Britain’s shame: projections and substance regarding Boris Johnson

On Tuesday afternoon, a friend in Boston emailed to acknowledge that my country was now officially more embarrassing than his. This had been a bone of contention between us: him cringing at how Trump was eviscerating the reputation of the United States; me pointing to Brexit. But the elevation of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to Prime Minister of the UK had tipped the scales in our favour. Thus was my attempted sabbatical from political engagement brought to an unwelcome end.

On Wednesday, I had a disturbed night. I kept waking to the anxious residues of Johnson’s first day in office, as I absorbed the seizure of government by a clique of “nepotists, chancers, fools, flunkeys, flatterers, hypocrites, braggarts and whiners“ – as Nick Cohen put it, with uncharacteristic understatement.

On Thursday morning, I encountered a blogpost by Jenny Rogers offering a generous perspective on the new Prime Minister that I was in no mood to receive:

“As an executive coach I am interested in the person behind the myths, many of them assiduously generated by Boris Johnson himself. As I would with any coaching client, I look to his childhood. Here I see a bleak story of very young parents with a lot less money than their glossy family histories would suggest was likely. I see Boris as an eldest son with a sibling born only a year later and then with two further siblings, with a father who was struggling to establish himself as a journalist, politician and environmental campaigner, often absent and often involved with women other than his wife. I see a family short of money where they moved house 32 times. I see a fragile mother with serious mental health problems who was hospitalized for long periods and was then diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at only 40. I see a family where ‘discipline’ could be harsh and where sibling competiveness was enshrined and relentless. I see a marriage where, when Boris was only 14, his parents divorced.”

I regard Jenny as one of the leaders of my profession and this piece was appropriately challenging. But, I think, misplaced. However much compassion we bring to understanding Johnson’s formation, the fact is – in the words of the man who accepted a job in his Cabinet as Brexit enforcer – he “has no gravitas and is unfit to lead the nation.” Yet, there he is, installed as Prime Minister by 92,000 members of the Conservative Party, embarking on an extremist and perilous strategy for which he has no mandate from the wider electorate. How have we enabled this to happen and what do we do now? As an executive coach, I’m interested in the distributed leadership that shares responsibility for an outcome. Can it constrain over-reaching authority and chart a different course?

For all the talk of the UK’s exceptionalism – reflected both in Johnson’s narrative of plucky Britain and my attachment to the idea of us being the most embarrassing Western nation – it’s helpful to recognise that the hegemony of the braggarts is a virus that’s sweeping through other democratic states. John Lanchester, reviewing historically the developments we’ve been anticipating for some years on this blog, explains why:

“A period of credit-fuelled expansion and runaway financialisation ended with an abrupt crash and an unprecedented bank bailout. The public’s reward for assuming the bankers’ losses was austerity, which crippled the recovery and led to an interminable Great Recession. At the same time, increasing automation and globalisation, and the rise of the internet, kept first-world wages stagnant and led to an increase in precarity. Elites did fine, and in the developing world, especially Asia, economies grew, but the global middle class, mainly located in the developed world, felt increasingly anxious, ignored, resentful and angry. The decades-long decline in union power made these trends worse. The UK had its longest ever peacetime squeeze on earnings.​ In response to this the political right played one of its historically most effective cards – Blame the Immigrants – and achieved a string of successes from Brexit to Trump to Orbán to Bolsonaro to Salvini and the AfD, succeeding in normalising its new prominence to such an extent that a quasi-fascist party scored 34 per cent in the French presidential elections, which were nonetheless hailed as a triumph for the ‘centrist’ winner.”

Where Britain might be exceptional (though the US could follow) is that demagoguery has taken root not through insurgent parties but through the capitulation of its two main ones, left and right. It’s this, more than the fact of Brexit, that makes the present moment alarming. It’s also a significant factor in pushing us towards the most perilous form of Brexit. Though I would prefer the UK to stay in the EU, I would have been content (like, I suspect, most Britons back in 2016) if the Government had sought to honour the referendum result by engaging honestly with the trade-offs and bringing Remainers and Leavers together behind a judicious interpretation of the mandate. But the Brexit Ultras’ appropriation of the mandate in a way that recognised no boundaries put paid to that – assisted by the collusion of Labour MPs so anxious to be seen to be respecting the referendum that they forsook their job of opposing the Government.

I nursed hopes that the insurrection of the Tiggers, and in particular their refusal to be associated any longer with Labour’s antisemitism, might prove to be an inflection point. But not only did they lack organisational capability, they offered no critique of the trajectory described in Lanchester’s analysis – nor even the clarity of message on the Brexit crisis offered by the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage’s Brexit “party” (which is actually a limited company with no members). The Liberal Democrats may have seized the mantle of opposition to Brexit and are occupying a pleasing emotional space with a leader who is young, feminist and untainted by racism. But, as Chris Dillow observes, they too have nothing interesting to say on the economic underpinnings of the crisis:

“Jo Swinson justly attacked the ‘harsh, hostile politics’ of populism in which liberal values such as openness and freedom are ‘are under attack.’ She did not, however, address the question: is it really just a coincidence that intolerant politics should arise after economic stagnation? The answer is, of course, that it’s not. Ms Swinson, however, ignored the vast evidence accumulated … which shows that stagnation fuels illiberalism.”

