One day in Korea in 1951, a puzzled American soldier peered at a sign above the entrance to a British base, which proclaimed “Britannia Camp.” He quizzed an officer, pointing upwards: “Whaddoes that mean?” Major Gerald Rickord said: “Haven’t you ever heard of Britannia Rules the Waves?” The American said: “That’s a bit out of date, isn’t it?”
This encounter was described to me long afterwards by Rickord, who added how shocked he had been, in the midst of a war in which his country and the US were fighting as allies, to hear such words: “I was saddened by how far we had come down in the world.”
I am proud of being British, and love my country. Seven decades after that Korean cameo, however, I recoil from the persisting twin British vices of a nostalgia for lost greatness, and a self-importance about our modern place in the world, exemplified by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s catchphrases “Global Britain” and “Make Britain Great Again.”
For us, as for most nations, the likeliest route to happiness is to have a sensible idea of where we fit in. The US, China, Russia, Switzerland and a very few other countries can, in different ways, parade exceptionalism. The rest of us, however, must recognize a need to live and work with others; to bow to rules of strategy and economics.
Today, it is fascinating to behold the spectacle of Johnson dominating our country’s politics in a fashion unmatched by any national leader, certainly since Tony Blair, perhaps since Margaret Thatcher. His mastery is unshaken by a post-Brexit, post-Covid labor famine that has left the hospitality industry starved of staff, and animals facing slaughter and incineration on farms for lack of butchers to prepare them for market. Many pubs and restaurants are obliged to close two days a week, and we have some of the worst supply-chain problems in the world.
Fuel stations, especially in southeast England, have been enduring shortages provoked by lack of delivery drivers, sometimes causing queues a quarter-mile long. Britain is only one among many countries, including the US, in which gas and electricity prices are set to soar. Uniquely here, however, the government is allowing suppliers to go bust by sustaining a regulatory retail price cap, almost heedless of the ascent of wholesale rates.
Johnson has indulged the xenophobia of his political base by picking a war of words with France. The Germans, when they take a break from their own domestic problems, despair of conducting a working relationship with the British, because they say that they find it hard to trust anything our prime minister says.
Last month the British government crowed at French discomfiture about the Australia-UK-US nuclear submarine deal. Yet there is no evidence that Johnson and his advisers have considered what this agreement may commit us to. Would we go to war alongside the US if — for instance — China invaded Taiwan? The almost certain answer is that Britain would not join such a fight. But somebody needs to think about it.
We may add to the charge sheet rising inflation; increased taxation; a new bullying threat this week to put peace in Northern Ireland at risk by tearing up the Irish protocol in the Brexit treaty; an absence of credible policies to make good on 2050 carbon-neutrality promises; noisy denunciations of Russia, although the Tories have allowed Britain to become dangerously dependent on Putin’s gas.
Yet the joke against such longtime critics as myself is that Johnson’s personal popularity seems impervious to any of the above. British voters sometimes voice anger against subordinate ministers, selected for their personal loyalty to Johnson rather than for evidence of competence. He repeatedly makes appointments that flaunt defiance of the expert advice, most recently Britain’s new chief of defense staff, Admiral Tony Radakin. Yet Johnson’s followers refuse to extend their wrath to the man in charge of this most presidential British government since 1945.
In all this, of course, there are obvious matches with the attitude of former President Donald Trump’s supporters toward their hero. Johnson is a more intelligent and cultured man than Trump, yet he displays a similar contempt for rules, precedents, decency, truth. One of Britain’s most distinguished historians emailed me during the summer to observe that he thinks our current prime minister “the most morally debased leader Britain has had since the 18th century.”
Yet who cares? Last week at a dinner I sat next to an elderly woman who supports the Conservative government. I made a disobliging remark about the prime minister. She sharply dissented, saying: “We must recognize that he had a very difficult childhood.” I suggested that it is a little late in Johnson’s career to excuse his Downing Street antics merely by blaming a wayward father. My neighbor stuck to her guns, saying stubbornly: “He is doing the best he can.” She does not merely like him, she loves him.
Likewise, when I encountered the commandant of the British Army’s foremost teaching establishment, Sandhurst, I asked how the prime minister’s recent visit had gone, a question prompted by knowing that Johnson is privately uncomfortable with the armed forces. Yet my acquaintance responded: “It was great! He spent hours talking to the cadets, and they loved him.”
In other words, Johnson remains the most brilliant crowd-pleaser in Britain, maybe the world. This skill suffices to keep him surfing a wave of popularity, especially with his working-class supporters, unbroken by the country’s increasingly rocky economic prospects — and, indeed, their own.
Many people at the bottom of the pile voted Conservative in 2019 for the first time in their lives, to secure Brexit. They will suffer most from Johnson’s post-Brexit policies. Yet these same voters so far seem content to embrace a belief that the prime minister is strong, honest, warm, funny and gives foreigners a bad time.
