Friday 6 March 2020

Is there a Johnsonism?

Asked about matters of doctrine at the height of her powers, Theresa May declared there was "no such thing as May-ism, just good old fashioned Conservatism." That wasn't strictly speaking true. On the rhetorical front at least her position taking both differed from what went before and was fairly distinctive in its own right, at least as far as currents within contemporary conservatism went. Here we are now over six months into a Boris Johnson premiership, and armed with a majority of 80 can we say the same about Boris Johnson. Is there an identifiable "Johnsonism"?

The short answer is ... no. Despite his regular pretending to one nation Conservatism, and the determination of his press friends to elaborate it for him, this he most certainly is not. Then again, as British political creeds go few have been so mangled. Like conservative philosophy as promulgated by the late Roger Scruton, its emphasis on the need to preserve tradition, scepticism of hare-brained ideological schemes, standing for gradual and managed change, protection of the vulnerable and, of course, govern on behalf of the whole nation doesn't sound so bad. Why then have all Tory Prime Ministers and, indeed, the party fallen far short? For conservatives, power always comes before principle, and if perceived political advantage is to be gained from scapegoating, whether national or local, they'll do it. Johnson's stoking of the Brexit divisions last summer, in the lead up to the autumn's crunch votes and latterly the general election, were all of a piece sitting in a long and ignoble Tory tradition of affirming one nation-ism in the breach.

Consider the new seats the Tories won. Johnson made great theatre about understanding how votes were lent to the Tories from long-time Labour supporters, and he promised to get Brexit done. Yet these voters expect a Brexit quid pro quo realised in tangible improvements. There was a reason why putting £350m/week for the NHS on the side of a bus resonated. And yet we've seen a pathetically tardy response to the north England floods, with scant assistance for those forced from their homes back in December, let alone the more recent disasters. We've heard renewed talk about rebalancing the economy, which HS2 is supposed to help along. There's the bridge/tunnel to Ireland, and half-arsed efforts at redistributing bits and pieces of ministries. And last, but by no means least, senior strategists have suggested doing nothing with the party's new acquisitions. Any pretence to one nation is half-cocked.

How about other characteristics? As oft commented at the time, May's initial offering was blue Milibandism, though we saw little evidence of it in practice. Dave on the other hand was a much more ideological politician in the sense of using his time in government to bed down market fundamentalism, while crassly turning the screws on the poor and public services and scapegoating the targets and victims of his policies. When we look upon the 2019 manifesto, Johnson's supposed programme for government, we happen upon very little. That is apart from Brexit. Is this his signature ideological move? Again, rhetoric vs reality suggests not. The hard Brexit Johnson is pushing is undoubtedly damaging, but he's been caught telling porkies more than once about the border in the Irish Sea, and having recently set out the red lines for the negotiations it appears as if the UK's position is informed by the domestic political capital to be accumulated than a firm commitment to "global Britain". Banging the nationalist drum did win Johnson the election, but repays a diminishing echo once the coming grandstanding is over and the government cannot hide from pressing difficulties. This was and is the basis for a time-limited coalition, not the stuff from which hegemony is made.

You can't not talk about Johnson without mentioning racism. While Dave paid lip service to official anti-racism, and so did May - even while she pushed the hostile environment - Johnson differs in not only having recently been openly racist (Muslim letter boxes, anyone?), but has a long journalistic career of racism toward people of colour and Jews, with the dollop of homophobia on top. The defence we see from Tories goes along the lines of "he appointed the first BME chancellor/home secretary, some racist!" or that the language used was "unfortunate". Others can single out his calls for immigration amnesties while he was London's Mayor, a position we won't see resurface any time soon. There's also the now notorious passage about travellers in the 2019 manifesto. Does racism then define a distinctive Johnsonism? Not as such. With a strategy based on barrelling through the opposition to get Brexit done, Johnson's racist record, which he has alternately denied, alternately laughed off, helped underline his seriousness in getting Brexit over the line. He was the perfect Tory with the right kind of creds to cohere the racist vote, and as the repository of this trust he has to make showy his toughness. A "mistaken" comment here, a deportation there, a points-based immigration system that is seemingly the tranquilliser to put down the racist tiger he's ridden in to office, these are his offerings of choice. But is this ideological in the same way austerity and marketisation was for Dave and Osborne, or politically pragmatic and opportunistic?

