Floreat gens togata!

EtonShield

Britain has had 54 Prime Ministers. Tomorrow, it gets its 55th, and the 20th to have passed through the hallowed portals of The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor (though only the second to have been one of the ‘tugs’ – the gens togata or ‘gowned ones’, as the school’s intellectual elite, the King’s Scholars, are known). What can we expect from Boris Johnson? Will he save Britain from its current political chaos, or will he lead it further into the abyss? I can’t say that I know the answers, and my mind is somewhat divided. I can’t help but like and admire the guy. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if he’s really who one wants to run one’s country. A few memories help to explain why.

Boris combines brilliance and eccentricity in equal measure, as I witnessed in about 1986 when I stumbled across him one day in the Gladstone Room of the Oxford Union hosting a group of visitors from the Netherlands. Boris was clearly at a loss as to what to do with the Dutch, but on seeing me he summoned me over and launched into a hymn of praise to Eton’s founder, King Henry VI:

Rex Henricus, sis amicus

Nobis in angustia;

Cujus prece, nos a nece,

Salvemur in perpetua.

Now, I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for good King Henry to whom I indirectly owe great deal, but goodness only knows what the Dutch thought of it all. In its way, though, it was classic Boris – extemporization taking the place of preparation, entertainment substituting for substance, and yet somehow it all coming together to get him off the hook and bluff his way through the day.

The question which now arises is whether this approach will suffice to get him the mess of Brexit, a mess for which he himself is largely to blame. There’s a tendency to regard Boris as a buffoon. This is a mistake. He’s super-smart. He’s also flexible, and is willing to listen to alternative points of view. And this brings me to a second Boris memory:

Back in December 2002, when I was a Lecturer at the University of Hull, my phone rang and it turned out to Boris Johnson, then editor of The Spectator. He’d heard of a pamphlet which my mother and I had written about the proposed constitution for the European Union. Would I write an article about it for The Spectator, he asked. Sure, I said, whereupon the conversation switched to other matters, including the impending invasion of Iraq. All that guff about WMD was a load of nonsense, I told him; there was absolutely no reason to attack Iraq. Interesting, Boris replied, ‘forget the article about the EU, write me a piece saying all that.’ And so I did. Dare I say it, I think it was pretty good. The article came out in the Christmas edition of 2002 and ended up as the first of about 20 pieces I did for the Speccie. The thing about this is that Boris supported the war. Yet he commissioned and published an article saying it was stupid. This was fairly typical of his tenure as editor: a wide range of opinions were encouraged. Alas, once Boris left the magazine a more rigid orthodoxy took over and those like me who thought in the wrong way found ourselves on the street.

So, on the plus side, Britain’s new Prime Minister is no ideologue. This is a major point in his favour. I do worry about his judgement, however. Take the case of Iraq. It’s not like he wasn’t warned that all that WMD stuff was rot. In fact, he later admitted that he didn’t believe it. But he said that he voted for the war anyway because Saddam was a bad man and deserved to be removed. And that perhaps reveals something else about him: for all his intelligence, he comes across as much more a man of emotion than reason, wrapped up in myths of Britain as the historical home of freedom and democracy, and of British greatness which can only be sustained by asserting the country’s sovereignty and throwing its weight around.

Which brings me on to my third Boris memory. It’s a little hazy, but I remember going down to Eton one weekend from Oxford to play in a scratch Wall Game team with, among others, Boris Johnson. If my memory serves me correctly, Boris and I got changed in the room of the Captain of the School, after which my head got thoroughly pummelled in during the game. From outside, it looks like nothing’s happening in the wall game. Inside, it’s extremely violent. Anyway, the big game of the year takes place each St Andrew’s Day, when the College team (drawn from the 70 King’s Scholars for whom the school was founded, and who make up the ‘College’) and the ‘Oppidan’ team (drawn from the rest of the school). Legend has it that one St Andrew’s day in the late nineteenth century, the College team failed to turn up on time, with the exception of one player, James Kenneth Stephen, who managed singlehandedly to hold off the Oppidans until his colleagues eventually arrived. In his memory, every year at the dinner held in the College Hall on St Andrew’s Day, the members of the College team individually drink a toast: ‘In piam memoriam JKS’.

Part of me wonders if this isn’t how Britain’s new Prime Minister sees himself – a modern day JKS, singlehandedly holding off the enemy to deliver Brexit and save both Britain and the Conservative Party. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Boris once chose to write a biography of Winston Churchill. It’s the same sort of mythology – the lone genius who rides to the rescue. Whatever else you may say about Boris, you can’t accuse him of lack of ambition.