Only the last of these propositions seems objectively true, yet almost nobody cares any more about Johnson’s turbulent personal life, multiple betrayals of women, colleagues and causes. A Sunday Times commentator made a telling observation about the harmonious success of this month’s Conservative Party Conference, a gathering of True Believers. Why was it trouble-free? Because, said the writer, there was nobody like Boris Johnson cavorting on its fringes, wantonly rocking the boat as he had so often done in times gone by, as a mere aspirant to power.
At the heart of Johnson’s success, like that of Trump, is of course nationalism, or rather white tribalism. Although his wife, Carrie Johnson, made a conspicuous appearance at an LGBT+ meeting at the party conference, the prime minister himself makes no concessions to the woke movement, which his supporters find grotesque. He is prominent among those who resist the removal of controversial statues, whether of slavers or other equivocal historical figures.
Liberals are embarrassed by the home secretary’s order to border patrols to push intercepted asylum-seekers’ boats away from British waters in the Channel. Yet Johnson’s base applauds such gestures, futile or no, just as Trump’s fans enthuse about America’s Mexican border wall. The fatal stabbing of Conservative MP Sir David Amess, allegedly by an Islamist of Somali origins, will unfortunately strengthen right-wing sentiment against immigration.
Economists are asking tough questions about whether Britain can sustain growth if denied access to cheap foreign labor: The anecdotal evidence is strong that young British workers will continue to resist doing dirty jobs, whether in catering, care homes for the elderly, fishing boats or seasonal fruit and vegetable harvesting. This week the International Monetary Fund predicted that while Britain’s short-term economic prospects are respectable, its longer-term recovery is likely to lag the rest of the G-7.
Johnson nonetheless insists that tough immigration rules will stay. British employers, he says, will have to keep raising pay until our own young decide that those jobs are worth doing. Here again, the British government prioritizes fulfillment of the perceived wishes of its base, heedless of the inflationary impact. More than a few commentators in the past month have recalled Johnson’s remark to a private policy meeting three years ago: “f**k business.” This still appears to be his message.
He has remade British politics as surely as Trump has remade those of the US Thus far, in fairness to the prime minister, he has not ravaged democratic practices and institutions in the fashion that Republicans are attacking those of America. But some of us fear that Johnson, in the pride of his power, is serious about eviscerating the BBC, still one of Britain’s greatest institutions.
In this objective he is urged on by Britain’s press owners, led by Rupert Murdoch. They pursue a longstanding vendetta against the Corporation’s liberal bias, which is real enough (thank goodness, say some of us, given the strident right-wing bias of most British newspapers).
In Johnson’s recent government reshuffle, he appointed as culture secretary Nadine Dorries, the most conspicuously uncultured holder of her office since its creation. Earlier this month, Dorries said that she is not confident that the BBC will survive another decade in its present form. If Johnson continues to ride high in the polls, he may indeed take a wrecking ball to the Corporation.
Liberals on both sides of the Atlantic recognize that our own fortunes are in eclipse, that — as a friend put it recently — we are merely howling into the abyss. The center ground of politics, our natural habitat, is an increasingly desolate place. It is often and justly said that the centrist elites who have most often been in charge of Western democracies since 1945 have simply failed to deliver what a large portion of electorates want, foremost among them effective control of immigration.
Britain’s Labor Party remains in the intensive care ward where it has languished for a decade, hamstrung by its left-wingers. Johnson has absolute control of his now-not-very-Conservatives. Some commentators speculate that he could remain national leader for a decade, should be choose to do so.
He is doing exactly what his followers say they want. They overlook his government’s repeated administrative failures — a new parliamentary report this week highlights the shambles of its 2020 initial response to Covid — in their enthusiasm for the mood music that he plays. It remains to be seen whether they turn against him when they begin to experience the painful consequences of it all.
Brexit will not be reversed, but we could at least pursue courteous working relationships with our European neighbors, shorn of threats or cheap abuse, such as the prime minister’s attack dog, Lord Frost, again leveled against the European Union this week. We need some big government decisions that address a future beyond Tuesday or Wednesday.
The British economy cannot prosper without reopening a foreign labor tap. We must revive a financial prudence that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak promotes, but the prime minister scorns. Yet none of this is likely to happen until the polls tell Johnson that “his” people want it. This is what populist governance means.
Johnson loves to evoke the shade of Winston Churchill. On holiday in Spain, he has even taken up painting, presumably in emulation of the old lion. He is capable at any moment of resurrecting the hero’s famous two-fingered Victory sign, as a gesture of defiance to his critics and foes, especially foreigners. But, as the American soldier said all those years ago, outside Britannia Camp in Korea: “That’s a bit out of date, isn’t it?”