A Prime Minister in search of a hero

Although statues are quite rightly very much in the news at the moment, this post is not about them. Instead, read the compelling pieces by David Olusoga in The Guardian last Monday – The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history – and Simon Schama in today’s FT – History is better served by putting the Men in Stone in museums.

Instead, I want to look at the thread that Boris Johnson posted on Twitter earlier today, and in particular the first two tweets.

In the thread he argues that we cannot now try to edit or censor our past, he deplores the risk of damage to the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, and, having at least in his own mind placed himself on the right side of history, goes on to claim that the recent protests have been hijacked by extremists intent on violence.

It is all very much aimed at his base (and perhaps not surprisingly it has attracted a considerable number of likes and retweets).

And it is all remarkably disingenuous.

There is certainly a lot going on in the thread as a whole but what about those first two tweets?

As I read them my immediate thought was just how much Johnson wants us to see him as our latter-day Churchill – the hero leader, saving this country from . . .

Well, from what?

It was going to be the tyranny of those ungrateful Europeans. Wasn’t that what Brexit was all about? But it is now, like it or not, the Covid-19 pandemic.

And heroes, Johnson implies, should be forgiven their failings – for no better reason it seems than they are heroes.

Johnson firmly places Churchill against racism (and in doing so he very definitely edits history) and he allows him those unacceptable opinions. And in so doing, Johnson seems to be suggesting that we too should allow Johnson his unacceptable opinions.

Hmmm. He may be disappointed.

Us Lerts must stick together, but not too close . . .

It was Mario Cuomo, three term Governor of New York State, who liked to repeat, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”. Writing in The New Yorker the day of Cuomo’s death, Elizabeth Kolbert noted that “His great gift—and it was an important one at the time—was to make listeners feel that politics was a serious business and that civic life matters.”

If only that were true today.

The present government in Westminster appears simply to rely on slogans. There is not much governing going on. This undoubtedly is a hangover from their successful Brexit campaign. But quite what the new slogan – “Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives” – is meant to mean, is anyone’s guess. They clearly are as baffled as the rest of us, as having leaked the slogan, they then felt obliged to issue a 137 word statement to explain it.

The pandemic is serious, for each and every one of us. Civic life matters and civic responsibility is paramount. But you wouldn’t know it from our lords and masters. The overwhelming feeling is that we, the public, aren’t to be trusted with truth.

It is little surprise that our trust in government is ebbing fast.

Cometh the hour . . .

Whether or not they are thinking it yet (and my money is on the grown ups in the room doing just that), are some in the Conservative Party wondering just how much longer they can leave Boris Johnson in post? May is a long way off.

The analogy with Britain at war in 1940 has been done to death – if I am allowed to use that expression. There is a constant evocation of the Blitz spirit, a harking back to Britain standing alone (not that far off the truth given that we appear to be taking a somewhat different approach to managing CV-19 than anyone else), and appeals to a sense of country and adversity framed in terms of duty and patriotism. And all the while, the Prime Minister channels his inner Churchill, addressing the nation in front of two Union flags, his language a pale imitation of his acknowledged hero.

But just occasionally history has lessons. So back to May, and in particular May 1940. I had a debate with the boss this morning about the suitability or otherwise of Boris Johnson. The argument advanced was that however poor he is, and he undoubtedly is, we should stick with him. I disagree. For all that he tries to emulate his hero, Johnson is no Churchill and is singularly ill-equipped to lead the country through this crisis.

The events of early May 1940 are instructive. Leo Amery lit the blue touch paper in the course of the Norway Debate,

“I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: ‘You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’

speech, House of Commons, 7 May 1940

By 10 May 1940 Neville Chamberlain had gone, the King had called Churchill to the Palace, and there was a National Government in place.

The question now is not whether the Tories can wait until May, but rather whether they should. Now is not the time for party but country – but then we have heard that before.

Nos miseri homines . . .

It was pure chance that the weekend before last I happened on the 2017 Christ Church Annual Report. A few days later came the most welcome news of Martyn Percy’s reinstatement as Dean.

In its report on his reinstatement, the Church Times noted,

The row exposed tensions that exist at Christ Church between the cathedral and the academic establishment.

It was ever thus – although there is undoubtedly much more to this than ‘tensions’.

Rows at Christ Church (though rarely quite as public as this most recent one) have invariably been about reform. There have been few periods in its history when reform, of one sort or another, has not been the subject of bitter debate.

Reflecting on this, I re-read Martyn Percy’s piece in the 2017 Report. He begins with the 150th anniversary of the formation of Christ Church’s Governing Body, which recognised its unique status as both college and cathedral. His message is reform. He pulls no punches.

The challenge remains constant: to continue to be shaped by the past, to adapt to the present, and so shape the future.

He continues,

The story of Christ Church is current and unfolding. The changes in governance we celebrated are a timely reminder to us: that within our institutional DNA, we recognise we are a body that knows how to self-improve. Reform is not an event.It is a process. It is more like steady evolution than a one-off revolution. Yet it is a labour that requires constant attention. It also requires some degree of faith – in the past, the wisdom of the body in the present, and the teleology of the foundation as it faces forward.

The dust hasn’t yet settled on this latest row. It will, because it always does. And the battle for reform will continue, as it must. And there will casualties, as there always are.

Martyn Percy’s tweet last Sunday evening – in which he spoke of being marked by the words of the opening hymn at Blackbird Leys Church of the Holy Family earlier that day – speak both of the personal costs of this struggle, and the continuing challenge.

Lord of all our past traditions, Lord of all our future days.

But for the time being – and I hope for some considerable time more – we have our Dean back.