The U.K. Election: You Can’t Be Serious
A Conservative win in the U.K. shows how the modern populist formula works. Americans beware.
Two days before Britons elected a new parliament, Prime Minister Boris Johnson drove a bulldozer through a wall in Stafford, England. It was a stunt. The wall was made of Styrofoam bricks, with the word “gridlock” printed across it. Printed on the front-loader’s bucket was the Conservative Party’s electoral — and existential — rallying slogan: “Get Brexit Done.”
No such thing will happen, at least not in the short term. Withdrawing from the European Union will take years. As soon as legislation is passed to formalize Britain’s exit from the EU, more negotiations will begin. Decades of policy regarding trade, immigration, security, food, pharmaceuticals, and on and on and on, between Britain and the EU, will have to be settled anew. The reality of the Tory slogan is likely its exact opposite. Brexit won’t be done; it will begin.
All of that only matters if you take things seriously, which Boris Johnson does not. Johnson is famous for building a public persona by lying about Europe. While working as a Brussels-based reporter in the 1990s, he wrote elaborate dispatches about how the Europeans were set to ban prawn cocktail-flavored potato chips or regulate the curvature of bananas — things that weren’t remotely true, but, like smashing through a wall with a bulldozer, were an amusing way to intentionally denigrate and dismiss the EU as an institution. In the intervening decades, Johnson has not only honed his craft, but influenced others to perfect it even further.
Making a joke of things, this politics on a lark, is of course done entirely on purpose. Johnson’s tendencies are essentially camp, Fintan O’Toole writes in Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain — that is, treating trivial things seriously and serious things trivially.
“This will become, in essence, the methodology of Brexit,” O’Toole writes. “It will triumph by teaching the English to take trivial things — the petty annoyances of regulation — very seriously indeed, and to regard the serious things — jobs, communities, lives — with sincere and studied triviality.” And because it is Brexit’s and Johnson’s methodology, it has become the Conservative Party’s methodology: They have policy about the important things, but the substance is deliberately obscured by the unending spectacle.
As the election hit the final stretch, the Conservatives released an ad in which Johnson appears, Love Actually-style, at someone’s door and silently flips through posters with handwritten messages scrawled out with a marker. The clip went viral. On Wednesday, the Conservatives tweeted a video of Johnson at a pie-making facility in Derby to emphasize that they have an “oven-ready” Brexit policy they’ll bring out before Christmas. As Britons voted Thursday, the party tweeted “Make no mistake” above a misspelled version of the slogan: “Get Berxit Done.” The gag sparked mass confusion online, as people dunked on it only to second-guess whether they’d been fooled into promoting a deliberate error, but promoting nonetheless. It was another joke to keep people talking about the jokes — and not the crippling austerity the Tories have imposed on Britain.
“Johnson is not a politician who is humorous,” O’Toole writes, “the humour, however laboured, is the politics.”
Johnson’s continued ascent means the further demise of the Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
In the face of a continuous Tory punchline, Labour’s more traditional approach (treating serious things seriously) ended up sounding like someone constantly explaining the joke, though more often, Labour was simply explaining itself. Labour’s policies tended to be more sharply examined by the media than Tory ones, for example — especially how the party would afford them all. And unlike Johnson’s past remarks, which led to his fame and enduring persona as a lovable scamp, Corbyn’s were endlessly scrutinized for signs of his dishonesty and even treason.
Once you’ve established yourself as the party of trivialities, everything about you is taken with a hefty dose of salt.
Which is not to say that Labour should not have been criticized. It deserved to be, considering the strong thread of anti-Semitism in its ranks. In February, seven Labour MPs quit the party in protest of how Corbyn had handled allegations of anti-Semitism within the party. Despite vows to root it out, the charges have stuck. A poll released in the last week of the election revealed that 20% of Labour voters feel that Jews have a disproportionate influence on politics, compared to 15% of the general population that feels the same. And 29% of Labour voters believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Britain. Labour’s allowance for anti-Semitism is troublesome and deserves criticism. Any serious party would root out that kind of thing immediately, and, having presented itself as a serious party, Labour is rightly expected to do just that.
But as it happens, that same poll also showed a similar problem within the Conservative Party membership. Sixty-two percent of Conservative voters said they believe Islam threatens the British way of life. Another 55% think the number of Muslims entering Britain should be reduced. Yet, Conservative bigotry doesn’t get nearly the public attention, particularly in terms of media coverage, that Labour’s gets.
Labour partisans frequently chalk this imbalance up to media bias. But the truth of the matter may lie elsewhere. Once you’ve established yourself as the serious party, people will take you seriously. But once you’ve established yourself as the party of trivialities, everything about you is taken with a hefty dose of salt. This skewed playing field could have been accounted for by a national media wise to the game, but unfortunately, this doesn’t describe much of Britain’s established press.
The U.K.’s situation might by now sound familiar to Americans, and, much like the referendum result in 2016, Johnson’s victory — a Conservative majority this time — portends ugliness ahead across the ocean. There is a formula at work in modern populist politics that, well, works. It’s pretty simple: You can’t be serious.