Not only does politics need robust answers to stagnation and inequality, but those who worry about the anti-democratic turn need also to raise their game with respect to the form of politics. The Tiggers showed no grasp of the dynamics of networked leadership which now set the pace. Nor do the moderates in Labour who have allowed their party to be taken over not just by the Corbyn clique but also the networked agility of Momentum. In appointing Dominic Cummings as advisor, Johnson has engaged a strategist who demonstrated ruthless exploitation of networked politics in his leadership of the Vote Leave campaign – and who shows every sign of gaming the forthcoming general election in similar fashion.

As it happens, as Britain was sinking into the mire, an approach which combined a critique of inequality with progressive and optimistic networked leadership made a breakthrough in Turkey. Ekrem İmamoğlu won a significant election to be mayor of Istanbul, having had his earlier victory declared invalid by the authoritarian President Erdoğan. Instead of running a rancorous campaign of bitterness, he followed a strategy based on The Book of Radical Love, written by Ateş İlyas Başsoy. As Melvyn Ingleby reports, the strategy instructed supporters not to despise their opponents but to reach out to them:

“Başsoy’s work is based on the idea that polarization is closely tied to social life in a digital age. The constant use of mobile phones and social media, he argued, has introduced a form of restlessness and loneliness that stimulates anxieties and fears, which polarizing populists can feed off. To overcome such emotions, the Book of Radical Love proposes more patient and sincere forms of communication. It advises campaigners to talk less and listen more, be open-minded, avoid ideological debates – and, above all, avoid attacking Erdoğan or demeaning his supporters. ‘The first principle of Radical Love is very simple,’ Başsoy told me. ‘Ignore Erdoğan, but love those who love him.’”

Reading about radical love brought to mind the physicist David Bohm’s advocacy of dialogue as a means to address complex problems. In 1991, Bohm and co. wrote:

“In our modern culture men and women are able to interact with one another in many ways: they can sing dance or play together with little difficulty but their ability to talk together about subjects that matter deeply to them seems invariably to lead to dispute, division and often to violence. In our view this condition points to a deep and pervasive defect in the process of human thought … What makes this situation so serious is that thought generally conceals this problem from our immediate awareness and succeeds in generating a sense that the way each of us interprets the world is the only sensible way in which it can be interpreted. What is needed is a means by which we can slow down the process of thought in order to be able to observe it while it is actually occurring.”

You might say this is the coaching approach applied to politics – bringing listening to the fore and holding certainties lightly. It requires presence to the unfolding moment that fashionable cynicism might consider to be beyond the capability of most politicians. But I watched interviews last week with two politicians of different parties who have shown just this capacity to pause for thought. Here’s Rory Stewart:

And here’s Tony Blair (at 5’48” in):

Tony Blair’s former advisor, Jonathan Powell, has said only the coming together of moderates in different parties can stop the right-wing coup:

“For those of us who find it hard to stomach the idea of five years of a Johnson-Faragist government and the hardest of Brexits, the only possible way of stopping it is a coalition of progressive forces, from disenchanted moderate Tories to disgusted moderate Labour plus the Lib Dems and others, running on a common platform with the aim of forming a government of national unity.”

There are signs that just such a a coalition of progressives is forming. We should not underestimate the courage that it takes for politicians, who may have spent decades locked in tribal affinities, to cultivate the listening required to work together effectively across party lines. But it’s not just the responsibility of political leaders to show openness to their opponents. Members of the public too, who harbour concerns about where polarisation could lead, might consider loosening their attachments – be they the long-standing affiliations of party or the more recently formed ones around Remain or Leave. These affiliations can function as deep markers of identity, but they also constrain the space for politicians to respond creatively and responsibly to the crisis.

It’s a cliche to say that we get the leaders we deserve but more accurate to say we get the leaders we create. Jenny Rogers, in drawing attention to the person behind the myth of Johnson, highlights the hostility we project onto him. But what does it say about us that we have put into power a man who will tell us only infantile fictions about what lies ahead? Can we, as a nation, find the maturity to transcend what we have done?

Image courtesy Led By Donkeys.

5 thoughts on “Britain’s shame: projections and substance regarding Boris Johnson

  1. Martin….what a brilliant, considered and crystal clear analysis. Has lifted me from my impotence in the face of Brexit. I’m off to network!

  2. I also agree that whilst compassion is essential in protecting human connection developmental challenges from childhood cannot be used to excuse problematic behaviour in adults. A lesson from forensic psychology. Understanding plus accountability.

    1. Important point. Compassion is important in politics – even compassion for political leaders and not just their followers. But not only should it not excuse problematic behaviour, it should not obstruct us from understanding the political predicament we are in and taking wise action.

  3. I agree with above comments and feel some rising optimism that there is a way forward. Thanks Martin for your excellent analysis as ever in all your blogs.

  4. Thank you Martin, eloquent and nuanced. ‘We get the leaders we create’. It’s on us now. On both sides of the Atlantic. As we are taught in Adaptive Leadership, it’s time to put the work back to the people. I had been feeling uncharacteristically (for me) hopeless. Your piece reminded me of importance the work in front of us.

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