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Them’s the breaks

Why Johnson was never a postliberal

Artillery Row

For all his bluster and naked ambition, Boris Johnson’s premiership was strangely empty. It was not just the lack of bold policies but more fundamentally the absence of a governing philosophy. The metamorphosis from being a liberal mayor to being a populist PM betrays the void at the heart of his politics even as his character was always completely consistent. 

Obdurate optimism and a blind belief that “something will turn up” lie behind his complacent boosterism. Johnson embodied the lone hero who is beyond good and evil — a pagan pursuit of pleasure and personal profit combined with an unmediated will to power. Instead of being unprincipled, Johnson’s highest principle is sheer self-assertion and the championing of Caesarian revolts against norms that constrain his lust and greed. 

It is not the case that Johnson prefers pragmatism to principles or that he is anti-intellectual like so many members of the British establishment who read PPE at Oxford. Rather, he views himself as entirely beyond coherent worldviews just because he is supposedly endowed with the divine right to rule — a modern idea that harkens back to the absolute power of Antiquity. “Them’s the breaks” — Johnson’s reluctant recognition in his resignation speech that his time is up — reflects his profoundly pagan outlook of tragic heroism in a world of chaos where everything seems possible and nothing much changes. 

For all the disruption and drama, he leaves intact the Thatcherite/Blairite model of the “market-state” that centralises power in Westminster, concentrates wealth in the City of London and commodifies social life up and down the country. The revolutionary forces of creative destruction have merely served to hollow out an already brittle set of institutions — the BBC, the civil service, the armed forces. Not to mention the undermining of the monarchy that was dragged into his shameful attempt to prorogue parliament.

The pandemic exposed Johnson’s Conservative confusion

BoJo the political animal has only deepened people’s disgust for politics — not just the hypocrisy and lack of decency but also and above all the betrayal of promises to the people. He promised to get Brexit done, but the Northern Ireland protocol he negotiated is unravelling. Levelling Up has strengthened the stranglehold of the Treasury while deepening disparities of wealth and power. Britain has led the Western support for Ukraine but this cannot hide the hasty retreat from Afghanistan or the betrayal of France when signing up to the new AUKUS security pact with the US and Australia. Global Britain has done nothing to build a more resilient national economy with strong civic institutions.

Yet at the start of his time in office, Johnson had a unique opportunity to put in place a new model that reflects the preferences of a popular majority. The 2019 victory looked like a once-in-a-generation realignment of British politics, with working-class voters in Labour’s former heartlands switching to the Tories and the Labour Party suffering its worst defeat since 1935. A new winning consensus appeared to emerge: “left on the economy” and “right on culture”. But it was not postliberal.

From the outset, the Johnson government struggled to define a coherent position. It broke with the socio-economic liberalism of Blair and Cameron but combined Keynesian state activism with deregulated free trade. It flirted with social conservatism but embraced a brand of state centralism that undermines community and does little to support the family. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, I argued that the Tories had power without purpose: dreaming up revolutionary reforms that would unleash the forces of technology and accelerated capitalism and so deepen divisions just when the country needs a national politics of the common good. It was disruption for its own sake with ill-thought out Hayekian antecedents.

The pandemic further exposed Johnson’s Conservative confusion: Caught between libertarian instincts and statist solutions. Appearing to “follow the science” but breaking lockdown rules. Hostile to local devolution yet being an incompetent centralizer. Invoking the “will of the people” while failing to foster communal solidarity.

Just when Brexit and Covid demanded a radical yet prudent rebuilding of Britain, Johnson doubled down on his status as an “establishment insurgent” who seeks to remake the state in his own image. Public virtue was dismissed in favour of private greed and lust, while proper constitutional government became debased into democratic demagoguery — the rule of the manipulated masses who are educated into the belief that there is no value except individual self-assertion. 

We have witnessed the fusion of state centralisation with crony capitalism

Johnson embodies the will to freedom as liberation from limits on human volition. It is in reality a will to power of some over others and essentially the strong over the weak — the wealthy, healthy and powerful over the poor, the vulnerable and downtrodden. The reference in his resignation speech to “our brilliant and Darwinian system” speaks volumes about his contempt for social virtues of loyalty, humility and charity.

In line with his pagan beliefs, Johnson embraces the myth that the gods somehow manipulate our egotistic wills and even our vices behind our backs. This occurs in such a way as to make will balance will and vice balance vice to produce a simulation of economic and political harmony — as in the exiled Huguenot Bernard Mandeville’s dictum “private vice, public benefits”. Unsurprisingly, Johnson has not done anything much to defend the things that traditional conservatives care about: the family, community, morality in public life, cultural heritage or national identity.

Going “left on the economy” and “right on culture” looked like Johnson’s embrace of post-liberal ideas but turned out to be little more than ultra-liberal economics and anti-liberal culture wars. Just like Johnson’s ethic is pagan not Christian, his politics is defined by liberalism not post-liberalism. What comes next will likely be more liberal, but Johnson is firmly part of a Tory generation that since Thatcher has betrayed the best One-Nation traditions of conservatism. 

Tory leadership candidates should be judged on whether they offer a vision that reflects broad popular preferences for economic radicalism and social moderation. Most people are broadly communitarian: somehow small-c conservative in their approach to matters of state, law and order, and small-s socialist on public services, fair play and hard work. They cherish liberty but value authority too.

The space for postliberal politics remains wide open. Brexit shone a light on the deep disparities of wealth and power that revealed the errors and excesses of socio-economic liberalism. The pandemic highlighted our mutual dependence on one another and a deep desire for community. But since then, we have witnessed the fusion of state centralisation with crony capitalism in ways that threaten both freedom and fraternity. There is a popular majority that is attached to ancient freedoms and solidarity, but no party currently has a coherent vision capable of defending both.

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