IN A fascinating essay in Unherd, Matthew Goodwin explains why, despite the seemingly interminable bungling, the endless hysteria and push-me-pull-you nature of Covid policy, the nannying fat taxes, the idiocies of HS2 and on and on and on, Boris Johnson’s popularity remains sky high: it is values that lie at the root of it all.
Goodwin writes: ‘What unites Boris Johnson’s voters is not so much their economic experience as their values. They prioritise the nation and the national community . . . they cherish Britain’s history, heritage and collective memory and are more sensitive to attempts to deconstruct them.’
Indeed, and it is his and the wider Tory failure to fight for those values that will one day see Johnson’s electorate turn savagely against him.
Matthew Parris once explained superbly why some leaders seem to levitate above the day-to-day misfortunes and disasters of political office. Changes in public opinion, he wrote, are like tipping gravel into a swamp: for a long time, nothing registers on the surface, but all the time the swamp is getting shallower. One day that gravel will break the surface. So it is with swings in political popularity: it isn’t that people are stupid and apathetic that explains the supposed Teflon-like qualities of leaders such as Tony Blair or Boris Johnson. Yes, both benefit from having charisma, but people also understand change takes time and there are bound to be mistakes and disappointments along the way. Furthermore, given the strong overlap between the demographics who voted for Brexit and Johnson’s values-based electorate, the government’s seemingly hard-line Brexit negotiating position is no doubt a significant factor in its continued popularity. However, to many, I would argue, Brexit was not just about sovereignty or immigration but a springboard, a chance for a complete cultural reboot, and they still see in Johnson a jolly, charismatic, can-do figure who can deliver it.
Unfortunately, the Tories are psychologically ill-equipped to fight a culture war. Cultural change is much more difficult than economic change: it requires a holistic vision, coherent strategy, tenacity and endless reinforcement. You are also fighting on territory the Left has made its own for several decades. In contrast, the Tory Party is in its very nature cynical and opportunistic, geared to short-term pragmatism, tactical-level thinking and much happier implementing a settled agenda determined by the zeitgeist rather than leading from the front.
We saw this, of course, with Johnson’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement: for days he hid in his bunker, and when he finally emerged it was only selectively to condemn the attacking of Winston Churchill’s statue and the Cenotaph, iconic monuments whose defence was uncontroversial. That is an absolute classic of Tory cynicism: Johnson’s response was not to think of the long-term national interest but to minimise the potential loss of political capital; not for him the response of France’s President Macron who came out all guns blazing. By fighting on so narrow a front, Johnson left the field open for yet another significant Left-wing cultural victory. Our decadent institutions duly surrendered and the Left saw their chance, with hundreds of commissions and reviews now launched that will see our history swept away. Who can doubt that those areas controlled by Labour will now see widespread replacement of our history with more ‘appropriate’ figures? As many of these areas are among the most culturally and ethnically diverse, what we may see is the cultural balkanisation of the country, with parallel histories rooted not just in the public space, but far more dangerously along ethnic lines.
Although it may not register in the polls yet, I am willing to bet that, to return to Parris’s simile, substantial quantities of gravel have already been tipped into the swamp. After Brexit is delivered, Johnson’s electorate will expect serious action when it comes to the Kulturkampf.
They will not get it: tragically for this country, the Tories have already surrendered the battlefield. As the statues come down, ton after ton of Parris’s gravel will be added. As popular as Johnson is today, one day it will stand like an alp above the political fray, and there will be no hiding place for the Bottler Blond.