Think Johnson Has Had a Bad Week? He’s Achieved What He Wanted

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Yves here. IMHO, Johnson is such a deep seated narcissist that he’s incapable of having the bad outcomes of any of his actions dent his psyche.

By Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy’s special correspondent. You can follow him at @adamramsay. Adam is a member of the Scottish Green Party, sits on the board of Voices for Scotlandand advisory committees for the Economic Change Unit and the journal Soundings. Originally published at openDemocracy

Boris Johnson may not feel like it, but he has already achieved what he set out to achieve. Even the past week has been a ringing success for his political project.

Rolling resignations and endless speculation made for a captivating carnival. Breathless journalists announced they’d never seen anything like it, as though they were reporting on Simone Biles’ latest flips. Seasoned practitioners harrumphed that this isn’t how it was done in their day. And voters became more angry with politics than ever.

Johnson won his election in 2019 – and, in fact, his elections to the London mayoralty in 2008 and 2012 – by playing on the strong sense across the country that politics is broken, that “they’re all the same”, that “nothing ever changes”.

In his brief time in office he has intensified this anti-politics, deepened the sense of public distrust in the system. And that does wonders for those who promoted him.

This deeply embedded structure of distrust – which shapes much of politics across the Western world, but is particularly intense in the UK – didn’t just arrive by chance.

If neoliberalism was about shifting decision-making from the relative democracy of the mid-20th century to the market – in other words, from one person-one vote to one dollar/pound/euro/yuan-one vote – then it was also about pushing politics out of our daily lives and on to our TV screens.

Privatisation not Accountability

In the years of the social democratic consensus (basically, from the end of the Second World War to the late 1970s), there was a good chance that you would be employed by a nationalised company and live in council housing or a home whose rent was capped by the state. Political decisions at Westminster had a clear and direct impact on your life in fairly obvious ways. Announcements made at the dispatch box would have a direct and pretty rapid impact on the lives of millions.

After decades of privatisation, deregulation and spending cuts, the lines of accountability are tangled. Outsourcing means that, in England, if you have a health problem and call the NHS helpline 111, you reach one of a scattering of disconnected call centres run by a private US-based company called Sitel, who may well refer you to a clinic that is also run by another private company. And if something goes wrong and you want to complain, it’s not at all clear who you go to.

It’s the same in education, and elsewhere. More and more schools are run by academy chains with chief executives who have very little accountability to the local councillors you elect. Your gas and electricity bills aren’t set, as they once were, by nationalised companies, but by private businesses. You pay your train fares not to British Rail, but to one of an endlessly shifting background of brands, whose names all sound pretty similar.

If wages flatline and prices soar, driving people into poverty and the already poor into destitution, then that’s not a failure of government policy – it’s an unavoidable consequence of the natural forces of the market, the result of a baffling, tangled web that only the big boys understand.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. Instead, we’re told, anything we do try to do about it – like asking for a pay rise – will make things worse.

Performance not Participation

Politics has stopped being a negotiation about how we live together and has increasingly become a performance on our TVs or smartphones, a spectacle that we are supposed to watch, not take part in. Politics doesn’t happen in your daily life, but in Westminster.

And, most importantly, it’s totally shit. The whole point is that you’re supposed to hate it, to see it as venal, as cynical, as corrupt and as nasty. Political institutions are the only places capable of regulating the markets and the super-rich, so the less you trust them, the better it is for the markets and the super-rich.

The best way to ensure the public doesn’t trust political institutions is to promote people who are utterly untrustworthy. If you want people to see politics as corrupt, then corrupt it. If you want people to see it as venal, drive venal people to the top.

In Britain, this is a particular problem, and trust in our politics is particularly low, because our system hasn’t been corrupted at some point by a ruling class. It was designed by and for that class in the first place. We didn’t have some glorious historic revolution, only centuries of tweaks to a feudal system of lords and ladies, kings and queens, and commoners.

An End to This Twisted State

In the next few weeks and months, both Labour and the Tories under a new leader will present themselves as the best managers of this system, the people best placed to restore faith in this twisted state.

But it’s not faith in the British state we need. We shouldn’t try to restore trust in an inherently untrustworthy system. The reason the vast majority of people in the country don’t trust our political system is that they aren’t stupid. What we need is a new political system, built not on abstract trust in our governing class, but on genuine democracy.

Johnson’s political project was to destroy what trust was left in our politics, so that the market could hollow out what remains of our democracy and leave behind only a gameshow. Our job must be to ensure that what actually comes next is something much better.

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  1. GlassHammer

    “Anti-Democratic” politics (because in a western democracy being anti-institution or anti-system is the same as hating your own democracy) combined with “let the market decide” economic planning (which is essentially no economic planning) creates a crop of leadership totally unfit for office because it’s all just performative nonsense when new laws and new industrial planning are off the table.

