Neither can offer any argument about Britain’s role in the world today—let alone a convincing oneby Rafael Behr / October 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
When Theresa May appointed Boris Johnson as her foreign secretary in 2016 she did not expect him to do the job well, or really do it at all. The former prime minister knew that Johnson had neither the discipline nor the discretion to serve as the country’s top diplomat, but she needed pro-Brexit figures prominent in her government. One Downing Street advisor told me that Johnson was over-promoted to set him up for failure. May thought his unsuitability for high office would be exposed and so the prospects of him ever becoming prime minister would be ruined.
If that was indeed the plan, only the first half of it worked. No one thinks Johnson was an able foreign secretary. He avoided the subject when pitching his candidacy to be party leader this summer, preferring to dwell on his record as Mayor of London. Tory members were not bothered by Johnson’s gaffe-strewn, bungled stint at the FCO. If anything, it was a recommendation, burnishing his credentials as a man unbothered by foreign sensibilities; an upsetter of diplomatic apple carts. Boorishness laced with classical allusion is apparently what the Conservative faithful felt had been missing from May’s Brexit strategy.
Johnson does not promote an insular political view as such. He thumps the tub for something called “Global Britain,” but that is a rhetorical trick. It is a device to re-package a parochial, nostalgic idea of the UK as something dynamic and modern. The premise is that Brexit liberates Britannia from her continental shackles so she can go commercial buccaneering on the high seas, as of yore. This gratifies the deep-rooted Tory resentment of European Economic Community accession in the context of the early 1970s—a period of national disorientation and dread of decline. The glories of Empire were receding from view and continental economies, in a display of uppity ingratitude for their salvation from fascism, had caught up with, and in some cases overtaken Britain.
It is revealing that Johnson’s keynote speech in Manchester this week contained no foreign policy beyond the EU question, and it was opaque on that subject. Brexit was treated not as a project to define the nation’s future but as an obstacle to be cleared for the pursuit of Johnson’s immediate electoral future. The urgent point was that it be done, out…