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Why Boris Johnson is not suited for the modern world

Boris Johnson. Photo/Getty Images
Britain is a country that has made a lot of effort to modernise in the past few decades. But it remains incurably attached to the ancient and the arcane, the tacit and the traditional. If you want to get to the top, there are ways of doing things that are longstanding, unstated and mysterious to outsiders. Because this is a meritocracy steeped in class and privilege, a dynamic 21st-century nation that thrives on hidden social codes and old school ties.

There have been 55 prime ministers since 1721, when the office was first recognised, and 19 of them have attended the same school: Eton. Boris Johnson will make it 20.

Twenty-seven of them went to the same university: Oxford. Unless a skeleton falls out of his cupboard – not the metaphorical kind but a real one with a knife lodged in its ribcage – Johnson will make it 28. Yet if it should turn out that Bojo has actually murdered someone, then his opponent, Jeremy Hunt, who has the charisma of a cyborg, will also make it 28.

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I could go on, down to the particular debating societies that have moulded succeeding generations of Conservative British politicians. Johnson was president of the Oxford Union – a kind of preparatory House of Commons for entitled teenagers. Hunt was president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. It’s as if, aged 18, they were admitted to a masonic finishing school for PMs.

And what they learnt back then was how to bluff and charm, and to assume an unearned air of importance and generally wing it. Elite British education has long encouraged those who can perform on the day over those who doggedly master concepts, facts and details. Recently, one of Johnson’s tutors at Oxford recalled Johnson’s approach to work: “If you’re intelligent enough, you can rub along in philosophy on a couple of hours a week. Boris rubbed along on no hours a week.”

It means that there is probably no more entertaining legislative body on the planet than the House of Commons, where you’re always guaranteed to hear baroque insults and robust banter. But it also means that there’s probably no group of politicians less suited to understanding the modern digital world.

I mention this because the UK, even by contemporary standards, is currently witnessing a truly bizarre piece of performative drama. The two surviving competitors in the Tory leadership contest – the winner of which will automatically become prime minister – are in the middle of a six-week electoral campaign, every nonsensical moment of which is screened on national TV and reported in the papers.

It looks just like a real national election, except in this case only 160,000 Conservative Party members are eligible to vote on who will become the next prime minister. The rest of us might as well be Athenian slaves, forced to watch a demos that is restricted to a tiny and ageing elite.

Johnson, who studied classics at Oxford, might enjoy the irony. But there is something troublingly dated about the whole process, as if it were some giant jolly jape dreamt up by bored Oxford students. The truly surreal aspect, though, is that both candidates are promising their electorate a new deal on Brexit that the previous regime was singularly unable to deliver and which the European Union has repeatedly stated is not available.

But the Tory members don’t care about any of that. They’re too preoccupied with the question of who’s offering the most attractive fantasy. And in the realm of incredible and shameless make-believe, there can be only one victor. Step forward, Prime Minister Johnson.

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.