For people who live in the same country continuously, and never even read about ‘abroad’, the situation in their own country must appear normal. So it won’t occur to them that certain institutions they’ve grown up with are in fact highly ‘peculiar’ (to use the word sometimes applied to American slavery), and so not to be accepted unthinkingly. Britain currently has two institutions that fit that description, and which have, fortuitously or not, come together in the person of Boris Johnson.
Her first ‘peculiar institution’ is the (so-called) ‘Public’ school, with Eton college its most prominent example, and the trend-setter for the rest. Johnson of course is one of Eton’s alumni. The second peculiarity is the British popular press, which is widely regarded as one of the least ‘free’ in the world, and is ‘peculiar’ in the control exerted over it by right-wing millionaires, and its abandonment of objective news-reporting for blatant propaganda. Johnson, fresh out of Eton, was a journalist – of the ‘commenting’ kind, not an honest reporter – before he went into politics. So Britain’s two ‘peculiar institutions’ coalesce in him, quite uniquely. (Other Public school-educated Prime Ministers have done the occasional bit of journalism – Palmerston comes to mind – but not as their main professions.) Many people don’t fully realise how ‘peculiar’ – and peculiarly British – these institutions are.
The problem with the Public schools, of course, is that they distance their privileged products from the real world, and perpetuate values (Bullingdon?) which may be inimical to society generally. Popular journalism privileges style, controversy and sensation over substance, and actively encourages distortion and lying if they can be used to pursue propagandistic ends. ‘Exercising power without responsibility’, was how an earlier Conservative PM once put it; ‘the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ In other words, it can influence people without being held accountable for that influence.
As it happens there are a number of newspaper columnists I read and admire, especially if I share their prejudices; but I wouldn’t trust any of them – even the ones I agree with – to rule over me. (Or even bloggers, like me.) Luckily, before Johnson none of them did. Now our current Old Etonian and ex-Telegraph journalist PM reveals the dangers implicit in giving over the reins of power to someone schooled in these two ways. He’s an acknowledged disaster. We like to blame him for it; but our ‘peculiar institutions’ must share much of that blame.
On the other hand, Johnson could also be said to mirror a particular kind of ‘Britishness’; with Eton and the tabloid press (plus the Telegraph) reflecting characteristically and almost exclusively British values, in ways that most other allegedly ‘patriotic’ institutions – Crown, Parliament, the Church of England, the Empire – do (or did) not. In this sense he could be said to be the most ‘British’ prime minister we’ve ever had. True ‘patriots’, take note.
The public (private) schools with their emulators (grammar schools etc) and the conservative popular press are influential in encouraging individualism and competition (leading to arrogance and entitlement) instead of cooperation and communalism (leading to humility and a sense of public purpose), in England in particular. Maybe this is a reason British institutions don’t work (‘it looks as if we have got away with it’ said Johnson’s pps and the next UK ambassador to Saudia Arabia), and with an education system well below Finland and Sweden and the other European countries who come above Britain in OECD outcomes.