How tricks of the trade turn toxic in the hands of Tory charlatans

Sunday National, 5th July 2020.

Pity the land ruled by newspaper columnists. This might strike you as a declaration against interest – but pity the land, ‘cos we live in one. There’s a trick you pick up at columnist school. When the page is blank, the inspiration isn’t coming and the insight isn’t there – find a quote. Any quote. With the phrase “I believe it was Lyndon Johnson who said” in hand, you can then scrape through Wikipedia for a grace note or two to paraphrase, implying you’ve read the whole four volumes of the Caro biography – and look, you’ve already filled a hundred words. With the first paragraph tidied up, all you need to do is find some ponderous but superficially plausible connection to the Events of the Day, and your thundering think-piece is well on its way. Column writing is a school for scoundrels.

Columnists tend to be quick studies but flighty, necessarily opinionated but under-informed. Generalists rather than specialists, we’re bounced around in the tumble drier of the news cycle and land on our topics by accident every week. If knees jerk, most newspapers believe their columnists should jerk with them. Week after week, it’s too often the columnist’s duty take a nuanced point, and drive it to the point of caricature, to take an argument, and drive it to its illogical conclusion. Contrary, bilious, mischievous, exaggerated, superficial – most of us write too much, too often, for too long. Newspaper columns are the purest human expression of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

If you have narcissistic tendencies, a regular outlet for your prejudices can only collude in and encourage them. Some weeks, you will have nothing to say, but the columnist has to magpie and pickpocket their way through. Columnists are creatures who can volte-face without embarrassment and flip without fear.  If our prophecies don’t come true or if our criticisms prove misplaced – we’re rarely held accountable for our mistakes and miscalls. If we misread the stats, misinterpret the legislation, speculate on topics we know objectively little about – well, there’s always next week, right?

Columnists can be proven wrong, time and again, and lose none of their confidence that’s today’s copy is searing, savage, bang on. At their best, columnists can be entertaining voices, a diverting way to spend a Sunday morning, stress-test arguments for us or challenge and reinforce our existing prejudices, political or otherwise – but of all of the occupations which have no business governing the country, I’d put op-ed writers right at the very top.

This may sound like a fairly rough diagnosis of the trade I occasionally exercise –  but in thinking about how Britain is governed and the generation of leaders the Tory Party have bequeathed to us, you can’t avoid the impact of the columnist’s habits of mind and coping strategies. The leading lights – the supposed “thinkers” in this Tory administration – came to politics with all the self-confidence and glibness only hardened columnists could bring to the task. We’re now living with the consequences. Whether we’re talking about education reform, or Brexit or the UK government’s response to coronavirus – Boris Johnson’s is a “Will This Do, Ed?” administration, with all the virtues and vices the Prime Minister demonstrated in his output for the Telegraph and the Spectator. The skills which make for a good columnist are invariably toxic when applied to the practical work of running the country.

This week was a classic case in point. After months of Covid headlines, tens of thousands of deaths, and a furloughed economy, in Dudley this week our columnist Prime Minister announced that he’s decided Britain requires a “Rooseveltian New Deal.” The historical theme was introduced by Michael Gove’s Ditchley Lecture, arguing that the Tories are a “pro-worker, pro-public servant People’s Government.” Well, it’s certainly a take. Speaking to a predominantly U.S. audience, Gove held up American independence as an example of the hidebound and conservative attitudes of Britain’s institutions and commentators. “Had they been able to interrogate George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in 1783 they would have concluded that American independence was an expensive, untried and unjustifiable innovation. In Treasury terms they would have said it was novel and contentious and therefore should be stopped,” Gove quipped.

Bored of his ill-fitting Churchill costume, Boris has decided to recast himself as Franklin D Roosevelt, the Democratic President whose 1930s reforms to the American economy carried the country through the Great Depression. Johnson, however, hopes to do it on this on the cheap, gingered up a bit with some characteristically idiosyncratic word choices. The lede, the meretricious invocation of history to give the whole thing some heft, the great man vision of history which Johnson is modestly prepared to associate himself with – the speech bore all the hallmarks of the dashed out think piece, though usually, Mr Johnson’s output is better written. Much of what he had to say was authentic frontier gibberish.

“We will double down on levelling up and when I say level up, I don’t mean attacking our great companies I don’t mean impeding the success of London – far from it or launching some punitive raid on the wealth creators. I don’t believe in tearing people down any more than I believe in tearing down statues that are part of our heritage let alone a statue of our greatest wartime leader.” Kerplunk.

As we’ve come to expect from this chancer PM, the whole spaffing speech was pervasively insincere or boastful British exceptionalism. COVID is a “deceptively nasty disease” – who knew? – but “we cannot continue simply to be prisoners of this crisis,” he says. Britain, he tells us, “in so many ways the greatest place on earth” – but at the same time, bewilderingly crap on several essentials.

With the air of a man surprised to discover his party has ruled Britain for the greater part of the last century, the Prime Minister tells us that “we tolerate such yawning gaps between the best and the rest.” He comes bearing examples. “We have some of the best and most productive companies in the world – and yet we are not as nationally productive as many of our global competitors. We have the world’s most brilliant medical minds, the world’s best pharmaceutical companies, our doctors and treatments are the best in the world and yet we have so many millions who have to wait for too long to see their GP – even before the new waiting lists produced by the crisis.”

Every crisis is an opportunity for someone – in this case, to gut planning law. “Newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country.” The solution? Don’t count the newts. Just pour concrete into the pond and see how many float to the top.

If only some kind of political party had been in government for the last decade which might have exercised kind of influence over the state of the NHS, exerted some control over its levels of funding, or made critical decisions on where infrastructure spending would and would not be invested. There’s to be no “cheeseparing” austerity either, apparently, which Mr Johnson has been consistently in favour of before he was against it.

This week is just another reminder there is apparently no political core to Johnson. He’s just a bag of old jokes, glib lines, of borrowed costumes and exaggerated poses. A columnist to his toes, Johnson doesn’t have to be right, or fully-evidenced, on top of the brief, thorough, or realistic about the claims he’s making. The plausibility he is aiming for is entirely superficial. The main thing is keeping the punters entertained. But this isn’t the job of political leaders. High office shouldn’t be an opportunity for over-privileged men to go on a vision quest to find out their strengths and their limitations. Boris Johnson is the little boy who said he wanted to become “world king” – and who, thanks to the baffling promotion structures of Britain’s elite, got to live out his fantasy. We’re all living with the consequences of this cosplay Prime Minister. But there’s the nagging void at the heart of the project which all of the florid verbiage and deranged metaphors in the world can’t hide. They say if you can fake sincerity then you’ve made it. Sincerity seems to be the one thing this Prime Minister can’t fake.

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