The likely next prime minister may think that rules are for other people but the country does notby Rafael Behr / July 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
The clue was in the kipper. Boris Johnson brandished a packet of smoked fish on stage at a hustings event last week to illustrate an argument about business and Brexit. The frontrunner in the Tory leadership contest is famously articulate, yet the silent kipper was, in its own way, more eloquent. Johnson’s fable turned out to be a fiction. He said it was “Brussels bureaucrats” who insisted that the processed fish make its way from plant to customer on “ice pillows”—a foreign imposition of “pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging ‘elf and safety’.”
But the fish bore different testimony (with a bit of translation assistance from the European Commission). “The case described by Mr Johnson falls outside the scope of EU legislation,” an official explained. Refrigeration was an act of obedience to domestic rules. But inconvenient facts do not disturb Britain’s next prime minister. His career stands on an edifice of mangled facts and buried truths about the UK’s relationship with the EU. As Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the late 1980s he invented the journalistic genre of eurosceptic myth-mongery—concocting phantasmagorical applications of dull regulations and selling them to audiences back home as a conspiracy by wacky and wicked continentals against the British way of life. (Straightened bananas, prohibitions on prawn cocktail flavoured crisps, etc.)
It is a process Johnson once described as “chucking rocks over the garden wall” in order to relish the “amazing crash from the greenhouse next door in England.” The metaphor is doubly illuminating. It contains the assumption that vandalism is a kind of recreation and it admits that the real damage is ultimately being done on the UK side of the fence.
The kipper stunt represents Johnson going back to his propagandist roots. On the eve of fulfilling his lifelong ambition he retreats to a rhetorical comfort zone. The parable of the smoked fish is meant to transmit an ideological and economic message as well as a cultural one. It is about an idea of “Europe” as antithesis to free enterprise.
Johnson is not a man with many fixed principles, but there is a consistent libertarian thread that runs through his written and oratorical output. (It blends with a libertine streak in his personal life.) He finds rules of any kind burdensome. He is a flouter of car seatbelt laws…