21st March 2021
Sometimes the usual superlatives do not seem enough – ‘brilliant’, ‘excellent’, ‘outstanding’ do not give justice to a thing.
So all I can aver is that the article ‘The clown king: how Boris Johnson made it by playing the fool’ by Edward Docx is perhaps best piece of contemporary political observation and analysis I have come across for a long time.
If you have not read it, go and read it now – else the rest of this post will make little sense.
And if you have read it, go and read it again.
This is because there is no way that a summary of that article by me will be adequate.
Everything Docx says that touches on certain law and policy issues over the last few years is true.
Brexit is indeed ‘an act of symbolism at the expense of everything else.’
The lack of seriousness about law as an illustration of the the lack of seriousness generally: ‘the teetering unicycle of Johnsonian buffoonery – A-levels, school meals, foreign health workers and more. A country of tumbling catastrophes. Trampolining absurdities. Go to work. Don’t go to work. A country proroguing parliament illegally here, trying to break international law there.’
The dislocation between the heady claims of political language and the mundane realities of political substance: ‘we became a country in which there was only the mock heroic – a “world beating” country that would “strain every sinew” and give “cast-iron guarantees” while bungling its plans and breaking its promises. A country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles” and act “as the supercharged champion” of X, Y, Z. A country on stilts – pretending that we had a test and trace system that was head and shoulders above the rest of the world.’
The nature of the campaign for Brexit and the insincerity of Boris Johnson’s role: ‘the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Steve Baker, Nigel Farage, Mark Francois, John Redwood, Gisela Stuart, Kate Hoey et al – were never more than a dim congregation of rude mechanicals. And what they required to win was someone who instinctively understood how to conduct a form of protracted public masque.’
And so on.
Docx’s depiction of the character and approach of the current prime minister is unmatched.
Falstaff, the Fool, the Clown, has indeed taken over as king.
At the end of Docx’s article, however, he posits that there are hard challenges that cannot (easily) be avoided by the clowning prime minister:
‘The difficulty for the clown is that once truth and seriousness have been merrily shattered, they cannot be put back together and served up anew. Or, to put it another way, the buffoon who has just entertained the audience by smashing all the plates cannot now say that he proposes to use them to serve up a banquet in honour of himself becoming a wise and honest king. Everyone can see: the plates are all in pieces on the floor.’
One of these challenges is more policy than law – the many serious failures of the government United Kingdom in respect of the Covid pandemic.
Here Docx points out that Johnson is now seeking to tell a story so as to lift him out of any culpability:
‘Are we supposed to forget this legacy and “move on”? That is what Johnson is now tacitly suggesting. Like all storytellers, he knows the public remember endings, less so beginnings and seldom the middle. He did all he can, he says. He knows it’s not true, but that is what he is selling.’
Here Docx appears to be doubtful of his own plate-smashing analogy.
People may elect not to see the damage: Johnson can – and may well will – distract us by more plate-smashing: world-beating plate-crashing, no doubt.
The other challenge, however, is squarely constitutional.
And that is the future of the union.
Docx rightly observes that there is a pending constitutional crunch: ‘the realm really is still falling apart. Johnson’s predicament could not be more starkly illuminated than by the next existential challenge he faces: to do with the very nature of the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.’
Johnson’s predicament here affirms the truth of the old Hebrew proverb about the difference between a clever person and a wise person: a clever person can get out of situations that a wise person would not get into.
The lack of wisdom here, however, is not that just of Johnson.
The folly of the in/out referendum was that of David Cameron, and the infliction of a ‘hard Brexit’ (with the United Kingdom outside the European Union customs union and single market) was by Theresa May.
Wiser heads – who realised the precariousness and fragility of constitutional arrangements – would not have risked the future of the United Kingdom, as Cameron did, on one turn of pitch-and-toss.
Nor would they have insisted on an extreme form of Brexit in the first few months after the referendum, as May did.
Johnson was not responsible for either of those two calamitous decisions, which in turn have created what Docx rightly calls the ‘existential challenge’ of keeping the union together.
The fool may have become prime minister – but only after the two previous prime ministers had made the most foolish of decisions.
And given those foolish decisions – and their necessary implications for the position of Northern Ireland – then there is not a great deal that Johnson can do.
The clown has not so much taken over the stage: it is more that supposedly wiser rulers have left the stage to the clown alone.
And, of course, Johnson will approach the problem with his strategic dishonesty and tactical buffoonery – but, frankly, what else has he got?
The constitutional logic of the Brexit that was in place before he became prime minister will continue to unfold.
Slapping sticks is perhaps all that is left.
All this said: never underestimate the trickster.
A clever person may be the one who gets out of situations that a wise person would not have got into – but the clever person may still do so all the same.
And as Docx avers: ‘the clown is always in a deeper relationship with the audience than with his ostensible subject.’
The plates that may now smash will be as big as the union itself.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may not last another few years in either form or substance.
But the clown-king may still be able to get away with it – and still be prime minister of whatever is left, with claps and cheers for more.
The audience may never see or care what damage is done in the meantime.
And this is not just because of the skills and talents of the clown-king but because of the stage we are now at in the story of Brexit and the United Kingdom – to use a phrase of Johnson’s earnest antonym as prime minister – there may be no real alternative.
“Will it please you to see the epilogue, or to hear a Bergomask dance between two of our company?”
– Act V, Scene 1, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
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