The latest Boris Johnson collection has lots of laughs and little substanceby / June 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
Contrary to his own belief, Boris Johnson’s political success has only a few parallels with that of Winston Churchill. One notable similarity is how they both rest their success on a combination of basic political skill and an ability to be universally entertaining. In The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson (Bloomsbury, £9.99), the latest collection of Boris ephemera, he is on spectacular form.
Johnson has produced a small whale of journalistic patter over the course of his career, on which he has secreted many barnacles of genuinely quotable brilliance. Their quality lies in the absolute perfection with which he pitches his irony. He has managed to say vulgar things only because he is joking, and yet make it clear he is joking only by being vulgar. Take this, on Prince Harry’s recent adventures in Nevada: “I think it’d be disgraceful if a chap wasn’t allowed to have fun in Las Vegas. The real scandal would be if you went all the way to Las Vegas and didn’t misbehave in some trivial way.”
This entertainment is conceived, written and presented by a one-man cast and draws heavily on a true story. The evidence suggests that although Johnson is a ruthless political operator, his success is mainly based on his talent for humour: as he puts it, “I think it’s important to remember that most people find politics unbelievably dull, so I don’t see any particular vice in trying to sugar the pill with a few jokes.” The methods Johnson has used in his social mountaineering are not remotely original. In politics, as in so many other fields of life, simply being known is a good way of getting on. It is merely to be taken for granted that celebrity will lead to political support regardless of actual ability. By getting people to enjoy paying attention to him, Johnson can automatically catapult himself above the Commons herd.
The problem comes when he attains significant political office—and Mayor of London, second city of the global elite, is certainly that. Johnson used his celebrity to become CEO of a city he was not an MP for and had hardly lived in until his 30s. Just as he has scarcely bothered to cultivate a geographic power base, so he lacks any serious ideological pillars, beyond a somehow inevitable and predestined marriage to the Conservative party. As such, there are dribs and drabs but mostly this book is weak on political substance.
Johnson describes himself as a libertarian. Unlike virtually every Conservative politician he is opposed to crackdowns on immigration, for example, writing of the stereotype that thinks of immigrants as old men “cooking goat curry on campfires made of broken-up domestic furniture and ruthlessly winning the affections of the daughters of the house.” This sort of thing is about as far as his politics goes. For every (flippant) brooding on Gaddafi or the euro comes a smattering of Latinate verse, a weak pun on some transient political meme or—most frequent of all—a discourse on women and the things he can do with them.
Perhaps Johnson’s substance lies elsewhere. In a tremendous introduction, editor Harry Mount shows Johnson’s wit to be deeply rooted in his classical education. Johnson is oddly obsessed with the ancient world. Andrew Gimson, one of his biographers, puts this down to the pompous power worship of the ancient Romans, coupled with the oratorical whizz of the Greeks. Whatever the case, our hero’s commitment to the subject is at odds with most of his colleagues in the political class, for whom possessing genuine enthusiasm for academic subjects is usually seen as ridiculous at best.
This will not be the last collections of Boris Johnson quotations. His fame shows no signs of ending, any more than his political luck; as he puts it, “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.” But the last word should go, not to our hero, but to an early object of his political scorn, some Brussels civil servants he offended when a Europe correspondent in the 80s: “We answer his attacks, but the problem is that our answers are not funny.”