Why Johnson's Churchillian bravado is misplaced

16 Sep 2019


It didn't even take a biography to make Boris Johnson stand out as a latter-day Winston Churchill.


Myth, as much as reality, accompanies our understanding of Churchill. Yet, among less salubrious aspects, what remains clear is his uncompromising determination, his dyed-in-the-wool patriotism, and, of course, his penchant for purple prose.


In other words, characteristics that could be applied to Boris Johnson, who views Churchill as not so much a hero as an idol, a staunch defender of the nation against foreign threats. After all, both men previously plied their trade as precocious journalists.


However, therein lies the problem with reincarnating the spirit of Britain's wartime leader. Some of Churchill's finest writing evokes the dual horror and fascination in a pained, almost visceral fashion, as when he depicts the realities of fighting rebels in the Boer War. Johnson, however, forms part of a generation that has never experienced conflict first hand. The EU, despite what some on the nostalgic right like to think, bears no resemblance whatsoever to Nazi Germany. Britain's problems are today infinitely more complex than they were in 1939-45, and cannot be solved by passion alone.


Johnson's 'biography' of Churchill — it reads more of a eulogy — points towards two main beliefs shared by the two men: the power of rhetoric, and the special status of Britain in Europe.


Churchill's memoranda and correspondence amount to over a million documents, and archival evidence proves he prepared each speech, briefing and article with painstaking care and attention. This is openly at variance with Sunday Times journalist Tim Shipman's portrayal of Johnson as a notoriously slapdash speechwriter, a process often left to the very last minute.


And, if Churchill's rhetoric served a necessary purpose, it is hard to reconcile Johnson's admiration for his hero with his unabashed predilection for personal advancement. Our current PM is more than happy to mete out justice, insinuate himself into Churchill's subconscious, as in the chapter weighing up his numerous controversies.  


One thing is clear. Johnson, an Eton alumnus and President of the Oxford Student Union, certainly knows his way around a dictionary, yet constant grandiloquent claims can ring hollow.


Opening "The Churchill Factor" on a random page, I read how "The French generals cut pathetic figures — white-haired dodderers in their Clouseau-like kepis". Meanwhile, UK Lords in favour of appeasement are dismissed as "Stilton-eating surrender monkeys". You simply cannot imagine Theresa May pulling out such corkers, but such trivial language grates.


Now, there is no doubt that during the war, Churchill's gift of the gab was essential to rallying the British population. This is no longer necessary, and, worse still, there is no shortage of evidence Johnson has internalised all too well his hero's propensity of use language to cause offence.


Some of the most famous examples are now held to be apocryphal, as when Churchill responded thus to a woman accusing him of being drunk: "I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I shall be sober, and you will still be ugly".


Unfortunately, such witticisms overshadow his often-imperialist use of rhetoric to insult and belittle. Mahatma Gandhi, the great campaigner of Indian independence, was "a seditious fakir". Perhaps Churchill's biggest failure was the Bengal famine of 1943, when 3 million people starved when their calls for direct food assistance were ignored by the British. Their fault, said Churchill, for "breeding like rabbits".


Johnson, of course, is no inveterate imperialist. Nevertheless, his time as Foreign Secretary was littered with insensitive comments regarding Britain's former colonies. Visiting a Burmese temple, Johnson thought it apt to quote Rudyard Kipling, whose poetry helped idealise Myanmar in the eyes of British imperialists. More outrageously still, Johnson used a Daily Telegraph column to compare veiled Muslim women to letterboxes.


The point is not simply that Johnson is gaffe-prone. Rather, he chooses to incarnate a vision of Britain that can seem out of touch with contemporary reality. For all the fuss that is made about "political correctness", the truth is that being careful with words can help curb the excesses of insulting, borderline racist rhetoric.

The second prominent way Johnson allies himself with Churchill is his belief, if not unwavering, in Britain's exceptional status in Europe.


One of the best chapters in the book describes Churchill's ambivalent, often contradictory attitude towards European integration. In a speech made in Zurich in 1946, the statesman called for 'a kind of United States of Europe'. 'Britain', he concluded, 'will have to play her full part as a member of the European family'.


Four years later in the Commons, Churchill furthered his support for 'European unity', claiming Britain should be 'intimately associated' with the continent. However, in the same speech, he dismissed a 'concrete federal constitution' as impractical.


In short, given the size and prestige of Britain's Empire, Churchill could not commit himself on ideological grounds to wholesale association with Europe. In the colonial zeitgeist of his time, Churchill may be excused for placing Britain at the centre of a 'three-circle Venn diagram' — Europe, Empire and Anglophone-speaking countries. In 2019, however, Johnson is surely wrong to view this approach as 'ever more sensible today'.  


Britain's colonies are now, thankfully, independent countries. Geopolitical shifts have further decreased British power, with China in the East and USA in the West acting as contemporary powerhouses.


Johnson is right to stand up for the UK in our turbulent political climate, but this must be achieved without misty-eyed nostalgia — epitomised by the threat, perhaps now nullified, of a no-deal Brexit.


World War II is frequently evoked as an epitome of national unity, a time of British defiance in the face of European aggression. Whether this is truly accurate is the source of constant debate, but the idea remains well-wedded in the national imagination.


Pride in the nation is nothing to be ashamed of, but all too often patriotism slips into well-worn tirades against the 'tyranny' of the EU. Johnson, for one, made no favours with the French when in 2016 he accused François Hollande, the then President, of acting towards Britain like a PoW guard during World War II.


Comparisons between the EU and fascist dictatorships of the 1930s are not just crude, they are also plainly incorrect. If Churchillian vim and vigour was the perfect antidote to a murderous regime, the same cannot possibly be said for the EU, an organisation set up precisely to prevent the horrors of WWII ever happening again.


Of course, this aim has been largely achieved — the last war fought on European soil took place over 25 years ago — and questions as to the long-term point of the Union are both valid and necessary.


Yet legitimate criticism cannot involve erroneous comparisons with the past, when Britain both stood defiantly against fascism amidst desperate, violent attempts to cling onto their own Empire.


However knotty the EU problem is, solutions can only come in the form of dialogue, reason and negotiation. Impassioned rhetoric — whatever Theresa May's persistence, she hardly exudes charm — has its place, as in any negotiation. Yet threats and closed-mindedness, epitomised by Britain's no deal preparations, are doomed to fail in our mercifully peaceful era.


Johnson, as he showed during his tenure as Mayor of London, has the ability to bring some bonhomie to the bonfire. But now is the time to release the shackles and embrace the winds of change.

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