I did? I defended them day in, day out.” No, Boris, we cannot.)
Johnson’s treatment of women is infamously despicable and proudly caddish. He has been credibly accused of groping a journalist, has such an infamously “ferocious temper” that police were recently dispatched to his home over a domestic altercation. (Johnson has “the fiercest and most uncontrollable anger I have seen. A terrifying mood change can be triggered instantly by the slightest challenge to his entitlement or self-worth.”) He was gleefully adulterous, his extramarital affairs producing two pregnancies and one child. He has routinely used sexist comments, casts aside those women no longer useful to him, and been patronizing and dismissive toward women in government. Sonia Purnell, who wrote a critical biography of Johnson, says that his team put pressure on media organizations not to interview her, and that Johnson spread rumors that she had had an affair with him in order to discredit her reporting:
There was really nothing he could dispute factually, so what else can you do? Well, you can undermine the author. How do you undermine a woman? Well, what you do is you go round saying to everyone that she had an affair with you, and that you wouldn’t marry her, and that she’d written the book as a woman scorned.
A consistent theme echoed by those who have observed Johnson over the years is that he believes in little except his own advancement. One journalist who profiled him came away thinking: “I couldn’t really sort out what he felt passionate about, or why he bothered to become a Tory MP.” Purnell concluded that he “is never boring but seems to lack vision or moral convictions, although he bears grudges aplenty.” His bumbling and absent-minded public persona has allowed him to avoid being pinned down on issues—it would be a typical Boris joke for him to stammer and announce that he has forgotten his stance on this or that. Despite being one of the most prominent voices of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, he might not even have been sure which side he stood on, and tended to also say things like:
I’m rather pro-European, actually. I certainly want a European community where one can go and scoff croissants, drink delicious coffee, learn foreign languages and generally make love to foreign women.
This after all is what matters to Boris: making love to “foreign women” and devouring croissants. Once again, he shows no inclination to take serious things seriously. It’s all just ripping good fun.
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I wonder if you’ve noticed, though, that in criticizing Boris Johnson for his lack of moral seriousness, I can’t help but sound dour and sanctimonious. Johnson has in common with Donald Trump that in chastising him for thumbing his nose at the business of politics, you end up sounding like a joyless school principal. People like Boris Johnson in part because he is silly and unkempt, because he isn’t “self-serious.” The find it charming when he forgets his prepared speech or gets stuck on a zipline. There is a perverse pleasure in watching the antics of a “class clown” upending “politics as usual.”
Boris Johnson has an appeal, and it’s important to understand it. He may be unpopular, but he has spent his career winning over the press and parts of the public. The Guardian in 1995 called him “amiable and hard-working, ambitious and self-effacing.” Early news coverage referred to him as “clever, outspoken, brimming with bonhomie, flaxen-haired Mr Johnson.” Even Purnell’s critical book says he is “blessed with immense charisma, wit, sex appeal and celebrity gold dust,” and Purnell does not hate Boris, saying he “disappoints far more than he offends.” Here, journalist Lynn Barber recounts meeting Johnson and being charmed:
I guess this was the moment at which I surrendered – five minutes in his company and I was totally charmed. He has charm the way people have perfect pitch – something he can rely on, deploy whenever he needs. There is a telling anecdote in his book about how he was getting on a plane with his wife and four children, and they had been put in separate rows, so he decided to ask his neighbours to swap places. Instead of asking the stewardess to fix it, ‘I decided to trust my own powers of charm.’ But for once his charm didn’t work – the man simply snarled – and Boris was shocked to the core. ‘I quivered,’ he recalls, ‘like a puppy unexpectedly kicked.’ What is remarkable about this incident is that it shows how rarely Johnson has known his charm to fail. Most of us, I imagine, would put our chances of getting people to change places on planes at less than evens (or less than zero in my case), but he has led, literally, a charmed life.
