Britain’s imperial nostalgia should follow Johnson out

Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, pauses during a news conference inside No. 10 Downing Street in London, on March 9, 2020. (Bloomberg photo by Jason Alden)

Supporters of outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have turned on him after his downfall, accusing him of a breezy disregard for truth and integrity in public life. But no one can pretend that this fatal trait was previously unknown.

If Johnson’s journalistic career was distinguished by fake news and fabricated quotes, as well as racist and Islamophobic gibes, his personal life has been dogged by allegations of official favors to mistresses. A political career boosted by the falsehoods of Brexit and tainted further by almost every kind of scandal has confirmed that Johnson is little more than a posh rascal.

For people around the world who were consistently perplexed by his success, the questions always were: How did he manage to receive the biggest electoral mandate in decades in the world’s oldest democracy? How did the country’s once-respectable newspapers as well as its notorious tabloids become cheerleaders of a near-perfect embodiment of upper-class roguery?

The answer lies in part in the elite culture of empire – a social pathology that has uniquely stultified Britain, committing its political and media class, in the absence of empire, to empty, repetitive performances of the power and authority that leaked away long ago.

To gain a quick impression of it, you only have to glance at the image of Johnson preening, together with former Prime Minister David Cameron (a fellow alumnus of Eton), in tailcoats and bow ties at the Bullingdon Club, a riotous drinking club of privately schooled undergraduates at Oxford. This is a snapshot of Britain’s imperial style in its late and most decadent phase. Parodic and exaggerated, it is the source of such devastating acts of national self-harm as Brexit; Johnson represents its apotheosis.

The original embodiment of the over-promoted public-school boy – famously described by the writer Cyril Connolly as a case of permanent adolescence – was of course the imperial proconsul. Forged on the playing fields of Eton, this representative of the British empire often possessed no other quality than confidence in his ability to rule much of the world.

The numerous victims of his arrogance and incompetence in the colonies could clearly see his main vice: emotional aridity, an inability to empathize with or understand people other than his peers. Accordingly, Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi designed a method of anti-colonial resistance that aimed to reconnect India’s British overlords to their ethical and emotional lives, and to help them heal the damage caused by long years of isolation and abuse at boarding schools.

In Britain’s class-damaged society, however, the persona of imperial patrician turned into an ideal for the rest – a prerequisite for membership of the ruling elite. Indeed, a prodigious belief in one’s abilities, and fluency in expressing them, became the essence of an iconic and increasingly exportable Britishness as empire faded from view.

Expensive private schools and Oxbridge trained young men for a life of successful bluffing and posturing. In his new book, “Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK,” the Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper confesses disarmingly that Oxford trained him primarily “to write and speak for a living without much knowledge.”

Johnson’s seemingly erudite (and often inaccurate) invocations of Greek and Roman classics are one such late and quintessentially British performance of patrician power. It has certainly become globally seductive in an age of meritocratic aspiration. Opening branches of British boarding schools in their own countries, the elites of Asia seek to initiate their own children into the deportment of the British chumocracy.

With its lax regulations, Britain has also become “Butler to the World” – the title of a compelling recent book that describes how “Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals.” Recent revelations about the Emir of Qatar giving suitcases of cash to a royal charity, or Boris Johnson’s meetings with a rich ex-KGB agent, underscore how foreigners with money help polish the gloss on Britain’s imperial heritage.

The unavoidable problem is that the empire itself no longer exists. In the absence of its original source of power, wealth and prestige, Britain has trapped itself in a life of make-believe. As a result, the country’s ruling class keeps helplessly manifesting the same symptoms of imperial-era delusion, whether volunteering to quell the insurgent natives of Basra during the war in Iraq, promising to re-create “Global Britain” through Brexit, or offering to help Ukraine reclaim Crimea from Russia.

Meanwhile, the pseudo-imperial style rapidly coarsens as deep-rooted economic problems are laid bare, and the working classes and minorities become more assertive. Certainly, the British media prosecutes Johnson’s culture war against “wokeness” with crude vitriol rather than wit and elegance.

In a country where many people have come to fear loss of power and status, a proven scoundrel seemed the ablest upholder of the ancient right of entitled white men to say or do whatever they want, regardless of consequences. He seemed the best safeguard against a likely future of economic enervation and demographic diversity.

Of course, Johnson’s project for a grand confidence-boosting restoration – a mendacity-fueled Brexit – was always doomed to accelerate national decline and unleash mass immiseration and suffering of the kind once known in countries misruled by British imperialists. One can only hope that Johnson was the last expression of an imperial-era insouciance that long ago passed its sell-by date and turned toxic.



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