Jul 19, 2022 ROBERT SKIDELSKY
Although words like “unprincipled,” “amoral,” and “serial liar” seem to describe the outgoing British prime minister accurately, they accurately describe more successful political leaders as well. To explain Johnson’s fall, we need to consider two factors specific to our times.
LONDON – Nearly all political careers end in failure, but Boris Johnson is the first British prime minister to be toppled for scandalous behavior. That should worry us.
The three most notable downfalls of twentieth-century British leaders were caused by political factors. Neville Chamberlain was undone by his failed appeasement policy. The Suez fiasco forced Anthony Eden to resign in 1957. And Margaret Thatcher fell in 1990 because popular resistance to the poll tax persuaded Tory MPs that they could not win again with her as leader.
True, Harold Macmillan was undone in 1963 by the Profumo sex scandal, but this involved a secretary of state for war and possible breaches of national security. Election defeats following economic failure brought down Edward Heath and James Callaghan in the 1970s. Tony Blair was forced to resign by the Iraq debacle and Gordon Brown’s impatience to succeed him. David Cameron was skewered by Brexit, and Theresa May by her failure to deliver Brexit.
No such events explain Johnson’s fall.
David Lloyd George, a much greater leader than Johnson, is his only serious rival in sleaze. But though the sale of seats in the House of Lords, slipshod administrative methods, and dishonesty had weakened Lloyd George, the immediate cause of his fall (exactly a century ago) was his mishandling of the Chanak crisis, which brought Britain and Turkey to the brink of war.
The more familiar comparison is with US President Richard Nixon. Every Johnson misdemeanor is routinely labeled “gate” after the Watergate break-in that ended Nixon.
John Maynard Keynes called Lloyd George a “crook”; Nixon famously denied that he was one. Neither they nor Johnson were crooks in the technical sense (of being convicted of crimes), but Nixon would have been impeached in 1974 had he not resigned, and Johnson was fined £50 for breaking lockdown rules. Moreover, all three showed contempt for the laws they were elected to uphold, and for the norms of conduct expected from public officials.
We struggle to describe their character flaws: “unprincipled,” “amoral,” and “serial liar” seem to capture Johnson. But they describe more successful political leaders as well. To explain his fall, we need to consider two factors specific to our times.
The first is that we no longer distinguish personal qualities from political qualities. Nowadays, the personal really ispolitical: personal failings are ipso facto political failings. Gone is the distinction between the private and the public, between subjective feeling and objective reality, and between moral and religious matters and those that government must address.
Politics has crossed into the realm previously occupied by psychiatry. This was bound to happen once affluence undermined the old class basis of politics. Questions of personal identity arising from race, gender, sexual preference, and so on now dominate the spaces vacated by the politics of distribution. Redressing discrimination, not addressing inequality, became the task of politics.
Johnson is both a creature and a victim of identity politics. His rhetoric was about “leveling up” and “our National Health Service.” But, in practice, he made his personality the content of his politics. No previous British leaders would have squandered their moral capital on trivial misdemeanors and attempted cover-ups, because they knew that it had to be kept in reserve for momentous events. But momentous events are now about oneself, so when a personality is seen as flawed, there is no other story to tell.
Johnson’s personality-as-politics was also the creation of the media. In the past, newspapers, by and large, reported the news; now, focusing on personalities, they create it. This change has given rise to a corrupt relationship: personalities use the media to promote themselves, and the media expose their frailties to sell copy.
There has always been a large market for sexual and financial gossip. But even in the old “yellow press,” there was a recognized sphere of public events that took priority. Now the gossip stories are the public events.
This development has radically transformed public perceptions about the qualities a political leader should have. Previous generations of political leaders were by no means all prudes. They lied, drank, fornicated, and took bribes. But everyone concerned with politics recognized that it was important to protect the public sphere. Leaders’ moral failings were largely shielded from scrutiny, unless they became egregious. And even when the public became aware of them, they were forgiven, provided the leaders delivered the goods politically.
Most of the offenses that led to Johnson’s resignation would never have been reported in the past. But today the doctrine of personal accountability justifies stripping political leaders naked. Every peccadillo, every lapse from correct expression, becomes a credibility-destroying “disgrace” or “shame.” People’s ability to operate in the public sphere depends on privacy. Once that is gone, their ability to act effectively when they need to vanishes.
The other new factor is that politics is no longer viewed as a vocation so much as a stepping stone to money. Media obsession with what a political career is worth, rather than whether politicians are worthy of their jobs, is bound to affect what politically ambitious people expect to achieve and the public’s view of what to expect from them. Blair is reported to have amassed millions in speaking engagements and consultancies since leaving office. In keeping with the times, The Times has estimated how much money Johnson could earn from speaking fees and book deals, and how much more he is worth than May.
In his resignation speech, Johnson sought to defend the “best job in the world” in traditional terms, while criticizing the “eccentricity” of being removed in mid-delivery of his promises. But this defense of his premiership sounded insincere, because his career was not a testimony to his words. The cause of his fall was not just his perceived lack of morality, but also his perceived lack of a political compass. For Johnson, the personal simply exposed the hollowness of the political.