Personalities and History

If the ‘great man’ theory of history doesn’t quite work, not for serious historians anyway, the ‘absolutely f*cking useless man’ theory might still be worth considering. Boris Johnson seems to be showing the way in which idiots and amoralists can affect history, personally; and especially if they think they can become ‘great men’. (Or of course ‘great women’.) We know that Boris had Churchillian ambitions, and always believed he was ‘special’, partly perhaps because of his Eton schooling, although famously questioned on it in one of his school reports to his wife-beating father in 1982:

‘Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the School for next half). I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.’

There you have it. But of course the Eton connection was one of the things that propelled him into the leadership of the Conservative Party, on the grounds that if he knew Greek and Latin he must be bright; which of course it doesn’t indicate in the least. The ‘Classics’ mainly test memory, for language and facts about the ancient past. In my school the ‘top’ students did Latin and Greek A-levels, and got into Oxford on the basis of this. None of them, so far as I’m aware, did very much with their lives afterwards. That’s because they weren’t taught about modern times; or even to think. Still the classicists had the greatest academic kudus at my university, and were awarded the highest proportion of ‘Firsts’ there. But that told you little about their ‘intelligence’. Boris – who incidentally only got a 2:1 (like me, as it happens, but I didn’t do Classics, and had an excuse) – may have a good memory, and obviously has a way with words and schoolboy jokes (although these are beginning to pall with me, and with most others, I guess). But a knowledge of the world, deep thought, ordinary morality, decency and critical thinking seem to be entirely lost on him. He may be a typical Etonian in these ways; if not a typical Classicist.

Now it looks as if he might come a cropper on account of the dishonesty, narcissism, laziness and utter disregard of what his ancient Romans used to call ‘vertù’, for which he’s been well known since his Eton days. Partly due to a couple of amusing appearances on Have I Got News for You, his Tory admirers decided that a ‘fun’ personality like his might cut though the serious (and boring) politics offered by his rivals, and by the Opposition; together with his (misleading) promise to bring a finish to the ‘boring’ Brexit shenanigans; and of course his many other lies. His rich capitalist and newspaper owner backers clearly – and cleverly – saw his clownish personality as something that would wow the plebs – ‘isn’t he a card!’ – at least until he ‘got Brexit done’, and Britain was set on the authoritarian path they had always hankered for for over eighty years: ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’. (That was the Daily Mail in 1934.) Then they could dump him for – who knows? I don’t trust many of them on that side, but they could be intelligent, which may be more dangerous. Maybe Boris’s stupidity is the only thing keeping Britain from a sort of fascism.

It’s interesting that if Boris does fall it will be only because of a Christmas party, held last year in the face of government – his own government’s – rules, rather than his other egregious crimes and misdemeanours. This may seem trivial; and might well be so if it weren’t for ordinary people’s complaining that they had to obey the rules, even if they they were thereby prevented from comforting their dying relatives, and while the police were breaking up wedding parties on the same day. Suddenly the ‘one rule for us, another for them’ accusation began to hit home, and even Corbyn’s ‘for the many, not the few’ slogan in the previous general election.  In the meantime – to return to my initial theme – we can see how ‘personalities’ can indeed affect history, if the deeper forces behind them choose their agents skilfully.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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3 Responses to Personalities and History

  1. The only real threat to Boris from his backbench seems to be if does the right thing and re-erects barriers against the spread of COVID.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was interested that you wrote: “the ‘great man’ theory of history doesn’t quite work, not for serious historians anyway”.
    Yet most ‘serious’ historians agree that it was Lenin’s browbeating of the Central Committee, after his return from Finland, that forced the Bolsheviks to undertake the October insurrection in 1917. Otherwise the Soviets would have undertaken a non-violent revolution at the end of that month, and the history of the twentieth century might have been quite different.

    Liked by 1 person

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