However badly Boris Johnson’s career ends, it will surely be a better finale than that of his great-grandfather, the Turkish journalist, editor and liberal politician Ali Kemal. Almost exactly a century ago, following the trauma of defeat and the end of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal was attacked by a mob of soldiers, hanged from a tree, his head smashed in with cudgels before being beaten to death. I can’t imagine that the Tory backbenchers will go that far.
There is something charming and colourful about Johnson’s background, the mixture of Turkish, Russian, Jewish and even a Circassian slave just a few generations back (according to Boris Johnson, and if you can’t trust his version of events, who can you trust?). Just like David Cameron, he is also descended from George II, the last king of England to fight in battle, via a mistress.
As Rod Liddle once put it, Boris is ‘the esoteric product of millennia of Eurasian toff miscegenation’, and that’s part of the attraction. It explains his ease with people of different backgrounds, and his liberal persona as London Mayor, which felt like the real him, more than his later populist act. It’s why the charges of racism never stuck; he has his faults, but racial prejudice isn’t one of them.
It’s often been noted that Boris was the latest incarnation of the slippery mountebank in politics while his opponents, both Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn, came from that other British political archetype, the do-gooding Puritan. Disraeli and Gladstone were the Platonic examples of these contrast, but the division dates back further to the Civil War, and there could be no doubt which side Boris would have fought for at Marston Moor.
In fact he is almost more like an oriental potentate, a benevolent and cosmopolitan sultan, hampered by court intrigue and presiding over a crumbling empire. At the time of his ascension to Downing Street, Wikipedia listed Johnson’s de jure and de facto spouses, making Boris the first polygamous ruler of England since King Canute. Since coming to power his rule has been marked by unprecedented court drama. There are quite obvious parallels to the reign of Henry VIII, with Carrie Symonds as Anne Boleyn and Dominic Cummings playing Thomas Cromwell.
Like Henry, King Boris vacillated during a period of reformation, neither willing to fully embrace the progressive revolution nor up to standing for the old ways. Over the winter of 1534-5, while Germany’s reformation erupted into insanity in Münster, England’s court was dominated by the interpersonal drama between Henry and Anne; likewise as the second reformation had its own Münster moment in 2020, the government in Westminster seemed hamstrung by interpersonal drama and chaos. That Johnson was allegedly too busy to attend Cobra meetings earlier that year because he was finishing a Shakespeare book to fund his second divorce is to me the stand-out anecdote of his premiership (the airlift of dogs from Kabul, on the Prime Minister’s apparent orders, comes a close second).
Historical parallels can only go so far, and the key difference is that England in the 16th century was a country on the rise, for various cultural and demographic reasons that even Henry VIII’s mismanagement could not stop; Britain in the early 21st century is facing the painful effects of a demographic winter. It has chronic, underlying problems which the Tories have had 12 years to deal with, including an extreme housing shortage and a transport system desperate for investment.
They’ve had over a decade to take on progressive dominance of institutions, and have done almost nothing; this will only get worse under Labour when we get even more government-enforced equity. Tories will occasionally make some grumbling sounds about ‘wokeness’ or ‘free speech’, when they could literally just abolish the Equality Act (2010) or deal with the Communications Act (2003).
It’s said that Johnson is the most immoral prime minister since David Lloyd George, but he’s not a malicious individual. As with the accusations of racism, the comparisons with Donald Trump were hugely imperceptive, the latter a genuinely unpleasant man who would be happy for people to die if it furthered his aims, even to drag his own country into instability.
Boris is a sort of 21st century globalist sultan, benevolent, tolerant and keen on gadgets, novelties and inventions, but completely lacking the republican virtue expected in a democratic leader, or the attention to detail. He would have been a wonderful pre-modern leader, beloved by his subjects who would have happily overlooked his dalliances so long as he kept the fanatics at bay. Unfortunately, the modern world just involves endless hard work.
A certain amount of sleaze and licence in a government is not a terrible thing; a bit of corruption can help get things done or built. But sleaze mixed with incompetence and a dearth of talent is a problem, made all the more ineffective by ideological drift.
People often comment on how good the Tory party is at adapting to changing circumstances, mutating in order to win elections. But Boris Johnson is a reminder that you do need to have some underlying philosophy, beyond getting Brexit done and stopping Corbyn (as much as the latter was a genuine public service).
Whether you liked them or not, both Thatcher and Blair reshaped Britain in their image, the first in the guise of economic liberalism and the latter the inevitable social liberalism that followed. Someone might have gone into a coma on the night of 5 May 2010 and awoken with no idea who had been in charge this whole time. Immigration has reached record levels, the Pride flag flies from every building, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) teams are ever more powerful and embedded in every university, government body and corporation in the country. The only hint at who’s been in charge might be the visible increase in homelessness, the one tangible result of Tory rule.
We’re in the midst of a struggle for values, and they matter; those issues referred to as ‘culture wars’ have real-world consequences, whether it’s vastly increased levels of crime or children undergoing irreversible surgery. There is a debate to be had about whether diversity, beyond a pretty limited point, brings more benefits or downsides; personally I’d like Britain to be more like Denmark in that respect, egalitarian, safe and demographically stable. One of the major parties needs to represent that point of view, and to not mimic their opponents’ assumptions.
‘Equity’ is an insane, utopian idea and Tory politicians should openly oppose it, and say why. Government policy should be aimed towards both financial and memetic support for nuclear families (although admittedly now is not a good moment for a ‘back to basics’ campaign). But – and this is almost a forgotten idea among Tory politicians – I’d also like Britain to be much richer.
Boris Johnson is perhaps the most prolific prime minister since the Earl of Aberdeen, and also presiding over the total collapse of the fertility rate. Under the last three PMs, the Tory party has become utterly reliant on older voters, retirees and those with homes and pensions, and has almost entirely given up on the young, or on economic growth they desire.
There’s a whole new generation out there who hate progressivism, who don’t want social norms dictated by dysfunctional, miserable people, and yet the Tories have nothing to offer them. Everywhere there is a sense of overwhelming gloom about the state of the country and its lack of future. Boris Johnson, one of the funniest men to inhabit No. 10, has left his audience with a feeling of dread and sadness, a lesson perhaps in allowing newspaper columnists too much of a say.
As Johnson’s rule nears it end, it feels like everything is collapsing, from the health service to the police, even to a shared faith in institutions — and as a Conservative voter I’ve got no ‘buts’ to give in response, except perhaps that Corbyn would have been worse.
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This article appears in Ed West's Substack, Wrong Side of History. Subscribe here.