Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Tue, 7 Jun 2022, 1:50 PM


Johnson's class handicap

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There's a nice and unremarked irony about the impending end of Johnson's premiership - that he is being brought down by the same class structure that took him to Number 10.

It is surely no accident that the vote of no confidence in him took place as soon as possible after he was heard being booed by a crowd of royalists outside St Paul's. BORIS-4105038

Those booing him had gone to St Paul's to celebrate a woman who knows what Johnson does not - that wealth and power bring with them responsibility, duty and discipline. Of course, the Queen is absurdly privileged, but the flipside of this is that she has spent seventy years keeping her opinions to herself and meeting some of the most absurd, self-regarding and pompous people on the planet without telling them to go fuck themselves (at least not in so
many words). That's amazing restraint - a quality alien to Johnson.

But not one confined to the Queen. For millennia, thinkers have acknowledged that privilege and power can entrap their holders: this was one theme of Xenophon's dialogue, Hiero. Noblesse oblige and paternalism have not always been myths. In fact, they have sometimes exacted the highest price: in WWI junior officers were disproportionately killed as they led their men over the top.

For Marx, a feature of capitalism was that it constrained capitalists as well as workers. Capitalism, he thought, comprised "external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist."

Those laws were the forces of competition, which Marx thought (not wholly correctly) forced capitalists to drive down wages and working conditions regardless of individual capitalists' "good or ill will".

But competition, or the threat thereof, doesn't consist only of market forces. Monarchs and tyrants face competition from potential republics or coups and those who ignore this leave messy corpses as Charles I, Louis XVII, Mussolini and Nicholas II (to name but a few) discovered. And political leaders face competition from rivals - whether it be deadly competition for crowns or the more benign competition for political leadership.

In fact, capitalism as a system has faced competition within our lifetimes. It's no accident that inequality declined in many western economies as the threat of communism increased, but increased as that threat diminished. Competition constrains.

Very few of those in positions of privilege, therefore, have unfettered power. They must show restraint not merely out of morality, but because it is necessary to preserve their social position and power.

Those royalists who boo Johnson, and those Tory MPs who want him gone, can see that Johnson isn't sufficiently heedful of this fact. Even in a polity as deferential as ours, there's a limit to how much you can take the piss.

It's a commonplace to blame this upon Johnson's dishonest incontinent semi-criminal character. But that's only part of the story. A sensible PM would have stopped those parties in Downing Street not just because of good character or from obeisance to the law, but because he would have asked: "how will this look if it leaks out?" Johnson failed to do this. And he did so because of his class background.

His personal history is one of being indulged and forgiven for his many misdemeanours by his patrons and the media - an indulgence that would never be extended to the less privileged, be they the lower orders, ethnic minorities or women. Given that he had got away with so much, why shouldn't he have thought that he could get away with wine and a few nibbles?

But there's more. In presiding over those parties, Johnson behaved like former Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox did when he went to Brussels in a hapless attempt to negotiate Brexit only to offend his hosts by boasting of not visiting the city for 40 years and calling Sabine Weyand "my dear." Both men made the same mistake - of failing to think how their behaviour would seem to others, and so failing to change.

And they didn't do so because their class background hadn't prepared them. If you glide through private school to Oxford and then to many professions, you associate largely with those like yourself: sure, you'll encounter oiks but it is they and not you who are the outsiders who need to fit in. The upshot is that when you need to adapt your behaviour, you'll be unable to do so. Which is another example of how class traps even the privileged.

Of course, this is not to say that every posh person would have made Johnson's error: maybe Cameron would not have, who knows? Some can escape the constraints imposed by their class, just as some from poor homes can be upwardly mobile; or some capitalists gain a monopoly position and so are freed from the external laws or competition; or some people escape from prison. The fact that some can free themselves does not mean that the cage does not exist.

If I am right, though, what we have is a nice symmetry: Johnson's downfall is the product of the same class system that propelled him into office.

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