It didn’t end well for JKS, who some suspect (almost certainly incorrectly) of being Jack the Ripper. He suffered from bipolar disorder, and after hitting his head in an accident went steadily crazier. He ended up mental hospital where he wrote a couple of volumes of well-received poetry before starving himself to death.

It didn’t end well for Henry VI either. He also went mad. Imprisoned by the usurper Edward IV, he too turned to poetry, and penned a few lines of warning for those seeking fame and power.

Kingdoms are but cares
State is devoid of stay,
Riches are ready snares,
And hasten to decay
Pleasure is a privy prick
Which vice doth still provoke;
Pomps, imprompt; and fame, a flame;
Power, a smoldering smoke.
Who meanth to remove the rock
Owst of the slimy mud
Shall mire himself, and hardly scape
The swelling of the flood.

As he seeks to remove the rock of Britain out of the slimy mud of Brexit, will Boris Johnson mire himself in? Will the swelling of the flood then sweep him away? Or will he somehow extemporize his way through it? I do not know. But whatever happens, I’m sure it will be entertaining.

Floreat gens togata!

eton
Boris Johnson (bottom right) and other members of College, 1982. Spot the author.

25 thoughts on “Floreat gens togata!”

  1. On the WMD thing: it’s obvious that the WMD excuse was a ruse for the rubes. Same as “Kosovo mass graves”, “Gaddafi’s genocide”, “Russian meddling”, and so on.

    If you wanted to argue against the war, you’d need to argue against the war, not against the excuse for war. I’m sure the perpetrators had considered some anti-war arguments (such as Powell’s “you break it, you own it”). If you could deduce what they are, the realist’s anti-war arguments, you’d need to concentrate on those, imo.

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  2. In addition to his chaotic time as Mayor, and my own passionately anti-Brexit stance there is one other major factor for me that makes me highly suspicious of Johnson’s (as of writing) pending premiership: his personal life and background.

    The blow up at Carrie Anne Symonds revealed a part about his personality I had never been aware of before: he has a foul temper. I had assumed he had a ‘live and let live’ one and was indulgent of failings in others, but apparently not, and his former editor Max Hastings clearly regrets letting Johnson get away with so much for so long. Mendacity in Journalism is something that this blog in particular has been very eloquent in exposing and Johnson’s own shoddiness and often pure invention were mostly allowed to slide. However, when anyone questioned him on these matters he was not above threatening people in quite strong terms.

    Finally his membership in the Bullingdon Club and the way it conducted itself for me is one of the blackest marks. His subsequent conduct shows he in many ways – along with David Cameron and George Osborne – is still that delinquent who smashes up places and then gets out of it because ‘my father will take care of it.’ We saw Cameron recklessly gamble twice with the future of Union – in Scotland and with Brexit – and carry on with absolute confidence because in his past when he took outrageous gambles with other people’s property and patrimony ‘my father will take care of it’ was well in effect. Somebody else would clean up his mess and allow him to scratch a particular itch. Of course in 2016 this backfired on him. And we know that Johnson was campaigning with the Leave Campaign to further his political position alone. In other words gambling with the future of the country was a lark to secure some marginal advantage. The ‘what’ of what he wanted to gain power over did not matter, its form and condition, only that he should have that power.

    All this, and more, makes me highly apprehensive.

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  3. love it.

    I thought I had read all the diverse books on Jack the Ripper. Admittedly initially I told the person trying to get me hooked on the tale, he surely must be crazy. But then some places still could be checked, and yes I got hooked for a while. Till I lost interest in all those: Let me tell you. No one knows more about Jack the Ripper then I do tales. And yes, I found sociological books about the East End, or more generally the history of London’s police forces at that point in time far more interesting.

    There was a story about the queen’s personal physician, maybe even one of her sons???? It’s long ago. There was also a narrative that folded Rasputin into its tale. The queen and sailors. That’s about all I recall by now.

    I never heard about JKS in that context:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Kenneth_Stephen#Legacy

    At least I do not recall.

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  4. ISIL refused to take responsibility for Boris Johnson’s election as the new head of the Conservative party of the UK.

    “There’s a tendency to regard Boris as a buffoon. This is a mistake. He’s super-smart.”

    What, like Zhirinovsky? 😉

    P.S. Re: Democracy in the West as opposed to the “Authoritarism in Russia” ™.

    Johnson was elected as the new head of the Conservative Party (but not the Premier!) by 66% of the 138,809 party members. It’s unknown, what was the amount of those who endorsed placing his name on the ballot in the first place (at least – I don’t know that). What IS know, is that Boris Pfeiffer Johnson had become a MP thanks to [does a quick net search] 50.8% of the voting electorate of Uxbridge and South Ruislip who cast their ballot for him in the last general election.

