Coronavirus Is Boris Johnson’s Disraeli Moment

 In China, Industrial, Germany, Forces & Capabilities, FVEY

Throughout his career, and his barely hidden polit­i­cal ambi­tion, Boris Johnson encour­aged subtle com­par­isons with his war hero, Winston Churchill. There are videos on YouTube, where Johnson, a clas­sics schol­ar him­self, is observed to dis­sect the usage of chi­as­mus in Churchillian rhetoric. His hagio­graph­ic, but emi­nent­ly read­able book on Churchill makes all effort to high­light history’s “Great Man theory,” with all the sub­tle­ty of a rugby tackle.

Churchill, Boris wrote, “is the resound­ing human rebut­tal to all Marxist his­to­ri­ans who think his­to­ry is the story of vast and imper­son­al eco­nom­ic forces. The point of the Churchill Factor is that one man can make all the dif­fer­ence.” And the polit­i­cal lesson that Boris drew from his idol was sim­i­lar. “The key thing,” Boris added, “is to be Conservative in prin­ci­ple but Liberal in sym­pa­thy.”

The sim­i­lar­i­ty was, how­ev­er, always super­fi­cial. Churchill, for all his his­tor­i­cal suc­cess­es and flaws, was a true-blue con­ser­v­a­tive, an aris­to­crat­ic lover of grandeur, order, hier­ar­chy, and Cross-and-Scepter author­i­ty. Churchill was also far-sight­ed; he was cog­nizant of the shift­ing bal­ance of global power and his great­est under­stand­ing was not the threat of Nazi Germany as a peer-rival, but the poten­tial rise of a much larger global mil­i­tary power to the West, and his suc­cess was in shap­ing the direc­tion of British grand-strat­e­gy under that favor­able bal­ance. Johnson, in com­par­i­son, is fop­pish and flip­pant, with a sar­to­r­i­al sense com­pa­ra­ble to a second world war era milk-deliv­ery boy. If Churchill was a char­ac­ter out of Kipling, Johnson is straight out of Wodehouse. 

Johnson read the mood of the coun­try, and won a remark­able vic­to­ry unit­ing the his­toric middle England votes under a work­ing class con­ser­vatism, and then spec­tac­u­lar­ly mis­read the pop­u­lar mood by break­ing with the rest of the Anglosphere, as well as his own Tory back­benchers, on Huawei and 5G. Like all post-Thatcherites, Johnson is at heart a social­ly-lib­er­al free-mar­keter, and for all the irony in the world, with the British left relent­less­ly call­ing Johnson a fas­cist, when the time came to bring down the hammer of author­i­ty, Johnson dithered, unlike Churchill, who in his time of need, prompt­ly dou­bled polic­ing and rationing under a war-econ­o­my to pre-empt an estab­lish­ment of order, during the Blitz. Realism demands state power and hier­ar­chy in extrem­is, some­thing which modern-lib­er­als-pre­tend­ing-to-be-con­ser­v­a­tives, rarely under­stand.

History, how­ev­er, has given Johnson an oppor­tu­ni­ty to emu­late anoth­er, much older, nation­al­ist-con­ser­v­a­tive leader. Like Johnson, and Churchill before him, Benjamin Disraeli was also a writer. Unlike both Johnson and Churchill, Disraeli was no lib­er­al, and under­stood how state power can be chan­neled during times of crisis. Severe struc­tur­al changes are ahead of Britain and the world, given the ques­tions that rose from this crisis. And the argu­ments of free-market Thatcherism sound hollow, with the seri­ous supply-chain issues facing Britain. In all fair­ness, British soci­ety has respond­ed to the prime minister’s bugle. A fif­teen-minute test at home could be avail­able in a couple of weeks or so, according to a British official, as a British firm made rapid progress on that front. Seven F1 teams joined togeth­er to make ven­ti­la­tors for the National Health Service, just as British inven­tors and busi­ness­men are awaiting production for their own models. The entire indus­tri­al base in the coun­try has now geared up for wartime pro­duc­tion. Retired nurses, fire­fight­ers, policemen, and other emergency workers, came back heed­ing the prime minister’s address, and an army of more than five hundred thousand volunteers registered to help. Bipartisan and benign nation­al­ism, after all the Brexit acri­mo­ny, is still alive and well.

But feel­ings are never enough. The prime minister and his health secretary, and especially his chancellor did a lot recent­ly to assuage fears and main­tain the eco­nom­ic engine run­ning, but the his­toric rel­e­ga­tion of Britain to a ser­vice sector econ­o­my bodes ill for the post-Coronavirus future. Despite Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s valiant effort, the issue remains struc­tur­al, and at odds with the stated vision, or at least the One-Nation rhetoric of post-elec­tion Boris.

For good or for bad, Johnson now under­stands that there are mas­sive changes afoot. One, he urgent­ly needs to create an inde­pen­dent strate­gic reserve ini­tia­tive of med­ical sup­plies, fuel and weapons, and the reliance of other great powers (both the United States, and China) cannot be taken for grant­ed. Likewise, fur­ther reliance on China is akin to crim­i­nal neg­li­gence, given Chinese mercantilism and profiteering off med­ical sup­plies in Europe, and it is a perfect time to decouple. That might not mean man­u­fac­tur­ing would be back to the United Kingdom, but that surely must lead to the cur­tail­ing of the Chinese monop­oly. Third, and most impor­tant­ly, Britain needs to reassess its coop­er­a­tion with the EU. There are already signs of intense distress within the EU regard­ing the han­dling of coro­n­avirus, and this global shock might mean more stakes through the heart of insti­tu­tions like the WHO and EU.

Nationalism, in both friend­ly and adver­sar­i­al powers, will rise, and Britain needs to adjust accord­ing­ly. The secret of suc­cess in life, as Disraeli once wrote, is for a man to be ready for his oppor­tu­ni­ty when it comes. This is Johnson’s oppor­tu­ni­ty, to match his instinct with his actions. Only then will his­to­ry remem­ber him kindly.

Sumantra Maitra is a doc­tor­al researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in great power-pol­i­tics and neo­re­al­ism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.

Image: Reuters.

National Interest source|articles

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