He is a King in disguise (Future Publishing/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

March 30, 2022   5 mins

There is a secret pact between the aristocrat and the anarchist. The anarchist dislikes rules, while the aristocrat can afford to ignore them. Kicking over the traces is proof of his authority, not of his criminality. Those who set the rules reserve the right to flout them. The English love a lord, but they also have a weakness for a rogue, and when the two rolled together, as with Boris Johnson, the combination is hard to beat.

Johnson may not actually have much blue blood in his veins, but he is certainly a toff. Shakespeare’s Falstaff is both the greatest clown in English literature and a knight of the realm. Lord Byron was nobleman, rebel, daredevil, libertine and criminal (he had an incestuous affair with his sister), all of which made him more popular in his day than Billy Connolly is in ours. And though people detest the arrogant kind of patrician, they are ready to give their vote to the kind of high-class eccentric who shambles around with a parrot on his shoulder, even if he lives in Downing Street.

Dukes and Viscounts are powerful in one sense but marginal in another. As marginal figures, they have an affinity with the crook and the nonconformist. The landowner has a soft spot for the poacher, but not much sympathy for the petit-bourgeois gamekeeper. Some aristocrats see life as a game, playing it with one ironic eye on its arbitrary nature. In this, they are like the medieval Fool, who sees that all social roles are reversible, including his own.

The Fool is wiser than the king because he knows he is playing a part, whereas the king takes himself for real. The Fool thus speaks a subversive kind of truth, for which, as in King Lear, he risks being beaten up by his employers. Fools know that they aren’t up to much and so are more canny than their masters, who aren’t up to much but don’t know it. Playing the fool is a matter of playing the fool, making a performance of one’s folly which requires art and intelligence. The wisdom of foolery shows up the foolishness of the wise.

The strength of the clown, then, lies in his weakness. Because he is one of the lowliest forms of social life, he can’t fall any further and thus assumes a strange invulnerability. It is dangerous for ruling classes if the common people have nothing to lose. Fools and clowns are “all-licensed”, as one of Lear’s daughters complains of his jester, but this doesn’t matter much because they have no real power beyond mockery and wordplay. They are free in proportion to their impotence.

The trouble begins when the jester, like Johnson, is really a king in disguise, falling over his feet as a useful ploy for landing in Downing Street. Shakespeare understands that maintaining a pact with failure and frailty is the only basis for genuine power, which is different from arsing around in order to charm the electorate. The jester plays with the truth in a way which reveals some acute insights, whereas Johnson simply lies through his teeth.

Breaking the rules isn’t always to be censured. Great artists do it all the time. Even if you are a Schoenberg or a Beckett, however, you have to grasp the conventions well enough to sense when you should throw them away. Sometimes it’s the conventions themselves which will tell you this, or allow you to intimate it. You may need a textbook to learn Malay, but you are fluent in the language only when you can put the book aside. You incorporate the rules rather than ignore them, just as you don’t need to make an agonising act of choice every time the little green man, frozen eternally in the act of stepping forward, turns suddenly to red. Doing things without thinking about them is part of social existence. It shouldn’t be confused with not thinking about them because you don’t give a damn.

How do clowns become kings? The clown’s problem is how not to be a cynic. If he pushes his mockery too far he can end up deflating not this or that value, but value as such. All that remains to be believed in is his own ego. Shakespeare’s Iago, who has a touch of the jester about him, is ruthlessly self-interested, just like our dear leader. Like a whimsical monarch, the only reality that exists for the cynic is his own appetites. These can be gratified all the more easily if human life is a game, since if things are insubstantial you can manipulate them better. This applies especially to women. The cynic may not be a rake, but almost all rakes are cynics, convinced that women exist purely for their own pleasure. It isn’t accidental that Boris Johnson is a philanderer.

Britain is one of those rare nations in which not being serious is thought to be a virtue. Seriousness is for shopkeepers, not for rogues and roués. The middle classes have character, whereas the upper classes are seen as characters. The Roundhead is grim-lipped and high-minded, while the Cavalier makes light of things in order to show his superiority to them. This is the kind of sangfroid which helped to build the Empire, and in the form of a certain slapdash amateurism helped to lose it as well. Giving the debonair Lord Mountbatten a colony to rule over or a battleship to command was like giving a machine gun to a gorilla. The word ’amateurism’ means doing things because you love to, not because you have to. Check-out assistants have to turn in for work each morning, but gentleman farmers occasionally heave calves into land rovers because they rather fancy the idea of mucking in.

As the oldest capitalist nation in the world, Britain has long been a breeding ground for individualism. Each individual is a quirky deviation from the norm, in which case there isn’t really a norm in at all. Everybody, like Dickens’s grotesque figures, is a law unto themselves, which means that the law doesn’t exist and society is essentially anarchic. The irony is that the very disdain for convention which endeared Boris Johnson to voters who were tired of plastic politicians is what threatens to bring him down.

There are two other social groups which have traditionally played the Fool. The first is the long tradition of Irishmen who were jesters to the English court. One thinks of the 18th century writer Oliver Goldsmith, who hailed from the Irish midlands and seemed to exist in London simply for the amusement of Samuel Johnson and his circle. The Dubliner Edmund Burke, one of the finest orators the House of Commons has ever witnessed, was said by some English MPs to smell of whisky and potatoes. His scorching rhetoric, which once caused some gentlewomen in the public gallery of the Commons to faint away, could easily be dismissed as blather and blarney.

Some decades ago, the resident Irish jester to the English nation was the bibulous playwright Brendan Behan, who graduated from the IRA via Borstal to the London TV studios. He once described himself as a drinker with a writing problem. Television producers would wait until late in the evening, when Behan was bound to be drunk, and then haul him on their show to be interviewed. Not long ago, the Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin inherited this dubious honour, loudly berating all and sundry on late night television. He did so, however, in a thick Belfast accent which signalled that he wasn’t really one of us, and so was not to be taken too seriously. You could savour his idiosyncrasies while overlooking his opinions. As Olivia remarks in Twelfth Night, there’s no harm in a licensed Fool.

The other traditional group of clowns is old-style Oxbridge dons. Seriousness for them, too, is a vulgar affair fit mainly for traffic wardens. Only nerds talk shop. A medical colleague of mine who spent much of his time plucking bits of helmet from the brains of dying motorcyclists would saunter into college dinner and recount a few amusing anecdotes about golf. I was also acquainted with one of the world’s experts on black holes, who was as silent on the subject of astronomy as if he was a bouncer in a night club. As a young don still wet behind the ears, I once asked a senior colleague how many children he had.

This was an unforgivable move, since it made it almost impossible for him not to give a factual reply, and facts were for oiks. He did, however, sidle out of it superbly. “Oh, thousands and thousands,” he sighed. This is the background from which Boris Johnson emerged. No wonder he can’t tell the truth.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.