We’re a week in to the Boris-as-leader era, and there’s still widespread confusion as to what really animates him. Even though he’s given us a one-word description of his economic philosophy — “Boosterism” — that hasn’t quite settled the matter. What does he mean? Is it a reference to a booster as defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a person who jacks from the retailers then sells it in the hood for dirt cheap”? Or is it short-hand for “Bertie Woosterism”? Or is it something else?
I think I have a rough sense of what he means, gleaned from years of following his career. With Boris, you have to pay attention to the sound of the word. There’s a pleasing onomatopoeia to boosterism — like a rocket firing up and taking off. It sounds vigorous and sparky; it’s ever-so-slightly priapic. Our new Prime Minister often refers to young people as “young thrusters” in their presence, I think for similar reasons: it makes them feel slightly awkward, but endows them with the kind of ambitious, libidinous energy that he likes to pretend everyone has.
Consider the language he used over the weekend, describing the power of connecting people via transport and broadband. In a speech delivered in Manchester, he said “When people are able to meet each other, and compete with each other, challenge each other, spark off each other – that is when we get the explosion, the flash of creativity and innovation.”
This is the essence of Thrusterism or Boosterism; it is more of an atmosphere than a principle but it is probably the closest we will get to a definition. Boris Johnson has lived it in his personal life, professional life, and he is now planning to enthuse the country with it. Prepare to be boostered.
If there is a place that most epitomises “Boosterism”, it is London. The city is essential to an understanding of Boris: when he talks endlessly about how much he loves the Capital, he is not making it up. When, during the referendum campaign, he waxed lyrical about the 300 languages spoken in London today, and the city’s “amazing cosmopolitan vibe”, he wasn’t simply paying lavish lip service to the multi-cultural constituency. New York-born, multilingual, and of mixed Turkish-German-English-Jewish-Russian-French heritage, he feels deeply at home and invigorated by London in its modern incarnation as a world city.
On Saturday, he unveiled his plan for the regions of the UK post-Brexit and revealed a little more of his motivation. Not once, not twice, but three times during the speech, he insisted that he was not trying to make the rest of the country like London. But really this was a typically Johnsonian example of “apophasis”, the rhetorical trope where you reveal your real intentions by explicitly denying them.
Throughout the remainder of that 45-minute address, he laid out precisely how the rest of the country could, and should, become more like London. His plan is to replicate the four ingredients of economic dynamism that he identified as Mayor (liveability, connectivity, culture and power) in depressed parts of Northern and coastal England, through a massive programme of investment in transport, infrastructure, public services, tax incentives and further devolution. “Levelling up”, he calls it.
In hard policy terms, this means massive government spending to promote more economic activity, more development, more futuristic science, more change and all of it at a faster pace. For a glimpse of Manchester’s bright future he pointed to the “changing fabric of the urban landscape”, in particular the “mighty towers of Deans Gate Square”.
This newly-built 201 metre-tall glass skyscraper complex, the tallest building outside London and a miniature replica of Canary Wharf transplanted to the North of England, will not be to everyone’s taste. But to Boris Johnson, it is a shining city on a hill – coming soon to a town near you.
It’s quite hard for a policymaker to object to any of this. Who, after all, would argue for a less dynamic local economy or less investment? And the emphasis on the regions is certainly new and long overdue. But I can’t help wondering: is this really what Brexit voters were asking for?
The Brexit movement has been so keen to prove that it is not nostalgic, not harking back to an England of cricket on village greens, sleepy market towns and jam and Jerusalem, that it has ended up with a hyperactive radical as Prime Minister. (Even Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage is promising super-fast broadband and transport to bring innovation to forgotten regions, although his plan to preserve high street small businesses is a bit closer to home.) Boris does touch on important ideas about beauty, security and culture but zooms on past them onto the stuff like science and infrastructure that excites him more.
To those unmentionable voters who, if they’re honest, really want a slower pace of change; to people who like living in rural or smaller-town communities precisely because they are not as competitive and globalised as the big cities; to people who seek the settled comfort of living in a culture they know and understand, who don’t want to be entrepreneurs or inventors, but simply to lead a secure and, even, virtuous life, Boris has very little to say.
Of the very many ironies of the Brexit experience, perhaps the greatest is that, in terms of grounding ideology, its leader does not represent any sort of radical break with the past. He, like most of his top team, is a liberal in every sense of the word; a cheerleader for globalisation whose definition of the Good is centred on maximising economic growth to improve public services, and steering well clear of awkward conversations about “values”. His economic plan is essentially George Osborne without the straitjacket of fiscal prudence; it is also Tony Blair in his grander moments (indeed both Osborne and Blair’s former speechwriter both tweeted their support for it within moments).
This dawning discovery will be a relief to many, perhaps to most; his vision for regional development has already drawn widespread praise, Corbyn is rattled and Farage is talking about a deal. But those voters who were hoping for a more fundamental reassessment of the goals of our society, perhaps with a balance away from marketisation and economic development as the measure of all things, will be disappointed. For Boris is promising not change but more of the same, at a boosted velocity.