  2. BenHM3

    Is he smart enough to have a goal like sowing distrust in the UK govt? I’ve always figured he’s just another facile-speaker pursuing his appetites.

  3. IMOR

    This is one of the very best- because so succinct- critiques of the neoliberal program (wherever found) that NC has posted and I’ve ever read. I’ll be ‘sharing’ it (something I nevr do). And in a sideways perspective on this piece, inflation and the return of strikes and the recast Cold War have many spewing the phony aphorism, “The Seventies were revenge for The Sixties” again, and if you invert this piece’s list under ‘Privatisation,’ you can see that the actual bogus slogan that should be applied is, “You never had it so good!” (The ’70s/’60s one is inauthentic both as to content and history, and because it was never aphoristic, being a construct only seen and heard once the PMC and its lapdogs got on board with the neoliberal/triangulation program in the mid- to late-’80s.)

  4. Susan the other

    This analysis rings true but I think there was something extraordinary involved. Boris is a class-A chickenhawk. It could have been his Achilles’ heel because this wholesale rejection of a Prime Minister is amazing. The British are patient when it comes to politics. But suddenly a few drunken parties is too much for them? I’d be inclined to suggest that the thing that brought Boris down was his arrogant interference in Ukraine. As an outsider to the EU Boris could take trips to visit Zelensky; could promise Ukraine high-tech weapons and could advise Ukraine how to prosecute their war. RT noted that Boris was a prime instigator of the Ukrainian decision to missile-bomb two Russian cities, and have said publicly, “The clown is gone.” Indeed he is. Even at the fateful Prime Minister’s Questions session when Boris mentioned the war in Ukraine as one of his “achievements” he was booed. And I can only imagine how the rest of the EU and NATO feel about him. He’s a loose cannon. Goodbye Boris.

    1. c_heale

      The people in the UK don’t care too much about foreign policy when it come to voting (although Blair was an exception among Labour voters). I suggest what is destroying Boris and his party are two things. The failure of Brexit – as evinced by ongoing problems which affect people (lower quality vegetables, businesses failing due to exporting/importing problems), as well as groups which have traditional supported him (the farmers are a prime example) everyday.

      The second are the massive rises in gas (home heating, not gasoline for US readers), and other bills, which are hitting everyone in the pocket (these rises happened before Russia went into Ukraine). This is only going to get worse. The fact that he (and the Conservative party) have not addressed this cost of living crisis, is really causing damage imo.

      “It’s the economy, stupid.” is truer than ever.

      Biden is failing for the same reason.

  5. jo6pac

    Sounds to me the same thing is happening here in Amerika under joe b. & he not the only potus to do this.

  6. Irrational

    Oy, what has Simone Biles done to deserve being associated with this? She is an outstanding athlete who has been abused by a sick system run by perverts.

  7. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Hallelujah to see this in print after being a voice crying in the wilderness for so long. From corporate management, to politics to the BBC, the UK remains a feudal country, albeit with tall buildings and electricity, run by and for the freeholding* Oxbridge elite, who are essentially the same Norman rulers who have been in charge since 1066.
    *The freeholder of a property owns it outright, including the land it’s built on. The leaseholder (e.g., the person who buys a flat) leases it for a fixed term lease. When the lease expires, the land and everything on it, including improvements, reverts to the freeholder.
    This system is how the 25-year-of Duke of Westminster has been described as now owning “half of London”.

    1. c_heale

      This is my opinion as a Brit citizen (and emigrant). Feudalism never died in the UK.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      That is a scream!!

      Thank heavens for the British sense of humor.

      That is deliciously, cuttingly satirical and raucously mocking…. the most wonderful thing about it was the stuffed-shirt reporters trying soooo very hard to ignore it blasting in the background as they did their interviews.

      Rich stuff.

  8. Pavel

    If you read or watch one thing about Boris make it this, by the inimitable (and NSFW) Jonathan Pie:

    Bye bye Boris [Youtube, 5 mins]

    There is more honest (brutally so, as deserved) commentary on Boris Johnson and the Tories in 5 minutes than in the past 5 years of media coverage by the Times, FT, Daily Mail, Grauniad etc.

    Enjoy and please spread to your friends and colleagues.

  9. Savita

    Alan Roxdale thanks for posting the link to a finale of The Thick of It. I’m just commenting because the comments beneath that particular youtube are really insightful observations and commentaries on politics and particularly UK politics!

  10. Savita

    Oh and recall as far back as the Brexit negotiations between Teresa May and the EU?
    Even in that halycon pre-Boris era, the principals for team EU were seemingly coming to certain decisions or arrangements with May based on the sense they were terrified of the possibility of her being removed and the EU having to deal with Boris in her place instead.

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