Of course Corbyn is right about Boris Johnson: Everywhere you go abroad he’s regarded as a joke. If he remains much longer as Foreign Secretary he’s likely to be a disaster, for his compatriots as well as for him.

It puzzles me why anyone ever thought he was ‘bright’. It must be because he went to Oxford, where he learned to spout ancient Greek. In the nineteenth century it was assumed that anyone with a good Classics degree could do anything – run the country, rule a colony, even organise a piss-up in a brewery. What the ancients taught about politics was carved in stone, applicable in every conceivable situation. And their politics never got beyond the idea of ‘aristocracy’. (That figures.) You could always dredge up a Latin tag about any political situation, which seemed to fit. In fact my experience of those who excelled in Latin and Greek at my own school, and won Oxbridge scholarships, was that it proved they had good memories, and nothing more. None of them, to my knowledge, went on to achieve what was expected of them. That’s because their study of the ancients didn’t teach them to think. Not like modern History. Am I doing the study of Classics an injustice here?

Here’s an (edited) version of Boris’s biography in Wikipedia. It really shows him up, I feel.

Johnson was awarded a King’s Scholarship to study at Eton College, the elite independent boarding school… At Eton, Johnson began using the given name “Boris” rather than “Alex” and developed “the eccentric English persona” for which he later became known…. Although school reports complained about his idleness, complacency, and lateness, he established himself as a popular and well-known figure within the school. His friends were largely from the wealthy upper middle-classes…. Johnson won a scholarship to read Literae Humaniores, a four-year course based in the study of Classics, at Balliol College, Oxford.

Arriving at the university in late 1983, he was part of a generation of Oxford undergraduates who later dominated British politics and media in the early 21st century, among them senior Conservative Party members David Cameron, William Hague, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, and Nick Boles. At the university, he… associated primarily with Old Etonians, joining the Old Etonian-dominated Bullingdon Club, an upper-class drinking society known for its acts of local vandalism. Johnson entered into a relationship with the aristocrat Allegra Mostyn-Owen and they became engaged while at university.

Johnson became a popular and well-known public figure at Oxford…. In 1984, Johnson was elected secretary of the Oxford Union. In 1986, he ran for president…; his campaign focused on reaching out from his established upper-class support base by emphasising his persona and downplaying his connections to the Conservatives…..  Johnson won the election and was appointed president, although his presidency was not seen as particularly distinguished or memorable, and questions were raised regarding his competency and seriousness. Having specialised in the study of ancient literature and classical philosophy, Johnson graduated from Balliol College with an upper second-class degree, but was deeply unhappy that he did not receive a first.

So he wasn’t even the best at Classics. (And my experience at Cambridge was that Classics gave out an awful lot of Firsts.)

As an imperial historian I agree, too, with Corbyn’s references to the ‘imperial’ flavour of his ideas. It permeates everything he says, and imagines, deludedly, about Britain’s ‘place in the world’. It’s interesting that his Oxford College was Balliol, which was known as the ‘seminary of Empire’ in British imperial times. Johnson’s background, education and former career (as a mere journalist!), as well as his clownishness, and his appalling judgment (over the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, for example), should rule him out of contention for any responsible job. He needs to resign, and then get fundamentally re-educated, if he ever wants to get back, into any higher position than the jokey blimpish panelist in that famous episode of Have I Got News For You. That was probably the high point of his career.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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5 Responses to Boris

  1. Chloe Mason says:

    In your spare moments, Bernard, it’d be good if you’d edit Wikipedia, Bernard! It needs more professional historians contributing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Boris as Historian | Porter’s Pensées

  3. Eric says:

    The Literae Humaniores school at Oxford (now at least) gives out rather fewer firsts than most other facultiess in the humanities, certainly fewer than History does; it also includes (contemporary, analytic) philosophy as an optional branch, so at least some students, though perhaps not Boris, are taught to think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fair enough, thanks. I don’t know Oxford so well, and certainly not present-day Oxford. At Cambridge in the 1960s it seemed to be assumed that if you could speak Greek when you arrived, and had been at a Public school, you had to be a First from the start.


  4. TJ says:

    Oxbridge trades so much on their mystique, in fact the teaching and research quality of Oxbridge departments, as elsewhere, fluctuates over time and is not always excellent. Its not just Classics, I seem to remember once a lot of Firsts being given in History (Cantab) but of course they all deserved one, no 2nd class material etc etc. The fact of having been to, or got into, these places is what impresses employers, the media, BBC and the Tory Party selectors, its part of how the Establishment perpetuates itself, a self-selecting elite.

    Liked by 1 person

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