Boris Johnson, the apex predator that Frantz Fanon foresaw
Johnson’s self-interested, sloganeering premiership showed how weak the British parliamentary system is
The stability that once characterised the British parliament has been replaced by a turnover rate that only Chelsea FC managers can rival. It has become common in recent years to see prime ministers standing forlornly in front of 10 Downing Street’s foreboding black door, expressing “deep regret” about where it all went wrong, perhaps choking up a little or even shedding a few tears. But not this time.
This time it was the resignation of the PM who thought he was, like one of those Chelsea managers, the “special one”.
There was little contrition from Boris Johnson. He mourned his suffering at the hands of Westminster’s “herd instinct” but still proclaimed his faith in the power of the UK’s “Darwinian system” to produce a new leader worthy of being his conqueror. It was a strange tone to take for a moment of personal disgrace, in which he was being metaphorically dragged out of Downing Street in handcuffs. But then everything about Johnson’s premiership has sought to buck convention. And not in a good way.
If Westminster is a Darwinian system, then Johnson marks the evolution of a new type of apex predator stalking its Gothic halls. For the first time the UK’s ancient and mystical parliamentary system has had to confront the spectacular power of modern celebrity.
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Other British prime ministers have been globally famous, but Johnson is the first to have been an international celebrity before he got into office. Not a politician of ideas and innovation but of stunts and slogans: “Get Brexit Done”, “Level Up”, “Build Back Better”. Johnson leveraged the familiarity he had gained with the general public by playing a pantomime posh buffoon on our TVs in order to claim that he could ventriloquise the true desires of the masses at a time of national crisis.
He was chosen specifically as a weapon of mass destruction by the Brexit wing of the Conservative Party to break the final resistance to leaving the EU. He used his fame and personal brand appeal to blow through the tattered Technicolor Dreamcoat of conventions, principles and traditions that hold together the British constitution. From prorogation to Partygate to the Northern Ireland protocol, over the past three years Johnson has operated as if rules just don’t apply to him.
He was rewarded for this approach when the entirety of the British establishment held its nose to support this well-known charlatan in order to stop the existential threat of Jeremy Corbyn getting his dirty, allotment-digging, Lefty hands on the sacred instruments of the Westminster state. But in return Johnson exposed just how clientist parliamentary politics in the UK has really become in the 21st century.
In the 1960s, in the wake of the great fall of the European empires, Frantz Fanon (not a man often associated with Boris Johnson) identified a new type of national leader who was emerging in the newly independent states, whose “innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and to be part of the racket”. Though these figures might “mobilise the people with slogans of independence”, their “mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation” but is about “being the transmission line” for the interests of global capitalism through the state apparatus.
These lines, written half a century ago, could have been specifically crafted for Johnson. Here was a prime minister who came to power shouting about how he would deliver “an independence day for Britain” and then presided over a government whose members used a moment of national public health tragedy to hand out COVID contracts to their old school friends, organise a stream of parties in Downing street while the rest of the country suffered through lockdown and grant themselves travel exemptions to visit their second properties abroad (the Stanley Johnson clause, named after the prime minister’s own father).
In his first speech as prime minister, Johnson praised the UK as the “home of democracy”, later telling the House of Commons that “over the past 300 years, virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country”. But for all his public celebration of our “Darwinian system” of governance, his brief time in office exposed some of its weaknesses. As a decaying formerly imperial parliament, governed by an invisible constitution trying to hold together a fracturing union, Westminster remains vulnerable to the manipulation of politicians brazen enough to use its power to serve their own interests. We now all wait to see the next form of predator that will emerge.
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