Argument

Boris Johnson’s Cartoon Englishness Is a Dangerous Joke

The likely British prime minister doesn’t take anything seriously—even the country’s future.

Conservative Party leadership candidate Boris Johnson gestures during a visit to the construction project to expand Terminal Two at Manchester Airport in England on July 9.
Conservative Party leadership candidate Boris Johnson gestures during a visit to the construction project to expand Terminal Two at Manchester Airport in England on July 9. Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images

Crikey. Gadzooks. Crumbs. Top hole, chaps. Um, gosh.

These are the exclamations of a mythic Englishman, the sort of person who excels at slaughtering small animals (tally-ho!), driving old cars at improbable speed (how spiffing!), and upsetting lily-livered foreigners (Frogs and Krauts and whatnot). In practice, no one in real life speaks like this, except in moments of parodic theatricality or out of a risible desire to be thought la-di-da. No one apart from Boris Johnson, that is.

Born in 1964, the same year as Michelle Obama and Keanu Reeves, the politician known to the public simply as Boris has positioned himself as a cartoon character, constantly extricating himself from absurd scrapes with a lusty woof of defiance. In the eyes of his detractors, he is a throwback to an age of upper-class idiots convinced of their own superiority. To his fans, he is a relic of a lost imperial glory, the days when a boy could go straight from the University of Oxford to ruling a large chunk of Africa. For those in between, he can seem like an amusing though hardly innocuous fiction: the unsinkable uttering the unthinkable.

Johnson stirs memories of Charles Hamilton’s creation Billy Bunter, the eternal schoolboy whose sloth and cunning are the ingredients of unlikely triumph, or the patrician P.G. Wodehouse character Bertie Wooster, a fumbling fantasist who’s always “in the soup” and takes nothing very seriously. At his most insouciant, he calls to mind Bertie’s observation, of a volcano, that “you can go around thinking it’s been extinct for centuries, and suddenly you’re covered in red-hot lava.”

Although Johnson’s image is carefully crafted—his family and friends call him  “Al,” not “Boris,” reflecting the fact that his given names are Alexander Boris de Pfeffel—the privilege is real. As a product of Britain’s most famous private school, Eton College, he is, by most people’s definition, a member of the gilded elite. The truth is a little less straightforward, and he has protested, accurately, that “I’m not posh, I’m an arriviste.” Yet his Wodehousian language, easily misread as a mark of social climbing or aristocracy, is evidence of neither. Instead it signals an appetite for mischief.

One of Johnson’s most uncomfortable moments was a TV interview in 2013, during which the veteran broadcaster Eddie Mair asked him a series of difficult questions about his past. Johnson was clearly ruffled, yet he still looked as though he might at any moment come up with a truly show-stopping retort. What’s more, there was a part of him that was amused by the criticism. It was a reminder of countless previous wiggings from his political colleagues and fellow journalists and his housemaster at Eton. Wasn’t this really just another Bunterish predicament? One waited (in vain) for him to say that “boys will be boys.”

Yet “boys will be boys” is Johnson’s approach not just to life, but also to politics—one that treats statecraft as a series of naughty exploits. These are accompanied, as in a comic book, by explosions and expostulations. “Crikey” is only a whisker away from “Achtung” and “Kapow.” Among the key features of this rowdy derring-do is a disdain for anything deemed boring: authority figures, rules, abstract notions, political philosophy, intellectuals. It’s not hard to see how this might translate into an abhorrence of the European Union.

At Eton, Johnson was known as the Yeti. It’s the sort of nickname the British upper classes bestow on those they favor; the more rebarbative the moniker, the more it’s a badge of distinction. By contrast, anyone who’s likened to a saintly or noble figure is being tagged as an object of mockery. When Johnson’s schoolmates referred to him as the Yeti, they were paying tribute to his air of wildness, his untamed hair, and (maybe) his giant footprint. They were also being riskily jocular in a way that he has endlessly replicated.

Johnson delights in quotability. That’s hardly a rare quality in a politician, yet he specializes in an unusual, pungent irreverence. It’s the sort of frisky flippancy that cuts a dash at boarding school, where a degree of puckish verbal dexterity can save a student in a tight spot. It’s also likely to impress jaded journalists and armchair observers used to politicians whose stock in trade is the droopy platitude. Johnson doesn’t do droopy. Instead he’s robustly resilient, even feeling able to retreat from making a particularly dubious statement with the words, “No, it’s total bollocks, isn’t it?”

In 2004, commenting on Tony Blair’s elusiveness, Johnson compared the then-prime minister to “a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet.” That same year he dismissed newspaper stories about his private life as “an inverted pyramid of piffle.” Responding to the former actor and then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s criticism of one of his speeches, Johnson reflected, “It was a low moment to have my rhetorical skills denounced by a monosyllabic Austrian cyborg.” And he once remarked that he stood as much chance of being prime minister as he did of “being reincarnated as an olive.” (Given the latest polls, future generations may want to check their martinis.)

