When Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019, we all knew – didn’t we? – that he was a bad character; or, as TV interviewer Eddie Mair put to him directly in 2013: ‘a nasty piece of work’. (See https://www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2013/mar/24/boris-johnson-accused-nasty-video.) Since then the evidence of his serial dishonesty and duplicity has been so overwhelming – even his own followers acknowledge it – as to leave no doubt.
But it raises questions. One is whether his rise was in spite of his bad character, or because of it. In other words – and of more general relevance – do you need to be ‘virtuous’ in politics in order to succeed? And if not, what other qualities will compensate for that? A cuddly image? Bertie Wooster-ism? Tousled hair? Seductive promises? Rich backers? Or will your ‘badness’ find you out in the end? – We may of course be about to have that last question answered in the next few weeks or months.
Another notion that has occurred to me is that perhaps the legacy of the old British Empire has something to do with all this. I’ve always argued – and indeed written books arguing – that the Empire left less of a mark on British politics, culture and society than many modern historians (‘post-colonialists’) have argued. I still hold to that. But there may be an important caveat to be made here, in the case of the class that used to run the Empire, and which did not simply wither away when the Empire did. The link here is my old bugbear Eton College (see https://bernardjporter.com/2021/04/28/floreat-etona/), and the other ‘Public’ schools which shared the same culture. (Sunak has just donated £100,000 to his alma mater, Winchester.) For in Victorian times one of these schools’ functions was to prepare boys to rule, often over ‘natives’ in the colonies, but also over the ‘lower classes’ at home. This wasn’t always oppressive, by the way; this was in the noblesse oblige era, before the schools had opened their doors to the sons of capitalists, which may be what eventually corrupted them. And George Orwell and Clement Attlee were two of their products.
But he word ‘lower’ is important here. ‘Ruling’ was conceived of as essentially de haut en bas: by a superior class over a separate and inferior species. The whole ethos of these schools – and their classical education, for example, especially the Roman bits – was predicated on this strict division of peoples between ‘rulers’ (them) and the ruled. Hence some of the most unlovely recent activities of the boys who attended these schools: distinctive dress-codes, burning £50 bills in front of beggars, trashing restaurants and then paying for the damage, snobbery, the whole ‘Bullingdon’ business, and the special vein of ‘humour’ that rested on sneering at the ‘lower’ orders. (Before you jump to conclusions, I never felt myself to be a target of this.) All these helped to emphasise the bifurcation of British society into ‘rulers’ and ‘ruled’. So it’s hardly surprising that in formulating their new regulations to make society safer during Covid, it never occurred to this ruling class that the same laws should apply to them too. Really. Hence ‘Partygate’; whose major significance may be in showing how our Public school-educated rulers perceive of their relationship with the rest of us poor proles; rooted in the history of these schools.