William Watson: There’s more to Boris Johnson than meets the eye
People like to compare U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson with U.S. President Donald Trump. Their outlandish coiffure, nominal conservatism and brazen showmanship. Their unorthodoxy and opportunism. Their spotty personal histories and shocking electoral success. Their inroads with the working classes. Their nationalism. Their love of infrastructure.
It’s fine so far as it goes but let’s not get carried away. There are sharp differences between the two that allow us never-Trumpers to be as intrigued by Boris as we are repelled by Trump. Trump’s shady past involves anti-discrimination lawsuits, serial bankruptcies, dubious creditors, payoffs to porn stars — you name it. In the same vein, Johnson was fired from his first job, at the Times, for making up quotes. But what quotes! Purportedly from his godfather, an eminent historian, later vice-chancellor of Oxford University, they concerned possible cavorting between Edward II (1284-1327) and one of his male courtiers. The two may well have cavorted — historians disagree — but they could not have done so in the newly discovered castle Johnson was writing about as the courtier died 13 years before it was occupied.
Writers have not always done poorly in politics
We have only Trump’s word that he was a brilliant student but it is a matter of record that Johnson went to Oxford on a scholarship to read Classics, though he received only an upper second class degree, not a coveted first. This shortcoming doesn’t show, however. You can see him, while mayor of London in 2016, take on British classicist Mary Beard on “Greece vs. Rome” in a 90-minute Intelligence-Squared Youtube debate, complete with quotations in ancient Greek.
His expertise in that language continues to be sought. Thatcher biographer Charles Moore relates in the Christmas issue of the Spectator, the British magazine of politics, culture and ideas, how on election day itself he texted Johnson for the correct pronunciation of “Calliope,” the Greek muse of poetry and eloquence, but also the name of a horse in a race that day whose name had stumped the radio announcer Moore had heard try to say it. Johnson “at once” replied “Call-EYE-ope.”
Moore edited the Spectator from 1984-90, the peak of Thatcherism. Two editors later, in 1999, Johnson took over for a six-year stint. Which explains why he appears as the Christmas issue’s diarist, in a piece he says he began writing before dawn because “I have a country to run, Queen’s speech to prepare, vast mandate to deliver, and so on.” He uses the space to describe what it’s like to run a campaign. “With freezing fingers (the volunteers) have rung bells and pushed bumf through the furry fringes of letter boxes — never knowing whether a dog’s jaws are on the other side.” It goes on, with jokes, acute observations and nice turns of phrase, including the coda that “As the dawn breaks, I am full of confidence that we can do it (and) I want you to know that even as you munch your mince pies, we are engaged full tilt on a programme of change for the better. Merry Christmas!”
That unashamed mention of “Christmas” and the self-evident fact he writes his own material are two attributes he shares with Trump that help explain each’s success. But lest you think he dog-whistles on the dark side, as Trump is so often accused of doing, check out his two-minute Hanukkah message: “Today, as Britain’s Jews seek to drive back the darkness of resurgent anti-Semitism, you have every decent person in this country fighting by your side.” It’s not politician-speak, solemn and pompous, as our own prime minister so often is. It’s rapid-fire, intelligent, self-deprecating and often as not humorous. And, like Trump’s speech, it is not especially worried about putting a foot wrong — which is a trait people like.
As gratified as many of us in the business are to see one of our own, an ink-stained wretch like Johnson, ascend to high office, it’s also a little chastening to realize there’s now at least one practicing politician who writes better than we do.
Writers have not always done poorly in politics. Johnson’s “One Nation” predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli, wrote novels, though none that ever challenged Dickens or George Eliot. The playwright Vaclav Havel did well as president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism and then of the Czech Republic after the break with Slovakia. And of course Winston Churchill, a hero of Johnson’s and subject of his 2014 book, The Churchill Factor, made his living writing and even won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1953), nominally “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for his oratory in defending exalted human values,” though in reality for having saved civilization, literature included, from totalitarian darkness.
We who write for the newspapers are often thought to be glib and flitting and lacking in depth and there may be something to that, though if so, readers are partly to blame for not wanting the same column every time out. But we can also occasionally be useful and interesting and even, on our best days, entertaining. In a prime minister, these will not be bad things.