There are two different strands here that need distinguishing. On the one hand, Johnson favors a passe form of exclamation that makes him seem unthreatening. Every time he says “Cripes,” it calls to mind a short-trousered scamp who has just set aside his slingshot in order to inspect a mysteriously broken window. It’s a powerful archetype in English children’s literature, from Dennis the Menace to Just William. On the other, he can vociferate with vivid originality. Not for him the soupy dullness of officialdom.

Terms that are partly derived from the British comic The Beano and partly shaped by a horror of political cliche don’t make Johnson Demosthenes or Winston Churchill. But to his fans they are evidence that he is authentic and untroubled by vanity. He hasn’t had his lexis (or his dress sense) microscopically tweaked by spin doctors. Even when he expresses ambition, it’s in forms far more palatable than those of his peers—in part because they’re couched in almost childish terms. His mother, the artist Charlotte Johnson Wahl, explained that as a child he spoke of wanting to be “world king,” and there’s surely, so the theory goes, something quite endearing about that.

Johnson has noted, with justice, that the public regards the political class as remote because “too often they feel we are muffling and veiling our language” and “not speaking as we find.” At a time when business jargon creeps into every other department of existence, he prides himself on an unvarnished candor.

Colorful words make Johnson seem approachable. Consider another Eton scholar, George Orwell, who argued that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Orwell thought that the whole realm of political discourse was tainted by decayed metaphors and “sheer cloudy vagueness.” Johnson, you can be sure, has read Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” and has imbibed the principle that revitalizing the way one talks about the big issues is the route to political regeneration.

Yet while an aversion to euphemism and pedantry is refreshing, Johnson’s authenticity feels manufactured. Bumbling is not the opposite of hubris, and dishevelment can be an affectation. Johnson has created a brand, but because the packaging is so unslick, it’s easy to think that it is nothing of the sort. Conrad Black, at one time his employer at the Daily Telegraph, encapsulates it thus: “He’s a sly fox, disguised as a teddy bear.”

Johnson’s language is essential to this. What’s more, it is redolent of an England that no longer exists and maybe never existed. From a political standpoint, that’s useful. Many devotees of Brexit are nostalgic for the Britain, and especially the England, of 30 or in fact 60 years ago—a society that, as they would have it, is blissfully free from politically correct pieties and po-faced killjoys. The actual Britain of 1989 or 1959 didn’t look that much like their fantasies—but that doesn’t matter, any more than it does that Bertie Wooster was a frothy creation of Wodehouse’s imagination instead of a realistic portrayal of a 1920s aristocracy more attached to cocaine than capers.

When Johnson lets rip with a “Crikey,” it’s a riposte to the killjoys, the equivalent of saying, “Can’t you take a joke?” The answer, of course, depends on what the joke’s about and whether it’s funny.

In March this year, Johnson spoke of money spent on probing allegations of historic child abuse as being “spaffed up a wall,” and during his spell as foreign secretary he apparently referred to the French as “turds.” His newspaper columns abound with similar turns of phrase that can be cited without the need for a cautious “apparently.” In 2013, turning his attention to the question of Gibraltar, he wrote of wanting to “prise Spanish hands off the throat of our colony.” He has imagined the Queen being greeted, as the she tours the Commonwealth, by “cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies,” and has criticized Muslim women who wear the niqab: “It is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” Words such as “piccaninnies” and “spaffed” are artisanal bigotry, not the mass-produced stuff.

These are instances of Johnson at his most provocative. But even when examined more broadly, his language has the sweet-and-sour tang of teenage irresponsibility—and when it’s sour, it’s very sour indeed. It recalls an age in which reckless upper-class youths routinely grew up to be important decision-makers. The giddy laxity of adolescence was something those captains of the ruling class never quite shed, and they were likely to slip back into it at times of crisis or when surrounded by members of their own caste.

Much is made of Johnson’s membership, while an Oxford undergraduate, of the infamous Bullingdon Club. Most of the time the activities of this secretive all-male dining society are invisible to their fellow students. One result is that even those who revile it as a symbol of Britain’s inequalities imagine it might be a rather urbane clique with its own racy argot. The reality is disappointing. The theme tune for the club’s antics isn’t some witty song or elegant Latin ode but instead a mindless chant: “Buller, Buller, Buller.”

This is the sound of giant babies smashing up their nursery. Except that the Bullingdon’s signature maneuver is to trash other people’s things—staircases, windows, restaurants—and then pay for the damage. From the perspective of the electorate, this isn’t the ideal grounding for political life. “Officer, we’re all terrifically sorry about the mess we’ve made. Aren’t we? Crikey!”

 

Henry Hitchings is the author of three books about language and two about Johnson (Dr Samuel, not Boris). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in London.

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