Boris Johnson and the myth of freedom-loving Brits
2020 seems to possess a time-warping influence. Routinely working alongside colleagues in January feels like yesterday, March seems a lifetime ago, and the time between 1 November and December elapsed in approximately 10 minutes.
In such disorientating times, it is easy to forget we are approaching the year anniversary of the Labour Party’s electoral rout at the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservative and Unionist Party.
Reflecting on that December general election there was much about Mr Johnson I disliked. Foremost, his tendency to do what is expedient over what is right, but also his lack of conspicuous political allegiance or vision — simply becoming Prime Minister was the extent of his political commitments.
But there was also much I begrudgingly admired. His choice in political heroes reassured me (the Athenian statesman Pericles and British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill). There was also something perversely refreshing in how the litany of sins he committed throughout his political career had failed to finish him off. To my mind, it cast a complimentary light on his libertarian streak. And why apologise if you’ve done nothing wrong?
It seems, not for the first time, I was wrong in my estimations. Not just about Mr Johnson, but about the entire country.
Mr Johnson’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis suggests he is more puritan than cavalier and more Cromwell than Churchill. Flippantly his ministers instruct on who we can and cannot be in proximity of and in what manner we can enjoy long-celebrated festivals. They speak on these matters with such frivolity as to suggest they are inebriated on the power this crisis has given them.
Sadder still, this seems to be a phenomenon throughout the wider country. The British public — far from proving themselves to be freedom loving — have taught power the extent of its reach and revealed it to be much longer than the ruling classes could ever have dreamt. The myth of British stoicism has been shattered and instead we have demonstrated ourselves a nation of paranoid informants. Johnson, it seems, has a talent for following public opinion, but not leading it.
As if that was not troubling enough, the fad of ‘clapping for carers’ ousted the British as a superstitious herd of ritualists who have effectively canonised the entire medical profession. Never has Nigel Lawson’s infamous remark that the NHS is the closest thing the English have to a religion rung so true.
It seems few in our public institutions have recognised these trends as troubling and illiberal, instead capitalising on them and accelerating this country’s long-running demise. Of all the British clichés, the idea the country ‘punches above its weight’ is surely among the most tedious, and now as the UK begins what will be among the slowest economic recoveries in the world, it has never appeared more inaccurate.
No one could have predicted a novel coronavirus sweeping across the globe and creating a public health emergency, but the world was already a turbulent place prior to the disease’s spread. I should have known any crisis would have brought out Johnson’s worst instincts, all of which have been displayed through misfeasance in his prior roles and careers.
Johnson the opportunist could hardly have turned down presenting himself as a wartime leader and leveraging all the draconian powers that entails. His own near-death experience with the disease afforded him little modesty or clarity, but instead seemingly inflated his already corpulent ego further. To his mind, he is now the Pericles who lived.
As for the British public, what have they done recently to inspire any sort of confidence? And no, I am not referencing Brexit; but I am referencing the country’s fetish for monarchical rule, its necromantic obsession with a dead princess, and its utterly misplaced sense of exceptionalism.