Today
Sun 5 December 2021

It is no good offering people a ‘story to believe in’ if it ends in harm – but the Prime Minister does not know any other way, observes Jonathan Lis

The Atlantic magazine recently published a fascinating profile of Boris Johnson.

The journalist Tom McTague followed the Prime Minister for several weeks in an attempt to understand both his character and political appeal. He concludes that the heart of Johnson’s politics is storytelling; that Johnson has not only grasped how to tell a good story, but the most popular – the one voters want to hear.

“To him, the point of politics – and life – is not to squabble over facts; it’s to offer people a story they can believe in,” McTague observes.

In a sense, this is not new. Every election campaign in history has required a ‘narrative’ that can be communicated to voters: what has gone right or wrong, and what the candidate will do to change it. This has always involved appealing to emotions – pride, hope, anger, despair.

Johnson is also not the first compulsive or inveterate liar to rise to high office. And yet, his storytelling does yield something different. It is not simply that it is false; it is that the truth has no bearing on it, either way. Understanding Johnson’s storytelling is the key to understanding our new politics.

The toxicity of exceptionalism cannot improve a country or the lives of its people


The Story Johnson Wants to Tell

It is not difficult to discern the tale that Johnson is telling. As one aide told McTague: the post-Brexit story is “puffing our chest out and saying ‘we’re Britain’ .” Operationally, this forms two strands: an emotional theme of an old power once again finding its feet; and a practical story of ‘Global Britain’ striking trade deals with old partners and extending to its maximum height at world summits.

Both stories are rooted in different forms of delusion: the first nostalgia, the second optics.

In terms of Global Britain, the story being told (or sold) is in direct opposition to what is actually taking place. Far from extending into the world, the UK has slashed its aid budget and erected stifling trade barriers with its largest neighbours. Abroad, the Government talks about tackling corruption, while at home it signs off billions of pounds in contracts to its associates.  

These stories are designed to deceive their intended audience – not other world leaders, but the viewers and listeners at home. Nobody ever asks why we have to be exceptional, or why other governments fail to exert a similar energy and angst about leading the world. This is the story that Britain has made for itself – and our leaders have chosen to narrate it to make us feel better about ourselves.

And yet, as with everything Johnson does, his stories are not really about other people so much as himself. They work for the Prime Minister because they align with his agenda for government: promoting his personal interest and absolving himself of political responsibility.

This week, two specific stories have concretised.

The Prime Minister’s national address was designed, as with all his statements on the Coronavirus pandemic, to deflect attention from overt mismanagement. His story is that he could not have predicted an extension of restrictions and could not have stopped the spread of the Delta variant. Both assertions are false. Johnson should have known the folly of announcing concrete dates for the ‘roadmap to freedom’ months in advance, and he was warned about the variant weeks before taking any action. The current wave of infections is not an act of God, but the result of ministerial negligence.

Meanwhile, Johnson used the G7 summit to establish the story about Northern Ireland. Far from being an agreement the Government negotiated, signed and campaigned for in full knowledge of its consequences, the Northern Ireland Protocol now represents an attack on British sovereignty and territorial integrity. The EU, the story goes, does not respect the UK’s borders. The truth of all this – that the problems were predictable and predicted – is irrelevant. The story then was one of triumph and getting Brexit done; now it is of injustice and oppression by a bureaucratic EU. Neither version is true and it doesn’t matter.

In our brave new world, the story is all that counts.


What the Story Means

Stories have anchored all human cultures and societies. We use them to build and locate our identities and make sense of the world around us. The implicit paradox is that a story suggests something invented, but it is used most effectively to illuminate truth.

Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Chekhov endure not because they invented fictional characters and deceive us into thinking that they are real, but because, through the medium of something imagined, they revealed truths about the human experience.

Johnson’s stories are the direct opposite. These are fictions designed not to enlighten but obfuscate; to advance not our happiness but his. The Prime Minister has instrumentalised us, not as subjects of our own story, but vehicles for his own. His story is not about a great and resilient Britain, but the genius of a cartoon charlatan. In rising to high office, he has successfully pulled off the con of the century – and a population has fallen at his feet.

It is not always a problem for stories to be untrue. Henrik Ibsen’s 1884 play The Wild Duck examines the notion of a ‘life-lie’ – a false narrative that we inculcate in ourselves to shape our daily lives, networks and sense of self. Sometimes the lie imprisons us in misery; other times it is what keeps us alive.

The key rests in the nature of the belief.

Johnson’s rally to British self-belief encourages a denial of our history and a fantasy of our present. The toxicity of exceptionalism cannot improve a country or the lives of its people, still less advance healthy relationships with other nations. It is no good offering people a ‘story to believe in’ if it ends in harm.

The wider problem is that a generalised belief, unmoored from any moral imperative, is replacing reality altogether. In both America and Britain, this has transcended individual leaders to infect political parties and, indeed, an entire political system. The Donald Trump administration ended with its biggest lie – that it should not legitimately have ended at all. As the academic Brian Klaas has noted, “people haven’t fully come to terms with the dystopian realisation that the political base of one of two major US parties… doesn’t inhabit a fact-based reality”.

The approach of both Johnson and Trump fully discards residual facts, decency and shared values. Nothing matters unless people believe the story – and, as soon as they do, the next one can be even more extreme. This form of storytelling has ceased to have any link with objective reality and seeks ultimately to convince people that objective reality cannot exist.

And this goes further than ‘post-truth’, which relates itself to the truth in order to adapt or deny it. By contrast, this framework neither acknowledges the existence of truth nor needs to. Its real genius is to take no interest in objective fact at all.

The Prime Minister’s words may or may not be demonstrably true and it makes no difference, because he has taken no account of the truth while speaking them.


Turning the Story Around

This is not simply an issue with politics, but also the media. It is no coincidence that everything in a newspaper or news broadcast is labelled a ‘story’. Not all stories are the same – and some stories are true – but both worlds share an interest in narrating them.

The problem is that Britain’s journalists are telling the stories on Boris Johnson’s terms. Too often the mainstream media has failed to identify his lies or demand accountability for them. It has reported individual incidences of alleged corruption and sleaze, but rarely joined them up to suggest or shape a theme. As a result, the key stories presented are frequently built and narrated by the Government.

It is, of course, possible to change. The media is capable of focusing on the reality that Johnson has delivered rather than the story he wishes to tell about it. It also needs a bold political opposition ready to offer those narratives.

The key point is that storytelling does not need to mean lying. There are stories to relate about Johnson and Britain – a country with rising child poverty and wealth inequality, rapidly sinking into nationalism. It simply needs more people to tell them.

Johnson’s make-believe is not normal and should not simply be accepted. It corrodes the relationship between citizens and seizes power for a political elite. Its foundation is nihilism. We all need stories to sustain our lives, but Britain’s story should be based, not on hope or belief, but the truth. In the end, Johnson can swear the sun is shining all he likes. If it is raining, we will all get wet.

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