Is Boris Johnson brave, and are we fools for thinking he is?
First published in July 2019.
Politics is traditionally described as the art of the possible.
Brexit and then the selection of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister – since referring to the means by which this was achieved as an election seems a stretch – bring this description into doubt.
Our political culture seems to have opted for paradoxical punitive optimism: initially claim that something will be good, accept later that it will be damaging, assert that this is a price worth paying (shifting the semantics of what was originally going to be good) and then denigrate opposition as though it (rather than you) were putting ideology before evidence.
An obfuscating willingness to damage thus becomes a crusade that brooks no opposition. Achieving the goal becomes a principled act – something that must be done irrespective.
This is an odd situation, since it now relies on the selection of a leader who even his most staunchest advocates accept has no principles and at best only a cursory acquaintance with the truth.
The call to unity is also an assertion that we can have no buyer’s remorse because we all knew what we were doing when we started down this road – a claim that demands of us a collective amnesia regarding how this all began (in confusion where few of us cared about, or knew much about, what we were being asked to decide on).
It does not require nostalgia for some imaginary golden age of politics, and it does not require non-conservative political affiliations to recognise that our political culture is experiencing a Wall Street Crash of the soul.
To the uncommitted ordinary member of the public, we now have a situation where one can legitimately shout at the TV (creatively adapting the original): “A plague on all your Houses”.
This is cathartic but not productive.
The question that should concern us is: what reality will we be living in when all this fantasy has worked itself through?
This currently is almost impossible to answer precisely because of the serious absence of seriousness that is infecting our politics. What we can ask is: what kind of leader has been selected to lead us?
Boris Johnson says we must be brave, that courage and belief will see us through. Commitment, of course, is important if one is going to achieve an aim.
But what are we being asked to commit to? Leaving the EU is an act but not an end in itself.
Current politics, however, essentially asks us to defer the problem of consequences whilst simultaneously affecting a confidence that we are somehow managing outcomes.
We are informed by politicians that there is planning afoot, but there are no detailed answers given to specific questions of policy and management (intentions and goals are not mechanics of procedures and offer no realistic engagement with rules that need to be written and implemented to enable flows across borders that will, once this is done, matter and which we will not control alone because they are not just our borders).
Sometimes breaking something is good, sometimes all you are doing is making a mess.
Is Boris Johnson a breaker of chains? How many of us are convinced that the UK’s problems were a result of EU membership and will somehow eventually be solved, 1) by leaving; and 2) by potentially leaving by any means necessary?
Johnson is a classicist. As such, he is likely aware of Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’. This is the concept that every virtue is a balance of vices.
Courage is a balance between the reckless and the timid.
In so far as this is the case, courageous activity follows from appropriate judgement of context.
Is Boris Johnson, therefore, brave? A significant number of his own fellow conservative MPs would say not.
The rest of us have become his audience rather than his electorate.
Politics may be about to become more entertaining, but it is deeply concerning if the rules of entertainment become the rules of politics.🔷
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