Boris Johnson and England’s imagined past

Johnson, here illustrating the dictum that celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.

In one of 2019’s many assaults on reason, it appears that Boris Johnson is going to become Prime Minister. I cannot claim the insight into conservative party elections that is necessary to say this with confidence, but he is the current front-runner. Johnson failed from a similar position of strength in 2016, and being a front-runner in a leadership election is always a dangerous position. [1] For now he remains by far the most likely individual among the line-up of reactionaries and weirdos to pull through and occupy the highest executive office in the country. Hooray.

Boris Johnson is most famous for his persona. Johnson plays a version of himself for the public. His route into public life did not follow the path most commonly trodden by his Eton and Oxford educated peers; conservative head office – special adviser – safe seat in the home counties. Rather he spent some years building a profile as a right wing commentator and guest on shite panel shows before leaping into parliament and the London mayoral race. By the time he became a powerful parliamentarian in the middle of this decade, most of the country knew him and could repeat the clichés used to describe him; ‘foppish’ ‘straw haired’, ‘amusing’, ‘eccentric’,  ‘larger than life’. Johnson became a national figure through his character.

Johnson’s character is based upon a misleading, but widely held, view of the English past. He has consciously modeled himself upon a mythologised version of Churchill. His accent, his vocabulary that reaches for imperial anachronism, and even his tame self-deprecation are examples of this act. Johnson even wrote a truly terrible biography of Churchill, one that attempted to draw parallels with his own career.


Churchill was a carefully chosen model, for the last Tory lion is emblematic of Britain’s confused and confusing relationship to its own past, a confusion that Johnson’s appeal rests upon. Churchill is  regarded as a sort of King Arthur figure who emerged from the wilderness of the thirties to gallantly battle fascism. His eccentricities and oratorical pomposity are not analysed so much as they are canonized. Churchill’s fame has created a cottage industry. Representing Churchill is a rite of passage for British actors, many of whom appear heavily made up in American funded cinematic re-tellings of British history. The Churchill industry extends into academia, where non-specialists make a living off of finding new aspects of Churchill’s wartime life to write hagiographies about. By evoking the image of Churchill the saint, Johnson makes an unconscious appeal to British proclivities.

The popularity of the Johnson persona points towards some interesting contradictions in British political culture. It is commonplace to assert that Britons feel hostile towards posh politicians and the Oxbridge hegemony on high political office. This hostility exists as a source of jokes and insults in private life but not at the level of politics. British voters defer to posh figures and are eager to follow them. This is seen across society, such as in people’s preference for posh-sounding pilots. As New Statesman columnist Stephen Bush argues, Nigel Farage is conferred a respectability that the BNP never gained partly because he speaks nativist rhetoric with well-formed vowels and a posh name. When voters hear the straining attempts of Johnson to emulate the voice of Churchill, they hear an accent that they subconsciously associate with the right to rule.

Johnson’s genius is to detoxify the Tory brand through a woodehousian bumbling act, while still appealing to the subconscious reserves of deference and servility that populate the UK psyche. Johnson’s wealth and ignorance ought to make him an avatar of all that is hated in the conservative party; arrogance, money, lack of connection to real people. Instead, his mumbling diction and boyish presentation make him seem less threatening. He achieves the Bertie Wooster feat of appearing likable.

This ability of Johnson’s is worrying for it serves to cover up the xenophobia of his politics. During the 90’s and 00’s, Johnson specialized in the Jeremy Clarkson School of making racist jokes go mainstream, and his political career is defined by Brexit, the ne plus ultra of British Nativism.  His desire for a hard Brexit and his willingness to pander to the most anti-foreign sentiments of British conservatism are concerning. When I imagine a Johnson premiership I see  a legislative landscape of ‘hostile environments’. I am afraid that this racist streak to Johnson’s politics is somewhat ignored, as people find it hard to imagine Bertie Wooster as a threat to human rights.

The problem with imagined pasts is the non-imaginary nature of the real past. History made our world, by definition. The bad things that the British Empire did are not figurative imaginings, to be ignored once we have reached our quota of parliamentary apologies. They are real events. Real people were murdered, real people’s lives were ruined by the slapdash partitioning of FCO-led decolonization, real inequality and real power disparities are still perpetuated by the legacy of empire. Johnson is a physical manifestation of this harmful false history.

Johnson’s actual politics resemble elements of the British past that are covered up by the glossy history sold to Britain by  HBO-produced images of Churchill and The Crown. The belief in superiority, the brash assumption of a right to make decisions on other people’s behalf,  an embarrassing ignorance of the world beyond Whitehall; these would be the motivating impulses of a Johnson government. All possess a lineage in imperial administration. Johnson’s tired act of toffish buffoonery portends a less liberal, less diverse and less tolerant country.


[1] I’ve gone hyperlink mad here

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