The new British prime minister is a classicist who, when talking things over with his acquaintances, is prone to quote Greek and Roman poets, often in the original language. He is also fond of drawing analogies from history. Nonetheless, despite such foibles, Boris Johnson’s many detractors insist he is just a transatlantic version of the belligerently unlettered Donald Trump. They brush him off as yet another populist wrecker who feels nothing but contempt for the established order and is bound to bring disaster to the unfortunate country he leads.
As their North American counterparts did with the current US president, Britons who dislike the man have taken to attributing his rise to what they say are flaws in the local political system. They point out that Hillary Clinton got more votes than Trump and that Boris, or ‘BoJo’ as he calls himself on Twitter, only had the backing of most paid-up members of the Conservative Party, so by rights neither should be where they are.
Such people are unfazed by the thought that questioning the legitimacy of a political regime can have dangerous consequences: it gives its opponents an excuse for going to virtually any lengths, including encouraging street violence and gleefully fantasizing about an assassination to get rid of the usurper. In the United States, Democrats on the wilder fringes of what was once a moderate, middle-of-the road party are doing just that: as far as they are concerned, Trump is an un-American racist Islamophobe with a ridiculous hairstyle, a stooge of that monstrously cunning Russian Vladimir Putin and the sworn enemy of everything that is decent who should be removed by any means available. In the UK, some hard-left supporters of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will treat Boris in much the same way.
Johnson and Trump, one the product of a famously rigorous elite education at Eton and Oxford, the other a businessman with fewer academic pretensions (even if he does claim to have written 15 books) do have some things in common. The most notable is that both enjoy a fight, especially when, as is the case with Trump, it allows him to lure his more outspoken foes into adopting extremist positions, such as open borders and support for Islamic terrorism, which most of his compatriots find unappealing.
To judge from what he has said since becoming PM, Boris will opt for a softer, more Reagan-esque line, limiting himself to taking on the many British intellectuals who, as people like them have done for generations, despise their own country and just about everything it has done in the past. George Orwell had much to say about this debilitating trait,
Reagan’s favourite slogan was “It’s morning again in America.” Boris’s allusion to the “beginning of a new golden age” for Great Britain is unlikely to prove so effective, but his invitation to believe in his country’s future will surely go down well among the many people who are thoroughly fed up with being told by their alleged betters that it is about to go down the drain and by so doing will receive a richly deserved comeuppance for its countless crimes against humanity.
For the “golden age” Boris sees ahead to come closer, he will have to finish the maddeningly difficult job – one his predecessor Theresa May was unable to complete – of disentangling the UK from the European Union. Luckily for him, the people with whom he will have to negotiate are not the outwardly friendly but intransigent ideologues whose refusal to budge an inch on the Northern Ireland “backstop” have so far made a mutually satisfactory agreement all but impossible.
The new ones, especially the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor, Ursula von der Leyen, understand that a “no deal Brexit” would be very nasty for everyone, including the French and the Germans, and could give way enough to get the British PM off the hook. After all, neither the UK nor the EU would find it beneficial to remain at loggerheads for many years to come, as would surely happen were they to fail to make the divorce, which now looks unavoidable, relatively painless. Punishing the British for what they see as a foolish desire to go their own way – as some hawks in Brussels would dearly like to do in order to discourage other EU countries from following suit – would not be in anybody’s interest.
Both Trump and Johnson are nationalists in countries whose governments, until fairly recently, tended to follow an internationalist agenda because they took it for granted that, by acting together, they were strong and rich enough to control it. That assumption now looks outdated. In the US, Trump and his supporters felt their country’s once overwhelming power was being whittled away by foreigners who were ganging up against them, while in the UK many disliked having to obey directives written in Brussels by people whose way of thinking was far more “continental” than Anglo-Saxon.
Though the reaction against internationalism or globalisation in the two main members of the English-speaking world can be seen as a symptom of weakness, it is easy to understand why many North Americans and Britons have come to the conclusion that the time has come for them to try and push back. The virtual hegemony the former, with the sometimes grudging approval of their “cousins,” had grown accustomed to exercise may have gone forever, but both countries still carry a lot of weight.
As well as tackling the Brexit conundrum, Boris Johnson already finds himself confronted by the challenges posed
by Iran, whose theocratic leaders see the UK as a
Satanic enemy in cahoots with the US and Israel
they can easily humiliate, and by China, whose
“peaceful rise” is causing problems in many parts
of the world. The habit Hong Kong activists have
got into, of flying the Union Jack to express their
support for democracy, may be a great compliment
to British imperial rule, but it is evidently causing
embarrassment in London by straining relations
with a prospective trading partner at the worst possible time. Just what Boris will do to placate or, as he
would no doubt prefer, chastise the Iranians and
avoid misunderstandings with the Chinese is
anyone’s guess. But the
way he handles such matters could have as much
bearing on the UK’s
place in the world order
that is shaping up as his
negotiations with the
folk in Brussels.