Sunday, July 17, 2022

The King of the rhetoric industries

The last book published by Simon Kuper (“Chums. How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK”) provides the background to understand how a clown such as Boris Johnson could lead his country out of the European Union and become Her Majesty’s Prime Minister. Also, it helps us understand why his premiership soon imploded as a result of his lies, incompetence and dishonesty. Johnson predictably turned out to be a successful campaigner and a disastrous ruler.

If the departure of Messi from FC Barcelona helped Simon Kuper promote his previous book (“Barça”), now the resignation of Johnson will help him promote this one. That is good news –both the resignation and the increased number of readers of an excellent book.

The still sitting Prime Minister is representative of a caste of upper class Tories that went to the most elitist school (Eton) and to the most elitist University (Oxford). The nature of these learning institutions, which gave priority to rhetoric and status over substantive knowledge and work, is an independent variable that has significantly influenced the political style of Johnson and his closest allies.

For a non-British reader (and perhaps to some Brits as well), the book reveals the myth of the “intelligence” of Boris Johnson. We are used to hearing the argument that Johnson is better than our populists because he wrote a biography of Churchill and he can recite poems in Latin and classical Greek. The reason for that is that history and classical literature is all he learned in school and university, and most probably at a very superficial level. The style of teaching and studying when he was in Oxford required minimal hours of effort, and was based on essays that lacked substance and serious research. Most of the time was spent conspiring in debating societies where serious ideas occuppied a back seat. 

As a result of that, most of the Oxford Tories (including Johnson)  went into what Kuper calls the rhetoric industries: journalism, television, politics… And they reached the highest jobs in politics not after a previous experience managing anything remotely serious, but by writing columns in right-wing newspapers or joking on TV.

They found in Brexit the cause that they couldn’t find in no longer existing wars. Leading Brexit did not require the management skills of their predecessors in the ruling classes, but provided a similar sense of greatness –at lest to them. “Doing” Brexit turned out to be much more complex, and so far has resulted into an increasingly obvious and hopefully reversible failure.

The book explains how Johnson “took his shaky French to Brussels in 1989” to write columns that appealed to eurosceptics by playing with half truths and stereotypes. A common theme of his articles was that “nobody tells us what to do,” a national-populist slogan that merged sovereignism with inverse class struggle.

Oxford Tories became obsessed with European federalism, and they used it as a scapegoat to build a movement based on lies and demagoguery. I learned in the book that the predecessor to the UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage was called the Anti-Federalist League.

Simon Kuper argues that “entertainment journalism was the perfect role for a man who lacked the patience for serious political ideas.” He and his caste colleagues always privileged verbal intelligence over analytical intelligence. That was more than enough to develop “an entertaining and persuasive story, wrapped in tutorial level plausibility, larded with quips and choice statistics and appeals to ancient British traditions of liberty.”

The elite’s self perpetuation was based on a contempt of ideas, and also when needed on corruption and favouritism (plus the tools of expensive professional modern campaigning). All these ingredients (except the professional campaigning) showed up when the Tory leadership had to confront the Covid-19 pandemic, for which their superficial training in Oxford and their previous careers provided no guidance. They did not even have an intuition for exponential growth or contagion models. As a result, the UK had one of the worst records in the western world of fighting the pandemic. The perception of that by the public was not helped by corrupt deals to provide tests and equipment at the beginning of the disease. In addition, while they were incompetently issuing rules for their citizens, some of them, including Boris Johnson, where doing the opposite of what they were asking people to do. The rules were always for others.

As conservative and right wing ideas become less appropriate to deal with the problems of our world, and they deviate more from the interests of a majority of citizens, communication and spin become more valuable assets than in the past. It is no surprise then that one of the leading candidates to succeed Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party is a former TV reality show contestant. Just another one.

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