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Boris Johnson and the power of archetypes
Back in October as the Conservative Party whirled around looking for a leader, rolling news programmes were setting journalists loose in the nation’s market squares to ask voters who they fancied for the next turn on the Downing St Buckaroo. Quite a few - more than you would think, given that his ratings are in the toilet - wanted Boris Johnson back. One woman rattled off the things that she perceived to be his achievements, a short list that built to the emphatic peroration: ‘he got Covid!’.
Not, you’ll notice, ‘he got the big Covid decisions right’, or even ‘he had to deal with the Covid pandemic, which was bad luck.’ For this woman, the bare fact that he had become ill with the virus was, in itself, a reason to root for him.
Getting Covid was the best thing that ever happened to Johnson; at times it has probably stopped him from being strung up from the nearest lamppost. Among my school-run mum friends, the co-occurrence of his hospitalisation with Carrie Symonds’ late pregnancy - coming as it did at a time when we were all terrified and confused - was almost overwhelmingly emotional. Yet again, Johnson managed to fully inhabit the nation’s experience and reflect it back, larger than life and twice as dramatic.
Johnson’s political genius lies in this space: his ability to do the things we all do (put on weight, get Covid, screw up at work) and make them - and by extension us - seem noble. He embodies deeply-rooted ideas about England (never the UK), and appeals to deep emotional archetypes. In return, a certain proportion of the public - like our vox pop lady above - twinkle and blush at the mention of his name. They do not merely ‘like’ him as they might a normal politician; their attachment is deeper and more mystical.
The outstanding model to which Johnson aspires is, of course, Churchill; but plenty of ink has been spilled on that one already. For our purposes, though, it’s interesting to note that Churchill, famously, resembled a baby. In his fatness and roundness, his chuckling and grasping, his insistence on gratification and his emotional transparency, Johnson is immensely babyish, and most of us are primed to treat babies with endless fond indulgence.
Freud, who introduced the idea of ‘King Baby’ in the 1914 essay On Narcissism, described the appeal of a baby lying in his ‘narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility’. Few things in life are more universally comical than a baby frowning thoughtfully at you before sharting, or a toddler telling a lie that flies in the face of reason, eyewitness reports and the laws of physics. As with dogs, this quality of perfect blitheness is extremely charming in an infant; it’s just that few of us had thought it a core quality in a successful politician.
Despite their objectively appalling habits, parents ascribe every perfection to their baby - which, Freud notes heavily, ‘sober reflection would find no occasion to do’ - while doing their best to remove all obstacles in their path. Alone among politicians, Johnson is the beneficiary of a kind of quasi-parental indulgence that echoes the King Baby phenomenon. In February 2021 - after 100,000 Covid deaths, multiple short-notice lockdowns, the ruination of a generation’s education and the cancellation of Christmas - the journalist Matt Chorley described a focus group held for Times Radio:
We had Dave, a retired electrical engineer, explain that Boris Johnson was “doing the best he can in extremely difficult circumstances” and Steve, a former cook, saying Johnson was “not the greatest politician” but again “doing the best he can”.
Like a child, Johnson hates apologising and visibly does so as minimally and grudgingly as possible. ‘He would just be treated as a weakling, a lame duck, if he did [apologise]’ commented his biographer Andrew Gimson. And what could be worse than being a ‘weakling’, or ‘utterly wet and a weed’ in the words of Johnson’s next English archetype: Geoffrey Willans’ Nigel Molesworth, the pugnaciously disruptive terror of St Custards school and ‘goriller of 3B’, a classic touchstone for middle-aged public school alumni. Sonia Purnell, who wrote a more disobliging biography of Johnson, hat-tipped the Just William series by Richmal Crompton when she called her book Just Boris. With their rumpled appearance, physical solidity, inadvertent humour and insouciant rule-breaking, these fictional boys have deep roots in the culture of the English middle classes.
For others, Johnson’s ability to behave appallingly and get away with it makes him not so much King Baby as the Banter King. He is Molesworth all grown up and with a couple of executive chairmanships, the most popular and protected rogue in Old London Town. (Johnson is one of the rare people of whom the word ‘rogue’ might be used these days; see also ‘bounder’ and ‘cad’.) His way of demanding laughter with menaces will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a pub fight about to kick off. With his thinly disguised temper, his quick and relentless verbal bullying, his sexual success and his wealth, he is the Steerforth to their Copperfield, the Chris Finch to their David Brent.
He derives almost magical protection from his social class, the whole Eton/Bullingdon/Spectator rah of it all: the accent and the Latin and the endless mop-haired siblings and the dishevelment of dress that only the truly posh can get away with. For those who feel culturally or professionally constrained by bewildering anonymous forces - you can’t say anything these days! - he is pure wish-fulfilment, a Marvel hero in Joules boardshorts. He runs through walls, frictionless, making racist jokes and fathering indeterminate numbers of children, pissing off the French and the Civil Service and anyone else who seeks to enforce standards, any standards.
Yet another English archetype to which Johnson appeals is the merry monarch. In his 1952 book The King’s Two Bodies Ernst Kantorowicz outlined how mediaeval polities came to conceive of the King as having two bodies: his own, and the ‘body politic’, which symbolised the realm. This confusion between the country and the King, Kantorowicz said, had the effect of endowing the human King with all the best characteristics of the nation - fertility, power, stability - while wiping away his imperfections.
TV and the internet mean that Johnson’s imperfections are too well documented to be ignored. Instead of Johnson being perfected by the mystical virtues of the nation, his supporters simply reverse the polarity, projecting his flaws onto the country and telling us it’s relatable; come on, we’d all do it if we could get away with it. After all, once English people’s starry-eyed worship of monarchs had passed they invented the figure of John Bull, which endures mostly unchanged in the tabloid conception of England: a nation that is stout, obdurate, manically self-interested, funny and dangerous.
And then there is the deepest archetype of all, bringing us back to those weird days when each news report focused on the Prime Minister’s breath. For some time before his hospitalisation Johnson had been in isolation in Downing St, segregated away from his fiancee and his staff, eating meals left outside his door; genuinely sad privations that were at that time being shared by tens of thousands of people each week. After his 40 days and nights in the desert Jesus began his ministry; after suffering there is a new beginning, a fresh start. Even for those who disliked and distrusted him, Johnson’s brush with death was seen as a moment of redemption, briefly believed to have given him a greater measure of empathy and seriousness. ‘People were ready to put their faith in him’ reported pollster James Johnson in The Guardian. The journalist and ex-Tory MP Paul Goodman said ‘’When you hear he is dangerously ill it feels like a blow to life itself.” Like the Fisher King, himself a Christlike figure, Johnson’s illness and healing was that of the nation.
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I have a horrible feeling that the only thing that will truly finish Johnson is being conclusively marked out as a cringing, try-hard loser, ‘utterly wet and a weed’. As Ed Miliband can tell you, this is another archetype that has a peculiar power in the popular English imagination. In October’s leadership race Johnson pulled out at the very last minute; I think he realised just in time that he was in danger of being perceived to have both tried and failed. Failing is forgiveable, but voters - like schoolchildren - mercilessly punish those who try. Instead, Boris is well on the way to becoming an archetype himself; his myth remains intact.
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