Here is one way to try to understand Britain’s very odd general election, in which a nominally conservative politician has achieved an astonishing, puzzling thing. Alexander “Boris” Johnson attended the most expensive and snobbish school in the world, Eton. He speaks the language of P. G. Wodehouse’s heroes in a whuffly, archaic voice that invites derision. Yet he has persuaded legions of the nation’s poorest and most deprived people to vote for his Conservative Party— a party they have been brought up to hate. What you have to do to explain this is to work out what “left-wing” now actually means.
Answer this: Which is more radical? A patrician swell who openly lives in the nation’s most famous house with a woman who is not his wife, after a well-publicized life of unfaithfulness to the woman who actually is his wife? Or a lower-middle-class ultra-leftist who used to take holidays in East Germany and has an incurable liking for Latin American revolutionaries and unlovable Middle Eastern Islamists?
I find this conundrum easy to answer. As a former Marxist who knows what happened to the revolutionary cause, that it shifted from storming the barracks and the railroad station to infiltrating the TV studio, the school, and the university, I would always go for the cultural and moral action, as against the political gesture. The patrician Tory leader Boris Johnson is the revolutionary, the harbinger of the future. The bearded militant Jeremy Corbyn is a relic of a dead past. Just twenty years ago, and perhaps less than that, Mr. Johnson’s personal life could have been tolerated in a prime minister only if he kept it secret, as his Edwardian forebears did. But to live openly in this way would have been an explosive challenge to the establishment and especially to his own party. Even now, some of his aides no doubt have misgivings about it. But I am sure he will overcome them. He genuinely sees nothing wrong in what he does, and so others learn quickly to see nothing wrong in it either.
The British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has just been crushed at the polls, was a hopelessly old-fashioned type of leftist, who even predated the 1960s. I’m not his defender and don’t want to be, though I was unwillingly impressed by his resolute courtesy and restraint as his opponents hosed him down with abuse. This must have been difficult. I only ever knowingly met him once, as he and his Mexican (third) wife waited with their bicycles for a train at Cambridge station. We exchanged rueful grins and some minor small talk across the vast chasm which separated Labour’s most left-wing leader ever from me, a reactionary newspaper columnist.
But I may have met him long before, in my own days as a member of the Labour Party (albeit a very conservative one), in the North London of forty years ago. This was a seething ferment of a new kind of politics. Some of it was nasty, far too close to the terrorists of the Irish Republican Army and their sympathizers who hung around on the edges of the capital’s Left. More of it was just unfamiliar. It was then, in those stuffy, ill-tempered meetings, that I first began to hear the new sexual politics, especially about homosexuality, that moral conservatives took so long to understand.
The North London socialists had completely embraced a set of sexual politics that would take over the world. We had no idea. We called them the “Loony Left” and laughed at their pretensions. But twenty-five years later they had utterly defeated us, largely by making us appear to be intolerant, cruel bigots even when we were not (though some of us were). Monogamy had become an oddity. Heterosexual marriage was just one among many possible family relationships. The very word “husband” would be removed from official documents.
Now here is the interesting thing about “Boris” Johnson. You may guess all you like as to why this might be, but while Jeremy Corbyn was busying himself with Hamas and Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, the young Mr. Johnson was plainly seeing the virtues of the sexual revolution.
A fascinating and highly sympathetic article on him by his Oxford contemporary, the noted gay rights campaigner Andrew Sullivan of New York Magazine, sees straight past the obvious in assessing the prime minister’s life. Sullivan forgives him for his boorish dalliance with the drunken aristos of the Bullingdon Club, and derides the idea that he is some sort of right-wing bogeyman. He praises his “ideological flexibility” and concludes that “the evidence of his bigotry is a little thin. A bigot would be unlikely to win two elections as mayor of London, a vast multiracial, multicultural metropolis. And his Cabinet is the most ethnically diverse in British history.”
Or take gay rights. Back in 2003, Johnson was one of a handful of Tories who rebelled against Conservative Party policy, voting for an end to the Thatcherite ban on teaching about homosexuality in state schools. Like many pols, he couldn’t handle marriage equality at first, but then he adjusted, becoming in 2010 one of the first senior Tory politicians to entertain it. As London mayor, he marched in several Pride parades, and as foreign secretary, he reversed a ban on rainbow flags at British embassies.
The Tory leader was at least as committed to this program as Mr. Corbyn. Possibly more so. Mr. Corbyn never really looks as if his interests lie very much in that direction, though he can repeat the slogans like everyone else. His life is curiously conservative: He potters around his allotment garden, makes jam, eats his own vegetables, and abstains almost completely from alcohol. Like Mr. Johnson, he rides a bicycle around London, but it is much harder to imagine him ignoring a traffic light or shouting at an errant driver.
Sullivan notices that Johnson’s nominal Tories “now favor tax cuts for the poor, have a strong program for climate change, and have proposed an Australian-style immigration policy to defuse native panic. They are not socially conservative in the American sense.” Admiringly, he notes, “He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervor has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership.”
This—from one of the most important voices in the sexual revolution— is the best description I have seen of Mr. Johnson’s undoubted social and moral liberalism, which also enabled him to promise enormous spending increases (possibly fictional) during an election campaign in which there seemed to be no limits on what either side was prepared to pledge.
What Mr. Johnson has done, in my view, is portray himself as the new Blair, a friendly, smiling figurehead, accessible and charming, who appears unthreatening while concealing a vast agenda of change. The old Blair is now a ghost, clanking his chains at dinners and symposiums, imprisoned for life in a world of irrelevance by his foolish decision to take Britain into George W. Bush’s Iraq War. Ever since this tragedy (for him, not for us), others have been seeking to emulate his magic. Alexander “Boris” Johnson has finally done it. Among the many Labour-held Parliamentary districts which fell to Mr. Johnson’s New Tories on Thursday night was Sedgefield, a bleak northern place, once grimly industrial, and held by Blair in person until 2005, with a majority of 18,000 over his Conservative challenger. Now the Tories hold it.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.
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