Boris Johnson, consistency and punditry in politics
By Alberto Mingardi
In this rather entertaining video, Boris Johnson is taken to task for some of his rather flamboyant past witticisms. Johnson, now Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom since Theresa May ascended to the prime minister’s office, is a writer and journalist, and was most recently Mayor of London. Johnson is one of those controversial figures who rejoices in igniting people’s reactions – or at least he used to do that. The journalist quizzing Johnson takes advantage of this fact, and points out that his sharp tongue is most likely to be ill suited to be at the top of British diplomacy. As an unrepentant polemicist, he didn’t spare the President of the United States nor former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from his pointed disapproval.
Johnson is in a not so enviable position. He is clearly a highly talented but also tremendously ambitious man. His talents manifested themselves in journalistic writing and punditry: which is all fine, and it is actually not such an uncommon course to political power. Political journalism and politics are traditionally separated by a revolving door: think of the many Republican presidential candidates who landed a job at FoxNews, but also, historically, of such different men like Benjamin Disraeli, a writer, and Benito Mussolini, a newspaper man. Pat Buchanan was a writer and a politician, Bill Buckley ran for office in New York (though he said, famously, that in case of winning he’d have demanded a recount), Gore Vidal always somehow resented that he failed in achieving a political career (though I believe his time was better spent in giving us some wonderful novels). Of course, Winston Churchill was a writer, and Churchill is the man Johnson tries to evoke, even in his own look.
The point is, however, that while it is relatively easy for a pundit to become a politician who aims at being basically a testimonial to a certain cause, it is not that easy for a man who has lived by his pen to become a credible statesman on the world stage.
This is maybe truer than ever in the age of the Internet. Everything we write is here, on the net, and it is here to stay. Getting ahold of everything Winston Churchill scribbled in his life entailed considerable costs: now it just takes a journalist to google “Boris Johnson Hillary”.
Johnson uttered an argument that looks like a rather feeble defence: all that mocking should be put in context. I don’t know if he is right, but I think he has a point. You can certainly question the motives of a figure like Johnson, wonder how serious he was about the debate of ideas while aiming at having a top job in politics for example, but it would be pointless to crucify him as a Foreign Secretary because of things he said in a context animated by a partisan spirit which is not uncommon in politics. More sheepish characters may have been more cautious in accepting a job that brings you and your life – not to mention your words – on the world stage: but Boris Johnson is certainly not a shy person.
One of the nicest features of modernity is that we can all live different lives in our time. Johnson was a pundit, a journalist, and now is Foreign Minister. He was a very effective pundit; I think his talents were quite well suited for that. I don’t know if this is true of foreign policy, too.
People are, up to a point, the mask they wear, the role they play. Johnson is basically challenged for questions of style: he used to be blunt, he can no longer be blunt like that. If you are skeptical of him because style matters in foreign affairs and relationships between countries are delicate and could use people with a different temper, I think your argument is sound. If you question his “consistency”, I think you’re off mark. Differences in tone between different roles are the essence of our life. You won’t speak to an esteemed colleague the same way you speak to a taxi driver. You save your frustrations for your girlfriend and you don’t necessarily share them with your banker – et cetera.
This doesn’t mean a test of “consistency” shouldn’t be applied by the press – but it should be applied to decisions, rather than to styles of conversation. Johnson has done nothing so far as a foreign secretary; let’s wait for things to happen and, for the little I know of him, perhaps we’ll be relieved if at some point he proves not to be too consistent.
On a more general note… Intellectuals enter politics rather often, and they are often charged for lack of courage or, indeed, consistency. But compromise is the essence of politics and when you’re a politician, your incentives and your conduct invariably change. I think we’d be better to judge intellectuals who enter politics by the “quality” of their compromises. Seeing that something is too important to compromise on, and understanding that feasible middle-of-the road solutions that improve on the status quo is preferable to shooting for the moon of perfection, and is a very rare mix of moral backbone and political virtue.