Boris and the Emperor
Like so many other people, I have been dismayed this week by the election of Boris Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as the 55th Prime Minister of the UK. The UK Prime Minister has been chosen by 0.13% of the British population – ‘roughly the size of a decent football crowd,’ as the New Statesman pointed out.
On the steps of Downing Street this week, Johnson’s attempt to imitate his idol, Winston Churchill, suggested that a kind of Second-World War British ‘pluck and nerve and ambition’ can triumph over the rest of the European Community. The members of his new ‘Brexit cabinet’ have not been appointed to represent all shades of opinion or contribute alternative views. Reportedly, they’ve been appointed as mirror images of their leader - on condition that they support ‘no deal’ – ‘ no ifs, no buts’.
In a contemporary version of ‘the Emperor’s New Clothes’, the Conservative party has agreed to appoint a political showman who clothes himself in optimism and fantasy. Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday was like an echo chamber as Brexiteers put on a mind-blowing display of complacency and congratulation of ‘their man’. They might as well have said: ‘Does my honourable friend, the Prime Minister agree with me that he is just a wonderful man and a great leader?’.
It dismays me further that this wishful thinking is not confined to Conservatives.
Throughout the UK there seem to be people who, for so long, have fed themselves on the plucky British ‘go-it-alone’ self-narrative that they are only too ready to believe that a proven liar, cheat, adulterer - the man described in a documentary about him as a human bulldozer - can plough his way through the EU’s consistent determination not to re-negotiate. And in the USA, so many people, many of them evangelical Christians, clinging on to the idea that a sexist, racist, narcissist in the White House will free their country from the threats they see on every hand. Supporters of both leaders see bluffing rhetoric and faux nationalism as the means to intimidate enemies and bring about triumphant success for their cause. The supporters want to believe it – so they speak and vote as if they do.
I so want to believe that British people like this are just a tiny proportion of the UK population. That in the end, that other narrative, the narrative of British creativity and common sense, will triumph. I want to believe that Trump is the swing of the racist pendulum after Obama’s thoughtful, inclusive, more peace-making approach to the world.
But I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure because I have seen too much evidence of similar dynamics in my own and other relationships. I have seen too much evidence of the tendency for domestic relationships to be powered – sometimes for a lifetime - by ‘shared myths’. Spouses share bed and board without ever questioning each other or themselves. People who never see relationship break-ups coming because they didn’t want to explore the hard questions together. Sometimes partners are nervous about questioning a spouse with a temper or a fragile self-concept. At other times exploring what’s going on might mean that there will need to be a greater sharing of emotional, financial or parental responsibility between the partners – so we cling on to the myth that all is well.
And in the church? How many shared myths there? People who support each other in believing that ‘God will take care of them’ but don’t want to ask or answer common sense questions about how they spend their money or care for their health or discipline their children. People who don’t want to ask difficult questions in Bible study groups in case they find out that their faith or that of others won’t stand up to the sort of scrutiny they might exercise in other areas of life – perhaps before buying a house or a car. As TS Eliot said: ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality.’
Believing against all the odds is a profound human quality. It can signify faith or fantasy, wisdom or weakness. It’s encouraging to see how many people recognise what is really going on. Is it too much to hope against hope that somewhere in the Boris inner circle there are influential people who are prepared to cry out, ‘But the Emperor has no clothes!’?