Boris Johnson has consistently been underestimated. Ever since he became the leader of the Conservative Party, just over a year ago, he has been routinely mocked and derided by people who have simultaneously failed to make sense of his appeal.
Despite the outbreak of a pandemic and the collapse of Britain’s economy, which just witnessed the biggest first-quarter contraction for more than 40 years, the Conservative Party is today averaging 43.6% of the vote — exactly what they polled at the election back in December. Despite an avalanche of criticism, Boris Johnson and his party continue to hold a healthy 7.5-point lead over Keir Starmer and Labour.
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Labour has led just once in the polls in the past 12 months, and never outside the margin of error. Within five months of becoming leader, Johnson and his team had returned the Conservative Party to above the 40% threshold in the polls and they have stayed there ever since.
He has thus achieved what few of his predecessors managed. Theresa May routinely hit the forties but failed to achieve this degree of stability. David Cameron remained stuck in the thirties and never came close to building an electorate with as much breadth. John Major started off well but quickly slumped into the twenties.
To find a similar degree of constant and tribal support for the Conservative brand, you have to go all the way back to the spring of 1987 when Margaret Thatcher began a similar period of total dominance in the polls that lasted for around two years. Though even that is a little misleading — Thatcher might have had a lot going on, but she never had to grapple with a global pandemic and the shutdown of the entire economy.
And, so far at least, the people who put him into office like what he is doing. As recent polling revealed, when key groups in Johnson’s electorate are asked how “well or badly” he has done in his first year as Prime Minister, 81% of Conservatives and 68% of Leavers say “well”. Whereas the middle-classes say “badly”, the working-classes say “well”. Whereas Londoners say “badly”, non-London southerners say “well”. Johnson thus continues to ride the same fault lines that underpinned the vote for Brexit.
All of which raises the obvious question: why have Johnson’s voters stayed so loyal? Why has support remained so strong for a Prime Minister who is so widely criticised for his handling of the crisis, who is so often lumped together with Donald Trump and who is accused by more than a few commentators of leading a “far-right” or “populist” government?
Several tributaries are flowing into this stability. The first thing to remember is how Boris Johnson achieved power. He pushed through what David Cameron had little interest in and Theresa May never really understood — the “realignment” of British politics. By organising around Brexit, which was itself an expression of a deeper fault line, Johnson was able to consolidate the Leave vote.
By doing so, he was able to anchor his party far more securely in a cross-class coalition of traditional “true blue” Tories and instinctively socially conservative blue-collar workers. By doing so, Johnson injected a greater degree of tribalism into his electorate and, by extension, a greater degree of “cultural polarisation” into the country. In a country where six in every ten constituencies broke for Brexit, this strategy makes sense. You might not like it but, electorally, strategically, it makes complete sense.
It also brings us to a point that many of his critics have failed to grasp. What unites Boris Johnson’s voters is not so much their economic experience, as their values. They prioritise the nation and the national community. They prefer stability over change. And they favour continuity over disruption and discontinuity. This is why they cherish Britain’s history, heritage and collective memory and are more sensitive to attempts to deconstruct them. And while they acknowledge that this history is complex, they believe that, on the whole, it was positive and that Britain has been a force for good in the world. In short, they believe in their country. They are proud of it. And they are proud of their fellow citizens.
This brings us to a deeper point. Ever since the vote for Brexit, Left-wing and liberal writers have been consumed by “declinism”; the belief that Britain’s best days are in the past. Declinists are united by the assumption that, because of decisions that went against their own politics, Britain has become a diminished world power, is falling behind other states and is led by incompetent, amateurish elites who either lack the required expertise or “correct” ideology to reverse this decline or, worse, are actively perpetuating it.
Declinists share several other characteristics. They ignore any evidence that runs counter to their gloomy view of the world. They refuse to engage seriously or meaningfully with projects that sit outside of, or challenge, their ideological priors. They ignore the question of how flaws in their own political project contributed to the current one. They adopt a condescending if not openly hostile attitude toward their fellow citizens, who are routinely chastised for having made the “wrong” choice or been “duped” by elites.
They advocate a view of the world that is almost wholly focused on technocracy, process and economic management — the health of the nation is measured solely through GDP. And they are often, though not always, narcissistic, failing to conceal their inner belief that it is they who are morally superior to their fellow citizens and more worthy of determining the future direction of the country. You can read declinists monthly in the New York Times, weekly in the Guardian and daily in the Financial Times.
Declinism is not a new phenomenon and nor is it always a bad thing. It has a long and rich history and has often raised valuable points about where and how the settlement has gone wrong. As Richard English and Michael Kenny have observed, “[o]ne of the foremost preoccupations of Britain’s political elite, and of leading intellectuals throughout the twentieth century, has been with the question of ‘decline’: whether it has occurred, why it has done so and what should be done to remedy it”.