We know the charm is a put-on. A former Spectator cartoonist, Martin Rowson, says he once begged Johnson to drop “the PG Wodehouse bollocks” and answer some serious questions, and Johnson coldly replied “I think you’ll find what you term ‘the PG Wodehouse bollocks’ has served me very well thus far!”, leading Rowson to the (somewhat extreme) conclusion that Johnson was “a ruthlessly hollow narcissistic psychopath.” This is consistent with other accounts of Johnson’s sudden switches from warm and appealing to venomous and cruel.
In fact, while Boris Johnson is often called a British Donald Trump, a more appropriate comparison might be Bill Clinton. Trump is not “charming,” and does not use selective self-deprecation and oily ingratiation. Clinton and Johnson are both known for making people adore them and then ruthlessly betraying them. Donald Trump gets people to fear him, but Boris Johnson (in Bertie Wooster mode) gets people to like him. He makes them laugh. He appeared on comedy panel shows. He is “fun.” I remember reading one political commentator noting that Boris Johnson makes people feel good, leaves them with a smile on their face. That can be powerful.
The trouble is that in bleak times, a person who can make you smile is at an advantage. We could desperately use a good laugh. Who wants to be reminded about climate change and poverty? Boris offers a warm nostalgic vision of Britain—he kept the red double-decker bus, he promised to build a Garden Bridge over the Thames. Of course, it’s all a lie, because Boris Johnson isn’t Bertie Wooster and the British Empire was not a gentle and humane place. But if you want to stave off having to confront a depressing reality, Boris promises to govern with relentless sunny good cheer, comic ineptitude, and self-effacing wit. “Fuck it, at least it’s entertaining,” a disillusioned individual may think. Let’s watch Boris goof off while the world burns.
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Here is the main reason I like Jeremy Corbyn so much: He is a morally serious person. He understands what politics is about. He has seen who its victims are. Consider what Corbyn said in the lead up to the Iraq War: It would “set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation, that will fuel the wars, the terrorism, the depression, and the misery of future generations.” Prescient! Consider the Labour Manifesto and its clear vision for greener, more equal Britain. Corbyn does not appear to be an unprincipled monster, but a person genuinely concerned about what happens to people who are not himself. He understands what a war is, and what it does to people. He understands that colonialism is not just a term of abstraction, but a very real and violent process.
But he’s also not very funny. He’s not nearly as “charming.” But this is, in part, because he is not a moral lightweight. The British people currently face a choice: Do they want somebody who doesn’t give a shit about them, who had never once showed true moral courage, whose persona is a lie designed to trick them into forgiving his cruelty, who is proudly ignorant and deceitful and treats everyone around him like absolute trash? Or do they want somebody who, while human and flawed, has spent his entire career tirelessly working for the improvement of working people’s lives? To be honest, I find it hard to understand how there is a single person in Britain who could look at Boris Johnson’s history of sociopathic self-advancement, look at Jeremy Corbyn’s career of anti-war, anti-apartheid, pro-labor activism, and decide that they want to live Johnson’s lie with him.
Asked if he had any convictions, Boris Johnson once replied: “Only one. For speeding.” Ha ha. But no, seriously, does he? Johnson has spent a career showing that if you’re a certain class of man, you can get away with absolutely anything. People won’t just forgive you. They’ll think your flaws are part of your appeal.
I know this in part because I’ve been this kind of man, a privileged bumbler who survives on self-deprecating charm. But it’s because I recognize the injustice of a world where some people’s fumbling makes people like them, while for other people laziness or ineptitude would lead to their deaths. I try every day to commit myself to treating the important things with the moral gravity they deserve. We can joke around, and I do, but at the end of the day, a lot of this isn’t very fucking funny. Let us have a comic novel about a man like Boris Johnson governing a country. But in the real world, let us have someone who has shown some hint that he understands people’s real world problems and cares about fixing them.
I am tired of men like Boris Johnson failing upward and being given more and more power despite never doing a single thing to deserve it. I am tired of reading about how scandals seem to “roll right off them” and watching clearly psychopathic behavior being treated as signs of rakish wiliness. I am tired of there being so little justice in the world and I hope Britain seizes the opportunity it has to finally wipe the smirk from Boris Johnson’s face and create a government that acts for the many and not the few.