Judging Boris Johnson Is, for Once, Not About Him
While elite male networks of power have always been accompanied by conflicts of interest, forgiving the sins of our leaders is no longer as viable as it once was.
UK senior civil servant Sue Gray’s recent report determined that 10 Downing Street was frequently treated during the COVID-19 lockdowns like a student dorm room for drunken all-nighters. In its wake, Prime Minister Johnson has just wobbled through a confidence vote in his leadership in which 40% of his parliamentary colleagues determined that he was unfit for office. With his own long-term survival in question, Johnson and his supporters now argue that it’s time to put this episode behind him and focus on what really matters to the country.
After all, as one newspaper wrote, “the most criminal thing” about the lockdown parties is that they looked “so rubbish.” Another asked why the taxpayer had to fork over £450,000 for the investigation.
Having just returned from a conference in Mexico in which the participants—representing the public, corporate and academic sector—were crying out for the rule of law and strong institutions, the dangers of a downward trajectory into bad governance are clear.
And while the two countries are clearly different in their histories, as well as their socio-economic and political dynamics, Mexico should not be seen as a political backwater, but as a lesson.
It has a vibrant, entrepreneurial, and largely law-abiding populace which shares our own concerns. The negative spillovers from three decades of globalisation and now the COVID-19 pandemic have eroded the fragile middle class. Voters are trapped between hope and resentment, choosing a populist president who, in turn, offers brushstrokes of promised social mobility while the rich search for certainty by circumventing Mexico’s fractured system of governance. From personal security to access to medical services and quality education, the wealthy live in an increasingly alternative, gated reality.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Sisyphus Pushing a Boulder up Second Amendment Hill
- An Interview with Crisosto Apache: “How I Walk Around in This Country Is Very Complex”
- Reversing Roe v. Wade: Stripping the Capacity to Decide for Ourselves
Above all, the weakness of Mexico’s political and judicial institutions combined with corruption in its public procurement and security forces (and the high levels of violence that have accompanied its drug wars) have contributed to low productivity and under-investment. The levels of poverty are striking.
US President Biden has stated that today’s systems of governance have autocracy and Putin-led massacres at one end of the spectrum, and the beacon of democracy at the other. In fact, Boris Johnson’s smirking dismissal of the charges laid against him and his refusal to step down in light of his scandals, reflects a more nuanced picture in which the corrosion of accountability in democratic institutions threatens to blur these two extremes. Because, while Putin’s autocratic system of power carries devastating external consequences, Johnson’s cavalier approach to his personal and political interests undermines our democratic processes from inside in ways that may prove irrevocable.
Johnson’s illegal attempt to prorogue parliament in 2019 (with the aim of preventing lawmakers and the people they represent from voting on options to deliver Brexit) was a bet to further his political career. His approach since then has tainted Britain’s international standing further still and called into question the belief that it has a (generally) law-abiding political class. He has acted dishonestly by fudging the source of personal decorating expenses and then misleading parliament about it and, recklessly, by befriending and then promoting the wealthy son of a former KGB officer to the House of Lords.
In what seems like an attempt to prove that his instinct for risk-taking is an asset to the country, Johnson has threatened to renege on the UK-EU Brexit treaty that he signed just 18 months ago, unless the EU agrees to his new demands over the Northern Ireland Protocol. His gamesmanship is threatening the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Johnson has threatened to renege on the UK-EU Brexit treaty that he signed just 18 months ago, unless the EU agrees to his new demands over the Northern Ireland Protocol. His gamesmanship is threatening the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Despite this inexcusable record, Johnson’s supporters argue that we should move on. In light of today’s bigger, more immediate threats: the war in Ukraine, sky-rocketing inflation, an energy crisis, and a possible economic recession, focusing on some drunken togetherness during the pandemic is a dithering distraction. As one of them noted, “He was elected to lead a nuclear-armed state, not to be an office manager.”
However, this neglects the fact that today’s established democracies are increasingly brittle and susceptible to the blight of corruption. While elite male networks of power have always been accompanied by conflicts of interest that have rewarded men for taking risks that prioritise personal political ambition, forgiving the sins of our leaders is no longer as viable as it once was. Ignoring them is as much the enemy of democracy as Putin’s war. If conservatives judge Johnson purely on his winnability factor, they risk putrefying their party, as have American Republicans.
They also allow autocrats to claim moral equivalence with their democratic counterparts and to challenge the credibility of those who work hard in the name of transparency and accountability. The result is to sabotage the caliber of public service and the kind of institutionalised resilience that is needed for political stability and to deliver fairness for all.
And, as Mexico illustrates, once the seeds of dysfunctional behaviour and corruption penetrate our governing systems, they become like poison ivy; you can clip back the leaves, but their interconnecting underground root systems are nigh on impossible to eradicate. And those who try don’t make old bones; eleven Mexican journalists have been murdered so far in 2022.
Democracy’s strongest currency is trust, not just between people and government but in the authority of agencies and regulators to monitor and police the process of democratic governance. So, all in all, £450,000 is small change if the Sue Gray report serves as a warning that today’s minor political sins can grow into mortal wounds of distrust in our institutions. Because when disdain for democracy gets sewn into the fabric of society, it is always to the detriment of our living standards, our safety, our human potential, and our personal freedoms.