Boris in the stocks

Johnson's penitential trip to Liverpool suggests that British politics is in a sorry state.

David Wainwright

Topics Politics

A penchant for riding to the Houses of Parliament on a bicycle coupled with bumbling performances on the satirical BBC quizshow Have I Got News for You? have long marked Boris Johnson as the Conservative Party’s principal blond buffoon. But his ritual humiliation at the hands of ‘grief-stricken’ Liverpudlians reveals much more than his personal failings.

Johnson’s difficulties began when, as editor of the Spectator, he published an editorial criticising the two-minute silence held in Liverpool in memory of Ken Bigley, the British construction worker executed by terrorists in Iraq.

The Spectator’s claim that such public displays of compassion reveal the ‘mawkish sentimentality of a society that has become hooked on grief and likes to wallow in a sense of vicarious victimhood’ will be familiar to readers of spiked, where more perceptive observations on the same theme have been published.

The Spectator’s argument, however, that the origins of this phenomenon can be found in the ‘flawed psychological state’ caused by many Liverpudlians’ ‘excessive predilection for welfarism’ is a less sustainable claim; the crowds outside Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 were not all benefit claimants from the North West.

Many Liverpudlians were offended by the Spectator’s caricature of them, but more surprising was the reaction of Tory Party leader Michael Howard. Not only was Johnson slapped on the wrists for reinforcing the perception of the Conservatives as the ‘nasty party’, he was ordered up to Liverpool to apologise in person.

The sight of a penitent Johnson grovelling for forgiveness from a sanctimonious crowd of outraged Scousers was almost as nauseating as the public emoting condemned by the Spectator editorial. Some commentators have suggested that Howard’s actions have dangerous implications for the freedom of the press – but of greater concern is what the incident tells us about the current state of British politics.

In the 1980s Tory prime minister Thatcher prided herself on being a conviction politician. Rather than following public opinion, her support for monetarist economics, trade union reform and privatisation came from a belief that she was right and that the public would have to support her because there was no realistic alternative.

In today’s post-ideological climate political convictions have become a hindrance to electoral prospects. It is no longer big ideas that count, but the ability to forge an emotional connection with the electorate. Howard did not send Johnson to Liverpool in order to recover lost Tory votes, but to display his own credentials as an emotionally literate leader to the broader electorate and to discipline a dissident for challenging the culture of conspicuous compassion.

It might be argued that the politics of sentimentality are preferable to the free-market ideology of the 1980s – but this tendency can only fuel a sense of impotence and inertia that undermines any desire for radical social change. It is time we valued politicians for the potency of their ideas rather than their capacity to share our pain.

David Wainwright is the co-author with Michael Calnan of Work Stress: The Making of a Modern Epidemic, published by the Open University Press, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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