    None of the above says that Johnson’s ascension to the leadership of the Conservative Party (and, eventually, to the Premiership) is illegitimate in any way. It was entirely within the rules of the liberal democracy of the UK.

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    1. “There’s a tendency to regard Boris as a buffoon. This is a mistake. He’s super-smart.”

      “What, like Zhirinovsky?”

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  5. “Guest presenter Eddie Mair initially questioned the Mayor of London on immigration, before moving on to discuss the BBC TV documentary about him that was due to air the following day (“Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise”). Mair then produced darker parts of Boris’ history, which he would prefer the public to forget. The first was that Boris “sandpapered” a quote when working as a journalist for The Times, for which he was let go. The second was his lie to then-leader of the Conservative party Michael Howard over his extramarital affair, which resulted in his resignation as shadow arts minister in 2004. Lastly, his agreement to supply the address of a News of the World journalist to a friend so he could be beaten up.”

    “Clearly uncomfortable about these questions, Johnson’s image changed. He went from talkative, bumbly, eccentric to silent thinker. As he stared at his feet, the trademark charisma that has enchanted so many disappeared.”

    “To reiterate his three-pronged attack, Mair said: “What does that say about you Boris Johnson?” Mair said, “Making up quotes, lying to your party leader, wanting to be part of someone being physically assaulted, you’re a nasty piece of work aren’t you?” Boris remained still, staring at the floor.”

    “Boris Johnson has been long despised by those on the political left because he is a charismatic, likeable Tory (if lacking in composure). But the change that occurred during the interview has been revealing. One wonders how much of his persona is real, and how much is adopted for media purposes.”

    https://www.shoutoutuk.org/2013/04/02/boris-johnson-nasty/

    Will the real Boris Johnson stand up?

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  6. I am in the UK – and I can’t believe that Bris Johnson is the prime minister.

    He has realised his ambition – and that is all. Good for him – I have no hope that he will be good for the country.

    I find the whole process of “electing him” embarrassing and in democratic.

    I see his rise as part of the decline in the quality of people who enter public life.
    Mrs Thatcher started this decline, by attacking the welfare state, this was continued by those that came after her.
    Awful Prime Minsters, awful MPs who are in it for the money,

    The political class have overseen the decline in the country. Particularly In the social sphere, they have degraded the national health service , degraded the police, degraded the state education system, we have record homelessness, youth unemployment, I could go on. And the political class ignore it all

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    1. I still have two passports. I’d really like a third – one which I could use to exploit the new e-visa scheme the Russians are introducing, and from which both Brits and Canadians are excluded. As a Nederlander, you’ll be able to take advantage!

      God save the Queen! I feel sorry for her having to navigate the current constitutional mess. We may need her to step in at some point!

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    1. is that you? You didn’t update your site concerning this item, if it is you:

      I almost forgot, but I do recall the struggle around an EU constitution alarmed me at the time too. Admittedly.

      … concerning whatever Boris reported from Bruxelles, it may have amused me too. And I was partly familiar with parts of its Moloch machinery.

      There is this interesting bit concerning Ursula von der Leyen on English Wikipedia, sounds pretty curious to me. But who knows:
      In 1977, she started studying economics at the University of Göttingen. At the height of the fear of communist terrorism in West Germany, she fled to London in 1978 after her family was told that the Red Army Faction (RAF) was planning to kidnap her due to her being the daughter of a prominent politician. She spent more than a year in hiding in London, where she lived with protection from Scotland Yard under the name Rose Ladson to avoid detection and enrolled at the London School of Economics

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_von_der_Leyen#Education_and_professional_career

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      1. The book is my mother’s. She spent about 8 years as a member of the EU’s Economic and Social Committee (although back before the EU was called the EU, I think), and so is something of an expert on matters concerning European institutions.

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      2. I wondered before , if she is your mother. Considering her publications she cannot be your wife. … But the parallel choice of blog names always suggested a relationship between you too.

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  7. Boris Johnson (bottom right) and other members of College, 1982. Spot the author.

    Since no one else does. Difficult of course, if you enlarge the image, it gets blurred.

    But my best guess is: the one in the middle of the group of three, top, right hand above Boris.

    Do the two “stylites” right and left, hands in pockets, one more comfortably than the other, serve a special function?

    Rock of Britain, hmm? Why not, instead of Islanders.

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  8. Re: Stellar standards of the “Free and Independent Democratic Western Media”.


    ^The Guardian.


    ^ Mirror


    ^ Daily Fail citing Hammond.

    In “Normal Country” ™, these journos would have to be kicked out of their profession.

    Like

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