Boris Johnson and the art of self-deception
Sunday National, September 8th 2019
Boris Johnson has long had a problematic relationship with the truth. When a journalist, he was fired from ‘The Times’ for making up a quote; in the last month as UK Prime Minister he stated that he was in favour of proroguing Parliament when he publicly said he was against it, claimed to be against having an election he was planning and then for holding a contest, and saying that he is negotiating a Brexit deal with the EU, while preparing for a No Deal Brexit.
One month ago at the Edinburgh TV Festival, the head of Channel 4 news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne said that Boris Johnson was a ‘known liar’ and needed to be called out as such by news outlets. This was met with controversy in many media circles, and led to Downing Street cancelling an agreed Johnson interview on ‘Channel 4 News’.
There is a long political tradition of lying in politics: infamously in recent times, Tony Blair and the Iraq war, Bill Clinton and his ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ comments in relation to Monica Lewinsky. Before that, Anthony Eden lied to the Commons on the Suez invasion and had to resign; John Profumo and the sex scandal with Christine Keeler; and Margaret Thatcher and the infamous case of the Argentinian cruiser the Belgrano which she claimed was sailing towards the British task force when it wasn’t.
All of these politicians were diminished by the above examples, and in some cases defined by them: Blair being the most obvious. Today the political environment has changed and we seem to live in an age of shameless political liars and bloviators from Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in the UK to Donald Trump in the US.
Part of the story is the world of populism and its righteous anger waging a faux war on supposed liberal elites who have sold the people down the river. This acts across the Western world as a brilliant framing device, putting long established institutions and mainstream politicians on the back foot and giving cover for a new culture of reaction.
A key ingredient in the case of Boris Johnson is class and the English so-called ‘public’ school system, with its entitlement and belief in their own talent, superiority, and effortless right to rule. Johnson at an early age said he wanted to be ‘king of the world’, and Sonia Purcell in her meticulously researched biography, ‘Just Boris’, wrote that he ‘seems to lack vision or moral convictions’ and that this has led an adult life without any real, obvious ‘substantive achievements’ beyond the pursuit of power for its own sake.
More recently, on his accent to power she damningly reflected on Johnson that ‘his casual relationship with the truth and often callous disregard of others, has caused many people who have worked closely with him to question his fitness for office.’
The opposite point of view is put by LBC broadcaster Iain Dale who judges that the tales of Johnson as a liar are over-exaggerated, stating: ‘I don’t believe Boris Johnson tells lies any more than anyone else. He’s a controversialist and writes to provoke sometimes.’
Dale concedes that ‘there are instances where he verges on the edge of the truth, but name me a politician that doesn’t. That’s not to excuse it, and one would hope that as Prime Minister any evidence on non-truthfulness will be difficult to spot!’
Cambridge academic David Runciman over a decade ago wrote an influential ‘London Review of Books’ essay on lying in politics, and made the distinction between what he described as ‘sincere liars’ and ‘upright hypocrites’. The former are politicians ‘who are sincere but untruthful’, while the latter are ‘those who are honest but hypocritical’ and visibly struggle with their own character. In the first group, he included Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and David Cameron, and in the second, Gordon Brown and Al Gore.
He argued that for many voters the charming persuasion of Blair or Cameron – at their peak masters at the art of presenting a case and believing themselves in their own self-deception – was attractive. And that it was seen as preferable to seeing and feeling someone struggle with and torture themselves with their own moral compass such as Brown or Al Gore.
Boris Johnson has, judging by his own words and actions, never seen telling the truth as a standard he believes he has to live by and be judged by. This damning view of him as a political chameleon and charlatan used to be held by the mass of the Conservative parliamentary party, until earlier this year, and the electoral drubbing the Tories got in the European elections. And hence in desperation Tory MPs have decided that they are prepared to sup with the devil, being fully aware of what they are doing.
Johnson one imagines does not see himself in such a light. He probably does not think of himself as a man with a proven problem with truth. Instead, he seems to believe that he can operate in a different moral universe to the rest of us, and be judged by a different set of standards.
What makes him think this? His entire life experience, of class, privilege, being told by others of his ‘brilliance’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘unique qualities’, and of convincing himself that he is a born communicator, wordsmith, scholar and storyteller. In short a man whose destiny is, like Winston Churchill who he invokes and has written a cut and paste biography of, to answer the call when he is needed in national crisis.
This is political statesmanship as self-mythology and without putting the work in and establishing what you stand for, what you want from politics and what your philosophy of public life is: all of which Churchill did in spades.
Johnson is not just a chancer and a bounder, but someone who believes that grasping the finer points of detail or doing the requisite background work is the sort of thing for little people and not for the likes of him. His two year stint as UK Foreign Secretary was proof of the limits of this approach: a sort of ‘little Englander’ upper class dilettantism which looked down on people who actually check facts, and whose nadir was the case of the British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe held in an Iranian jail.
Johnson casually and inaccurately told a select committee that she had been in Iran to teach journalism, which the regime jumped upon. He subsequently refused to apologise for his remarks: a standard Johnson pattern of blustering his way out of his own mess. He was at it again at his first Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, when asked to apologise for his ‘Daily Telegraph’ column comparing women wearing burkas and hijabs to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’; no apology came forth or any sign of self-reflection on the power of words of this supposed wordsmith.
Johnson’s self-serving story of his importance is one where the only enduring achievement he has contributed to has been the creation of the folklore of ‘Boris’: a character which many others have had a hand in creating and contributing to: the role of BBC’s ‘Have I Got News For You’ being pivotal. This fictional creation – of the chummy, bumbling, apparently good-natured ‘Boris’ masks a calculating, ruthless, self-serving politician, and is arguably, the biggest and most important deception he has attempted to sell to the public.
The creation of ‘Boris’ contributed to him winning the London Mayoral elections in 2008 and 2012, on both occasions defeating his fellow maverick Ken Livingstone, and was a major factor aiding his winning of the Tory leadership and becoming Prime Minister.
But is it really surprising? This is a politician who has been comfortable telling brazen lies, being opportunistic, and switching political positions to suit his advancement. He now finds that in the demanding times we live in, he is struggling and not really equipped to be the leader of the UK.
He has gone through his entire life wanting his progress to appear effortless and time and time again in his political career to pose the big choices as easy and painless. This is how he has attempted to frame getting a deal with the Europeans on Brexit, a tactic which has worked for him before, but won’t work when the choices and difficulties are so acute. Self-deception, dissembling and the art of lying it seems for now can only get you so far when the political stakes are so high.