The other key feature of the Johnson operation is Dominic Cummings. As we know, he has ideas about race, about class and privilege, and about the state bureaucracy. Hundreds of thousands of words have been expended on his vendetta against the civil service, arising from his time when he carried bags for Michael Gove and dismissed the department, the relevant policy/wonk community, experts, and the teaching profession as "the blob" who stood in the way of "reform". And Cummings's latest shtick is the same as the last one: disrupt the civil service and subordinate them to his all-knowing knowingness. An objective that has already cost Johnson one chancellor weeks into his new administration. Does this attack on the machinery of government fit in with a coherent Johnsonism? It could, but there is a danger of reading too much into it. The Cummings operation is as idiotic as it is chaotic, but civil service reform isn't the game here. It's about issuing a message. The institutions of the state have their own momentum, outlook, and views on their position within the set up and how it relates to other states. Thanks to 40-odd years of economic integration and pooled sovereignty with the European Union, there are cadres of senior staff who, for Cummings, are not only too close to the "other side" in these negotiations, but as an avid viewer of Yes Minister or reader of Tony Benn's diaries will tell you, civil servants can frustrate and water down the decisions made by the executive. Attacks on the civil service cost nothing politically, and again burnish those toughness creds while forcing the permanent secretaries to keep their heads down - so the kind of Brexit Johnson wants gets delivered. Once we're there, Cummings becomes surplus to requirements and his tinkering gets put paid to. Again, the Cummings contribution to Johnsonism owes more to pragmatics than anything else.

There is a single constant to Boris Johnson's ideas: himself. The Tory party is his vehicle to high office, but his priority is not policy but personal advancement and vainglory. Therefore ideas or anything resembling a coherent vision play second fiddle to the zigzags taken to get him there and keep him in office. There is no Johnsonism as such, but rather an incoherent opportunism with Johnson's characteristics. His offerings and contributions on Brexit, on "the north", on the civil service, on immigration and racism, all spring from keeping his eminence eminent. Hardly any surprise he finds white elephant projects like tunnels to Ireland, literal Boris islands, HS2, and what have you so attractive - they are monuments to him. In this sense, Johnson then resembles the Tories from bygone ages before Thatcher. They might not have been saddled with an ego so luminescent, but their politics fluctuated between pragmatism and opportunism in order to keep hold of office and the lower orders below stairs. Therefore in this age of big ideas Johnson is a peculiar beast ... for not having any. He is a kinetic politician bouncing from here to there according to whim, fashion, and where the opportunities are. This lack of scruple and absence of principle makes him difficult to predict but ultimately, easy to read. And all the more dangerous for it.


Blissex said...

«conservative philosophy as promulgated by the late Roger Scruton, its emphasis on the need to preserve tradition, scepticism of hare-brained ideological schemes, standing for gradual and managed change»

That's the burkean view of conservativism, but it is just an ideological cover for a much more practical approach, which is that political conservativism is always the protection and furthering of the material interests of incumbents. Of course preserving tradition, aversion to (other) ideology, gradual change are all euphemisms for protecting the material interests of incumbents.

As the dominant type of incumbents changes with time, political conservativism also changes policies with time: from protecting the interests of landed nobility to those of business owners to those of finance traders and executives to those of urban landowners.

But conservativism is also proactive, it is not just about protecting incumbencies, it is also about furthering them, making incumbencies less risky and more profitable, as in:

«protection of the vulnerable and, of course, govern on behalf of the whole nation doesn't sound so bad. Why then have all Tory Prime Ministers and, indeed, the party fallen far short?»

They haven't fallen short, in their view: for the past 40 years "Middle England" and "Upper England" interests have been furthered with policies giving them a roaring boom in asset prices, rents, dividends, with large increases in the living standards of (southern mostly) Middle England and Upper England families. All the talk about "austerity" policies is utterly misleading: (southern) Middle England and Upper England have not been subject to "austerity",

Because for tories “the vulnerable” means "Middle England" (in particular southern oldies with property) and “the whole nation” means "Middle England" plus "Upper England".
The servant classes (in particular the northern ones) are just part of the background, they are invisible, if not annoying with their whining or parasitical with their demands for better state services and social insurance.

PS: The famous argument by C Robin that conservativism is reactionary, reaction against emancipation from hierarchical power structures, is just pure whiggish clintonist/blairist euphemism: because incumbency can take many forms, not just incumbency in superior positions in a power hierarchy. Whiggism itself at the core is conservative, with its insistence on free markets and globalization: it aims to protect the interests of incumbents that have material interests furthered by markets and globalization, such as transnational businesses and speculative investors. Both whigs and tories are conservatives, but for different incumbents.

Dipper said...

Johnson has some political instincts, but his main instinct is self-advancement. Which I admire in a politician. Means they are open to persuasion.

'Johnsonism' is in effect about doing whatever is needed to stay in power, so it is a heuristical approach rather than an ideology. Johnsonism will be defined by the practical steps he takes to win elections, and hence will be defined in retrospect as a set of policies, but as with all heuristical approaches these will be discovered through trial and error rather than identified in advance.

Dipper said...

"Hardly any surprise he finds white elephant projects like tunnels to Ireland, literal Boris islands, HS2, and what have you so attractive - they are monuments to him"

and this makes him different how?

Not many of these projects get done, if any. I like to think he does this to create an environment in which people can have ideas and put them out there without fear of ridicule. Of course, I may be over-estimating the man.

BCFG said...

When is @Dipshit going to provide that list of the weak who have beaten the strong by being prepared to suffer!

His whole Brexit argument hinges on this idea!