Today’s declinists stand on the shoulders of writers who wrote books such as The Stagnant Society, Anatomy of a Nation and Suicide of a Nation, which all pointed the finger at out-of-touch elites who were charged with lacking experience and dynamism. They were later joined by the likes of Correlli Barnett, Will Hutton, Samuel Brittan and David Marquand, many of whom made valuable points about where Britain had gone wrong.
But, at the same time, declinists, by their very nature, seldom remain in the world of objective reality. They have a habit of becoming so committed to the idea of decline that they are neither able to see the world in a balanced way nor in a way that most ordinary voters see it. And this brings me back to the appeal of Johnson.
One reason why declinists are so vicious is that they have found themselves written out of the national story — election defeats or referendum outcomes have left them on the sidelines, with little power or influence. One reason why Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and Munira Mirza have been so strongly attacked is not only because they committed the double sin of being Conservatives and Brexiteers, but because they are essentially the first group to have gone up against the “liberal establishment” and won.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the two most visible outbursts of declinism in post-war British politics arrived in the early 1960s, after a decade of Conservative dominance, and today, after a decade of Conservative dominance and the vote for Brexit. Both moments essentially pushed Britain’s Left-leaning “educated classes” out of the mainstream and into the margins. This loss of power and influence is incredibly troubling for highly-educated declinists who derive their sense of self, esteem and social status from their careers and achievements.
It is again perhaps no coincidence that some of the voices who are most strongly critical of Johnson were either deeply-embedded into the liberal Left networks that surrounded the elite-driven Remain campaign or, in earlier days, installed in the corridors of power during 13 years of New Labour rule.
Many voters simply do not share this incredibly negative view of the world. They want to look forwards not back. The problem with declinism is that whereas objective criticism is an essential part of any democracy, the declinist narrative tends to send voters the message that elites have little interest in joining the new settlement and do not really have time for, or respect, their fellow citizens who want to build it. This magnifies the disconnect that helped to bring Johnson to power in the first place.
Meanwhile, in today’s politics this tradition is being infused with a new and more toxic strand of thought that goes further than just claims of national decline. Laced through much of the backlash against Johnson is not just criticism of the current direction of travel, but a “culture of repudiation”. The politics of repudiation is reflected in repeated claims that Britain is ridden with racism, that its history was more negative than positive, that its contribution to the world has been more bad than good and that its people should feel ashamed and seek forgiveness on the basis of an incredibly narrow interpretation of events which took place centuries ago. It is also deeply selective, for example glossing over Johnson’s commitment to “level-up” impoverished regions or welcome persecuted Hong-Kongers.
The most ethnically-diverse cabinet in British history is similarly derided or dismissed as representing the “wrong” type of diversity. The culture of repudiation projects an image of a country that most people neither recognise nor would want to be a part of. It is, at its core, deeply divisive and conflicts with the British people’s preference for moderation, tolerance and balance. The culture of repudiation goes a long way to explaining why the British people returned Labour to its lowest number of seats since 1935.
When combined, these two strands of thought amount to a highly negative view of the country and its people — an approach that is obsessed with historic injustices, with what sets people apart rather than what brings them together and with deconstructing all of the national traditions, identities, myths and collective memories that underpin our collective nationhood. There is no positive vision because declinism and the culture of repudiation are really only interested in explaining what they dislike and hate about the country — and that puts them at odds with most people.
It also reflects a lack of imagination. Many of the arguments that are being levelled at Johnson today — that he represents an elite “old boys” network that is amateurish and unable to lead the country — are the very same ones that were levelled at conservatives during the postwar years. And then along came somebody called Mrs Thatcher who, like Johnson, tapped into a much broader coalition by expressing her belief in Britain and the British people. Thatcher, like Johnson, made mistakes. But both offered the electorate a rebuttal to declinism and repudiation and were rewarded.
This, in my mind at least, helps to explain why so many people have remained so loyal to Johnson and why they are generally willing to give him a free pass when he fumbles the more technocratic or process-led side of politics. They are not standing behind him because of what Michael Oakeshott called the politics of pragmatism — they do not see the world as the declinists see it, as merely an exercise in performance management.
Nor do they rate the health of the nation solely through GDP. The reason Johnson is still gliding above 40% is because of what Oakeshott called the politics of faith. Johnson is offering a positive and forward-looking creed that is more interested in national renewal and salvation than decline and repudiation. He is proud of the country and its people. And until his opponents figure this out and change track, then I suspect that many of those voters will continue to stand behind him while keeping their distance from his critics.