Thursday, 12 December 2019

Identity Problems

Will the Real Boris Johnson Please Stand Up

Excerpts from "Boris's Blundering Brilliance"
Andrew Sullivan
The Intelligencer

It’s hard to take the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, completely seriously. Just look at him: a chubby, permanently disheveled toff with an accent that comes off as a parody of an upper-class twit, topped off by that trademark mop of silver-blond hair he deliberately musses up before venturing into the public eye. Then there are those photo-op moments in his long career that seem designed to make him look supremely silly — stuck dangling in midair on a zip line with little Union Jacks waving in his hands; rugby-tackling a 10-year-old in Japan; playing tug-of-war in a publicity stunt and collapsing, suited, onto the grass; or declaring at one point that he was more likely to be “reincarnated as an olive,” “locked in a disused fridge,” or “decapitated by a flying Frisbee” than to become prime minister.

And yet he has. And more than that: This comic figure has somehow managed to find himself at the center of the populist storms sweeping Britain and the West — first by becoming the most senior politician in Britain to back Brexit in 2016, and now by plotting a course that might actually bring the United Kingdom out of the epic, years-long, once-impossible-looking mess he helped make. Just over four months into office as PM, he appears poised to win an election he called and, if the polls are anywhere near correct, score a clear victory and take Britain out of the E.U. by the end of January. . . . 

Here is what the opponents of Boris darkly report:

His critics argue that he has cynically become the British Trump, whipping up xenophobia and ugly racism, lying with abandon, and reinventing the British Tory party as a hard-right populist engine for the worst instincts of the deplorable masses. He is now attacked as a racist and reckless Little Englander, gleefully wrecking the British economy, polarizing the country, and threatening to break up the U.K.  solely to advance his own narcissistic ambitions. Shallow, lazy, incompetent, and bigoted, this clown has somehow leveraged the fears of the many to advance the only thing he has ever genuinely believed in: his own destiny.

But there is another side, or perspective, or so we are told:

But there is another story to be told about him: that he has been serious all along, using his humor and ridiculousness to camouflage political instincts that have, in fact, been sharper than his peers’. He sensed the shifting populist tides of the 2010s before most other leading politicians did and grasped the Brexit issue as a path to power. But he also understood how important it was not to be fully captured by that raw xenophobic energy. He saw Brexit discontent as something the political Establishment needed to engage and co-opt rather than dismiss and demonize, and he approached the opportunity in a very different way from his sometime ally Nigel Farage, whose provincial extremism veered into outright racism and whose political career Johnson has now all but ended.

As a longtime liberal Tory, Boris, as he’s invariably called in the press and by the public, saw the deep unpopularity of his party’s legacy of fiscal austerity and the need to shift left in economic and social policy. So he is quietly forging a new conservatism — appealing to the working poor and aspiring middle classes, tough on immigration and crime, but much more generous in spending on hospitals and schools and science. Or so he says for now. And if he succeeds — by no means a sure thing, though at this point it almost seems foolish to bet against him — he won’t just be charting a new future for the U.K. but pioneering a path for other Western parties of the center right confronted by the rise of populist extremism.
We shall see.  We shall see.  For our money, we expect it will be the "new conservatism" that will emerge. 

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