Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Johnson's land of fake believe

“WHY, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” said Alice in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland.

And at times in the last three years it has seemed that we too might be living in some kind of political fantasy land. But as we jump from one preposterous situation to another one thing is becoming clear - we are part of a  world that is being rapidly transformed in a period of dizzying transition.

For now, we are seemingly caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated.

In our 24/7 inter-connected culture what counts as fact is increasingly a view that someone feels to be true. And technology (including social media like Facebook and Twitter, which have become purveyors of ‘news’) has made it very easy for these ‘facts’ to circulate in a cascade of information with a speed and reach that was unimaginable even a decade ago.

Brexit, like the rise of Donald Trump and the accession to the throne of prime minister Boris Johnson in the summer, is partly a symptom of the rise and rise of social media and, at the same time, the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say.

Trump is a master of articulating ‘truths’ which, quickly circulated on social media, become enough on their own to help him secure winning shares of popular votes. Johnson has done the same.

The pre-Christmas general election campaign also mirrors the so-called ‘promises’ made by those campaigning to leave the EU during the UK referendum of 2016. Even basic scrutiny at the time revealed many to be empty, vacuous and unworkable promises. But they all too easily became accepted as ‘truth’.

For the UK, an unsavoury picture of a post-Brexit world, led by a right-wing Conservative government, is now beginning to emerge: one where the rule of law, due process and even fact itself might easily crumble before the might of the mob, who themselves are directed by the Machiavellian schemes of press barons and wannabe dictators.

It seems that prime minster Boris Johnson appeals to a stereotype that has a deep grip on the English psyche. Buffoonish and commonsensical, he portrays the kind of moral seriousness one might expect from a tricksy, Old Etonian ex-journalist, whilst at the same time displaying that Alice in Wonderland quality I also attributed to Teresa May.

Like May, the public image of Johnson might be described as something akin to "pretense" but in the case of Johnson I would add the word “deceit”.

It is indeed a tribute to the power of cliches and soundbites that we fail to see what is in front of our noses and so few have noticed. Just like Teresa May the main reason Johnson is prime minister is because he put personal ambition before principle.

Despite his interest in ‘the classics’, Johnson has proved himself a very ordinary orator, often bumbling and mostly merely trying to regurgitate pre-prepared soundbites ad nauseam.

Far from ‘taking back control’, Johnson’s leadership to date also demonstrates that Brexit is depriving ordinary people of the ability to take decisions, giving privileges to the special interests the leave campaign claimed it was fighting against, and imposing burdens on the taxpayer far greater than the mythical £350 million a week that Vote Leave claimed was sent to Brussels.

Johnson and his defenders say he is responding to “the absolute will” of the British people but even without the muddy waters of truth versus untruth and confused Brexit strategy at best, a 52-48 vote was hardly the people speaking as one. And opinion has changed since then.

Perhaps, as we approach Chistmas 2019 in this post-referendum, pre-Brexit Britain, we can more easily understand our prime minister by seeing that he is no different to many others when it comes to abandoning beliefs in favour of ‘truths’.

Disappointingly since taking office, he has failed to level with the public and confront them with the hard choices ahead. Rather than speak plainly, he has proffered the notion that Brexit will be painless.

As prime minister of 'pretenses', Johnson ran a government where feelings and ideologies seem to matter more than fact. He pretends the country should leave the EU at all costs, even though he knows deep inside its best interests are as a member of the single market.

He offers the illusion that the people are taking back control, even as the freedom to act is lost (see page 48 of the Conservative manifesto). He cuts deals in secret, in the hope that the public will never realise that his land of make-believe is going to be an expensive and very different place to live.

The political earthquakes of recent times have been tectonic in nature and heralded a significant lurch to the right in both UK and global politics, where false truth and self-interest often trumps rational and reasoned argument.

As election day approaches we have a final opportunity to call a halt to this national decline and deliver a verdict of hope and optimism for the coming new decade.

To paraphrase former prime minister Sir John Major, “Tribal loyalty has its place... but sometimes you need to vote with your head... and this is such a time.”

In three years it seems as though politics in Britain has moved backwards not forwards. The above commentary is an update on a piece I wrote in November 2016. Not much has changed except for the names! Here's a link to my original 'Land of make believe'