Boris Johnson has replaced Jeremy Corbyn as the political rule-breaker in chiefby Charlotte Leslie / October 31, 2019 / Leave a comment
I braced myself. The enormous bare arm enveloped me in an avalanche of enthusiasm and chest hair. “You’re alright you are,” my warm-hearted friend confided. “ You’re a bit posh, but you’re naughty, like us.”
It was 2015. I had been re-elected as a Conservative MP in Bristol, and now the summer had properly started. The afternoon sweltered, as befitted the annual festival of the local football club. Tops were off, torsos were out, and cider enjoyed with gusto. As the local MP, I felt nothing less than a civic duty to partake in at least a couple of cans of this merriment.
I was there by unspoken special permission. This was a proudly socialist, working-class Labour neighbourhood. To be welcomed to this event despite the stain of being a Tory MP was a badge of acceptance, which for me verged on the swelling pride of receiving a knighthood.
As I recovered from my embrace, the meaning of my constituent’s words began to sink in. I had become accustomed to frequently having to admit the obvious—I am a bit posh. So it was the second half of my friend’s sentence which intrigued me: “But you’re naughty, like us.” Remember, I was Tory, private-school and Oxford educated, and an MP. But apparently being “naughty” excused all this.
Naughtiness. “’Us’ against the system.” Insurgency. This is the spirit of today’s politics: from a Brexit-voting population which wants to smash the system of Europe and what are seen as the UK political elites, to Extinction Rebellion which wants to smash the system to save the planet. And this “naughtiness”—a perceived willingness to stand up against oppressive or damaging rules and elites—excuses any amount of actual establishment-ism.
Jeremy Corbyn, a career-long politician and soaked in establishment politics, understood this in the 2017 general election. Theresa May did not. As “beat-the-system” characters like Banksy stepped in to support Corbyn, the mantle of the insurgent fell firmly on to this career MP’s shoulders.
Marketing companies caught on to this new zeitgeist. The word “rebellion” became associated with entities like London property rental companies (look for Tipi’s “rental rebellion,” advertising campaign, featuring apparently comfortable middle-class tenants drinking nice wine, enjoying lower fees). Politicians and companies realised that being perceived as in some way “naughty” was gold dust.
In the wake of the 2017 general election, in which I lost my seat, I worried. I saw no evidence that the Conservative Party had even begun to understand this age of insurgence. I started (only half-jokingly) to plot a conservative graffiti campaign, peopled by balaclava-wearing young conservatives with spray cans, to reclaim what I saw as a distinctively Conservative idea—“power to the people.” Not power to the highly paid trade union rep in his flash car who talks about solidarity; not power to the unaccountable council chief executive; not power to the head of a multinational company.
The causes of this popular reaction to our modern world are not hard to understand. We live in a time where it is very easy to feel that everybody’s watching, but there’s nobody out there. Wherever we turn in our daily lives, we are met with facelessness. We battle through telephone options to speak to a human who can sort out our gas bill query. Automated machine voices tell us “I am very sorry for the delay to this service,” but who is this mysterious ‘I’?
The economist Wolfgang Streeck argues that global economics is driven by forces bigger than most can imagine and shaped by faceless credit rating agencies (the Marktvolke). These play a larger part in deciding how much money a state founded on debt can spend on public services than governments or their electors (the Staatsvolke). If he is right, it explains and justifies the deep sense of unease people have that control over their lives and their government is an illusion and that instead, they are caught in the gravitational pull of dark, faceless entities.
This is where insurgence, naughtiness, rebellion becomes attractive. Naughtiness has a face, it is a statement of individuality and agency—of humanity. Whether a robot or a system can be naughty is an interesting question. Our instinct is that naughtiness is a distinctly human thing. This is faces vs facelessness.
The population’s desire for a “face,” for “naughtiness,” for flawed humanity is disastrously vulnerable to manipulation and has perhaps found its expression in the election of Donald Trump. In the UK, it turns out that my concern about the Conservative Party’s lack of insurgent instincts was misplaced. As Corbyn sinks into a morass of stale zeal and confused Brexit policies, Boris Johnson has grabbed the mantle of the insurgent and is surging around with an energy for revolution that even an anarchist might find invigorating.
As the political class recoil at his rule-breaking antics—scruffy hair, dubious language and apparent blunders, alleged affairs, and of course controversial political decisions—their disapproval only heightens the electoral appeal of this Eton and Balliol-educated classicist, to a population hungry for reassurance that they are led by a human with a face, and not a machine. If traditional Labour voters in northern seats discard their party loyalty and hostility to Thatcher to vote for a man of Brexit, it is because Remain-Leave, and all it stands for, will have replaced the old Labour-Conservative divide.
That is the power of insurgency. “You’re a bit posh, but you’re naughty, like us.”