Loudmouths, populism, and The Disunited KingdomLoudmouths
Boris Johnson is a loudmouth. I’ve met quite a few of them in my time in London — although, that’s not to say loudmouths don’t exist everywhere — and the one thing I’ve learned in this regard is to never trust a loudmouth. They believe in nothing beyond themselves. I’d assumed, at one point, that this was clear for all to see and that loudmouths didn’t necessarily get ahead by building tribes of loyal followers, but rather by bulldozing their way through life; people didn’t necessarily like them, but rather meekly fell in line behind them. That thinking certainly seemed to account for some successful people in business, but it seems to fall down when you consider, for example, the shock victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election. Donald Trump is a loudmouth. A demagogue at times, but more often than not, a simple producer of a constant stream of unfiltered, il-conceived, and often demonstrably false ideas and statements. To a loudmouth, it doesn’t really matter as long as they’re speaking and attracting attention. But, to be elected President of the United States, people must have actually believed in him. Similarly, it looks — rather unbelievably — that Boris Johnson might just become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Not with a popular mandate achieved through a general election, admittedly, but by the will of the members of the Conservative Party. Surely, to achieve that feat, people must believe in him too?
There will be a myriad of other reasons why Tory party members might back Boris Johnson — the sheep will back him because he’s already the front-runner, the self-serving will back him because they calculate it will further their own parliamentary careers, and so forth — but to be in the position of front-runner in the race to become Prime Minister, there must be a contingent that believes he’s the best man for the job. A sizeable proportion of this (rather limited) electorate are either completely willing to overlook the serious personality flaws of Boris Johnson whilst privately being uncomfortable about it, or indeed fail to acknowledge that any such serious flaws exist. Despite the fact that Boris Johnson is a proven liar and a cheat, despite the fact he’s used racist and homophobic language, despite the fact he committed numerous faux pas as Foreign Secretary, despite the fact his Brexit NHS slogan has been debunked and he still doesn’t appear to have a credible plan for actually leaving the EU, people still believe he should be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
So, why is that? Is it the case that a simple message — “We’ll leave the EU by 31st October, deal or no deal”, “We’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it” — can be a rallying call so powerful that everything else becomes irrelevant? Is it the case that having an enemy, real or imagined, is the easiest way to engage the masses? Is it the case that this type of populism is an inevitable cycle of democracy? Surely there must be a way to regain the narrative and promote truth over fiction, pull people back from the extremes and towards the centre ground which is where compromise and co-operation can be found. Winston Churchill’s quote about democracy, to paraphrase, being the least worst form of government, rings true, however. Keeping the populace continually engaged and simultaneously grounded seems like a goal that will tend to end in failure. The people aren’t interested in the bigger picture and can’t be expected to seek out the nuances — they want just one, simple, palatable message, preferably one which conjures visions of an enemy, and they’ll gladly follow. Loudmouths are dangerous, populations are gullible, and populism feels like an ever-present threat to human development.
The Disunited Kingdom
It also feels like a threat to the UK, in this place and time. The Brexiteers and Boris Johnson aficionados are not exclusively, but mainly, an English phenomenon. Scotland clearly doesn’t want to leave the EU, and I’m prepared to suggest that the majority of Scots would view the prospect of Prime Minister Johnson as disturbing. Many people throughout these isles would take the same view, of course, but there must be parallels here with the way Thatcher was perceived in Scotland specifically. Johnson, like Thatcher, is determined to push through policy — in this case Brexit, even if that’s a hard Brexit — that is fully and demonstrably in contrary to the needs and wants of the people of the Scotland. Moreover, neither politician seemed to care that their approaches would benefit the few at the expense of the ordinary person. Brexit will harm the interests of many of the working class Brexiteers who voted for it, but because the majority of Scots voted against it — and the SNP will of course frequently remind us — the Scots will perhaps see more clearly the link between leaving the EU and the slide in their fortunes in a post-EU Britain.
It’s also possible that the Scottish culture is generally a more humble one — perhaps a more unconfident one — and therefore there is a stronger aversion to loudmouth personalities. Perhaps there’s a national inferiority complex that rails against the aggressor, the larger and more powerful entity, the bully, and that loudmouths aren’t specifically rejected, but rather the accompanying stereotype of the “English toff”. Whatever the reason, and whatever the outcome of Brexit, it’s hard to see Boris Johnson as Prime Minister applying anything other than negative forces on the Union. Nicola Sturgeon can be assured to use such a scenario to her full advantage. It would take extraordinary skill for Sturgeon to prise out permission for indyref2 from any future Conservative PM, however.
Personally, I believe the pro-independence narrative will be a compelling one in the case of Prime Minister Johnson and his Hard Brexit because it will be easy to contrast the cultural disparity between Brexit Britain and Euro Scotland. However, it is worth noting that the SNP are in the business of selling nationalism and of course we must beware the simple message. Maybe the English are thoroughbred capitalists and the Scots aspire to social democracy, maybe the English are nationalists at heart too and it makes sense to have greater separation, maybe the English are sentimental about Empire and maybe the Scots really do feel more connected to Europe. Or, maybe it’s more about messaging, and circumstance, and that there’s an underlying volatility in the national psyche. Perhaps if and when Scotland achieves the much higher levels of immigration that it needs, the people will be more susceptible to divisive ideologies driven by the likes of Nigel Farage or Donald Trump. It’s nice to think that the Scots are more sensible and that an independent Scotland would shield itself from some of the worst of populism because it’s an outward looking country of friendly people who believe in equality for all — but, let’s just pause and remind ourselves that the Scots love a good enemy and although England naturally fills that role, in reality, I’m sure that could be spun in any different direction. Scotland is no utopia and the people residing there are not fundamentally different from the people that reside in other parts of these isles, or indeed, any other part of this continent. The French have Le Pen’s National Front, the Germans have AfD, but even in Sweden, the content and mild-mannered social democrats, have seen the rise of the Neo-Nazi Sweden Democrats. The Scots are most definitely not special, not above railing against an imaginary enemy, and not immune from populism.
Despite this, it’s plain to see that England & Wales are currently pulling in a different direction from Scotland and Northern Ireland. Regardless of how it’s explained, there is an Anglo/Celtic Divide at least in terms of Brexit and that may just be the final straw that pulls apart the United Kingdom. Today the big issue is how to solve the question of the Irish border, and despite being politically tricky, the cleanest solution is to have no border at all as a result of a united Ireland. The big issue of tomorrow is how to prevent a physical Anglo-Scottish border which would then become an EU frontier. It certainly seems that an open border here is just as important as an open border between the Republic of Ireland and the North. We’d all be culturally and economically poorer as a result of new disconnects and added frictions on our hitherto highly integrated island.