Robert Skidelsky is a member of the British House of Lords and professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University. He was formerly a non-executive director of the private Russian oil company PJSC Russneft from 2016 to 2021.
Nearly all political careers end in failure, but Boris Johnson is the first British prime minister to be toppled for scandalous behaviour. That should worry us.
The three most notable downfalls of 20th-century British leaders were caused by political factors. Neville Chamberlain was undone by his failed appeasement policy. The Suez fiasco forced Anthony Eden to resign in 1957. And Margaret Thatcher fell in 1990 because of popular resistance to the poll tax, which persuaded Tory MPs that they could not win again with her as their leader.
True, Harold Macmillan was undone in 1963 by the Profumo sex scandal, but this involved a secretary of state for war and possible breaches of national security. Tony Blair was forced to resign by the Iraq debacle and Gordon Brown’s impatience to succeed him. David Cameron was skewered by Brexit, and Theresa May by her failure to deliver Brexit.
No such events explain Mr. Johnson’s fall.
David Lloyd George, a leader much greater than Mr. Johnson, is his only serious rival in sleaze. As prime minister from 1916 to 1922, he sold aristocratic titles to businessmen for cash, used slipshod administrative methods, and displayed a level of dishonesty that weakened his power. But the immediate cause of his fall (exactly a century ago) was his mishandling of the Chanak crisis, which brought Britain and Turkey to the brink of war.
The more familiar comparison for Mr. Johnson is U.S. President Richard Nixon. Every Johnson misdemeanour has been routinely labelled with the “-gate” suffix, after the Watergate break-in. Both showed contempt for the laws they were elected to uphold, and for the norms of conduct expected from public officials.
We struggle to describe Nixon and Mr. Johnson’s character flaws: “Unprincipled,” “amoral,” and “serial liar” seem to capture Mr. Johnson. But those words describe more successful political leaders as well. To explain Mr. Johnson’s fall, we need to consider two factors specific to our times.
The first is that we no longer distinguish personal qualities from political qualities. Nowadays, the personal really is political: personal failings are ipso facto political failings. Gone is the distinction between the private and the public.
Mr. Johnson is both a creature and a victim of identity politics. His rhetoric was about the collective – he discussed “levelling up” regions of England that needed an economic boost, and “our” National Health Service. But in practice, he made his personality the content of his politics, which was also the creation of the media. In the past, newspapers, by and large, reported the news – now, by focusing on personalities, they create it. This change has given rise to a corrupt relationship: Personalities use the media to promote themselves, and the media expose their frailties to sell copy.
This development has radically transformed public perceptions about the qualities a political leader should have. Previous generations of politicians were by no means all prudes. They lied, drank, and fornicated. But leaders’ moral failings were largely shielded from scrutiny, unless they became egregious. And even when the public became aware of them, they were forgiven, provided the leaders delivered the goods, politically.
Most of the offences that led to Mr. Johnson’s resignation would never have been reported in the past. But today the doctrine of personal accountability justifies stripping political leaders naked. Every lapse becomes a credibility-destroying “disgrace” or “shame.”
The other new factor is that politics is no longer viewed as a vocation so much as a stepping stone to money. Media obsession with what a political career is worth, rather than whether politicians are worthy of their jobs, is bound to affect what politically ambitious people expect to achieve, and the public’s view of what to expect from them. Tony Blair is reported to have amassed millions in speaking engagements and consultancies since leaving office. In keeping with the times, The Times has estimated how much money Mr. Johnson could earn from speaking fees and book deals, and how much more he is worth than Theresa May.
In his resignation speech, Mr. Johnson sought to defend the “best job in the world” in traditional terms, while criticizing the “eccentric” nature of being removed in the middle of his term. But this defence of his premiership sounded insincere, because his career was not a testimony to his words. The cause of his fall was not just his perceived lack of morality, but also his perceived lack of a political compass. For Mr. Johnson, the personal simply exposed the hollowness of the political.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022. www.project-syndicate.org
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