The World King and the Eurocrats
One story that Boris Johnson will never shake off is his sister Rachel’s assertion that as a child he used to say his ambition was to be ‘world king’. He has been making moves in that direction ever since. He has just completed two successful terms as Mayor of London, where his amiable manners and jocular turn of phrase have made him the most popular politician in the United Kingdom; and now he is currently making a high-stakes power play. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has committed his own future to the idea that the UK must stay inside the European Union, and Johnson has responded by trying to become the face of the Leave campaign.
- Thursday, 12 May 2016
A former journalist, Johnson’s first important position was as European correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (which is the unofficial house journal of the Conservative Party). Aleady well known for his acid humour, he concentrated on stories about ridiculous pieces of legislation or outrageous financial scandals: feeding a well-defined antipathy in Britain against what you could call the French style of European government. In domestic affairs, the French seem to believe in maximising bureaucracy whenever possible, and due to French influence at the beginning, this approach has coloured the style of organisation of the European Union too.
The problem with this system is seen quite clearly in France today. The habit of mind is to create more and more regulations, and after a certain point the result is an overwhelming mass of rules that are so complicated that none but the most dedicated professionals can understand them. In France the professionals in question are mainly the products of the Ecole Normale de l’Administration; inEurope they are the thousands of well-fed and multi-lingual Eurocrats. Nowadays they may well be Estonian or Slovak, but the style of their operations is still French: as the basic style of operation of NATO remains Anglo-American. People may talk about ‘reform’, but changing the whole nature of a large international organisation is impossible. The same goes for the UN, actually.
This presents an easy target for British critics like Johnson. (He is not alone. Apart from other individuals in the main political parties, there is a small party, UKIP, entirely devoted to the proposition that the UK should be independent of Europe.) But for Johnson it represents at the same time an opportunity to demonstrate his superior skills as an orator and a populist. He seems like a figure from two hundred years ago: a classical scholar who quotes Virgil and lectures on Athenian culture, and manages to sound as if politics is a kind of hobby. This cheerful amateurism has earned him genuine affection among ordinary people, who like people everywhere, don’t like politicians. A sign of this is that this alleged Tory, who extols the virtues of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, should have been accepted by the people of London, who after Boris have reverted to their more natural position to the left of the Labour Party.
But in fact there is little evidence that Boris is really a Conservative. One of his first political battles was the juvenile but still career-building one of election as President of the Oxford Union, the university’s debating society. Being a Conservative was fatally unfashionable in 1985, so Boris reinvented himself as an environmentalist candidate under the banner of the SDP, direct opponents of the Conservatives at the national level.
Many of Boris Johnson’s policies in London have been personal initiatives rather than policies invented in Conservative Campaign Headquarters. His current act in the Leave movement also has little to do with Tory tradition or dogma. Win or lose, he is building ‘Brand Boris’. It is hard to avoid a comparison with Donald Trump. While the style required for Britain is different for that needed in America, both men are essentially comedy candidates. Londoners voted for Boris mainly because they thought he is ‘a laugh’, and his problem in parliament has been that his easy jocular style is not appropriate to the speeches of a back-bench MP. But if (as everyone assumes), the wannabe World King is aiming at the job of Prime Minister, this petty limitation might melt away. If the glass is half-full, we might see a prime minister full of elegant rhetoric, making great speeches that will be published in volumes that will be read for centuries; if the glass is half-empty, Boris will be revealed as the lightweight political thinker he has always been, and his ability to read the runes of fashion will not be enough to disguise his lack of serious policies.
Would it stop there, though? There is another strange possibility. Johnson makes much of his exotic international pedigree (including Turkish, Russian, French and German ancestors), but was born in New York, and therefore holds dual British and American nationality. During his time at Oxford, one person who knew him said that he had one over-riding ambition: to be President of the United States. This was a road closed to Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenneger due to their foreign birth. The World King is only 51.
Christopher Lord has lived in nine countries and speaks seven languages. His books include Politics and Parallel Cultures, and his journalism has been published world-wide.