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Boris Johnson – Britain’s angel of redemption

February 8, 2022

If I was a religious person, I might well theorise that Boris Johnson is an angel sent by God to remind us that what goes up usually comes unglued. Just as people get sick, recover or don’t recover, so do societies. And just as people, as they rage against the dying of the light, deceive themselves into believing against the evidence that they’re still young when they’re on the road to decrepitude, so do societies believe charlatans who tell them that thanks to them a great national revival is nigh.

Leaving God out of the equation, perhaps we should thank Johnson for his corruption, incompetence and bombastic lying. Just as we should be glad that the Brexit dividend promises to be endless chaos, re-opened wounds, stunted economic growth and megatons of additional red tape. We should also thank COVID for reminding us that without a multi-national workforce we would have been incapable of muddling through the pandemic with only 150,000 deaths. And we should pay tribute to Jacob Rees-Mogg for showing us that a top-flight education is a neutral thing. Like a decent suit, it can be used to hide the ugliness within, especially if it equips us with an array of long words that most of us don’t understand when defending the indefensible in TV interviews. Because every dodgy turn this government makes is a stab in the heart of our destructive self-belief.

Politicians in every country like to make the case that their nation is special. But we British seem over the past few decades of decline to have turned positive self-image into psychosis. The less our power and influence, the more our masters talk it up. Which leaves us with half the country believing them and the other half depressed by the awful truth.

Nowhere is that tendency more evident than in my MSN “news” feed. Not a day goes by when The Daily Express (a paper I haven’t read in print for fifty years or so) doesn’t trumpet some brilliant “Brexit Success”. Likewise the Daily Mail, which recently had a bit of a Prague Spring under a new editor that was duly crushed when the old one returned with his immigrant-bashing, judge-smearing, Boris-boosting headlines.

The Guardian and The Independent, however, tell us the bad news, which is no less demoralising than the good because either way, you end up feeling manipulated. What is truth – the conundrum of our times.

So yes, Boris Johnson is doing us a favour. By making us a laughing-stock among our international peers, by enabling fraud and corruption on a massive scale, by placing talentless nonentities in key ministerial positions, by undermining the rule of law and eroding many of our precious institutions, not least the National Health Service, he is shattering any illusions we may still cherish about who and what we are as a nation. Not special. Not punching above our weight. Not softly powerful. Just one country among many, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and failings.

You could argue that it’s only taken us eighty years to get to this point. But Boris Johnson has delivered the coup de grace to our illusions of grandeur.

And that’s no bad thing.

I’m currently reading Checkmate in Berlin, Giles Milton’s gripping account of a city in ruins after the fall of the Nazis, pillaged and raped (literally) by the Stalin’s conquering armies, its people left starving and helpless among the rubble. Milton’s book, and Harald Jahner’s Aftermath, an account from the perspective of the defeated Germans, are telling reminders of what a desperate starting point Germany faced after the war. Its moment of humiliation was more devastating and traumatic than ours. A dramatic implosion rather than a slow wasting disease. And yet it took until the 1960s before a new generation of Germans came to terms with the bestiality of the Nazi regime and of those who supported it. Those who survived the collapse put the Holocaust and other crimes into a dark closet and kept the door locked. It was all they could do to survive from day to day. They saw themselves as the victims until their children outed them as perpetrators. Unlike Germany, we have never been forced to come to terms with our failings. Until now.

As Sathnam Sanghera points out in Empireland, in which he explores the legacy of the British Empire in terms of its effects on modern mindsets, many of us British are still in denial about the negative consequences of our rise to global prominence. We are only now arriving at a sense of historical balance, three centuries since the beginning of the slave trade and the foundation of our empire. It’s a painful process, and even now it causes us to re-evaluate what it means to be “great”.

Is greatness about power, wealth and prosperity, even if it’s at the expense of others? Or is it about cooperation, compassion and fairness? Is it about ruthless self-reliance, or is it about our contribution to great projects designed to secure the future both of our own species and all the others with which we share our planetary home?

And what of humiliation, since that’s a commonly-used word to describe our current situation? Does being humbled make you humble? Not usually. It tends to make the humbled lash out. And depending on your political outlook, there are plenty of convenient scapegoats to blame.

But Boris Johnson and his minions are doing us all a favour by showing us that arguably we only have ourselves to blame for our humiliation. If we start from that point, perhaps we can buy into a concept of greatness very different from the flag-waving, zero-sum, petty patriotism peddled by the shower we elected over the past decade.

So thanks Boris. You’ve helped us to come face to face with our awful truth. You’ve given us the opportunity to see ourselves as we really are. We may fall deeper into your pit of self-deceit and mediocrity. But at least we can see a way out. And we can start by discarding the great from Great Britain. Call me a miserable, self-righteous git if you like, but good would be good enough for me.

From → Books, Politics, UK

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