by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 23
September 2021

On climate change, Boris Johnson is no Margaret Thatcher

The Prime Minister's speech to the UN was an exercise in bluster
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

In 1989, a blonde-haired British Tory Prime Minister gave a speech about climate change to the UN General Assembly. Yesterday, it happened again — only this time the minister in question was Boris Johnson, not Margaret Thatcher. 

Johnson made no reference to his predecessor, an inexplicable omission. Thatcher’s speech was one of the most important ever to be given at UN — arguably, the most important. It was the rallying cry that made climate change a worldwide political concern, not just a scientific one. 

Her speech was prophetic in tone as well as content. It managed to combine scientific detail and appeals to “the special gift of reason” with overtly religious rhetoric: 

We need our reason to teach us today that we are not, that we must not try to be, the lords of all we survey. We are not the lords, we are the Lord’s creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged today with preserving life itself—preserving life with all its mystery and all its wonder.
- Margaret Thatcher, UN

Now compare that to Boris Johnson’s effort, which he wrote on the Amtrak over to New York. Like the newspaper columns he used to write, it’s not boring — just desperately thin:

When Kermit the Frog sang “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” I want you to know he was wrong… It’s not only easy, it’s lucrative and it’s right to be green – and he was also unnecessarily rude to Miss Piggy, I thought.
- Boris Johnson, UN

I wonder if our Prime Minister is capable of being completely serious about anything. Certainly, this would have been a good time to give it a go. With the make-or-break COP26 conference coming up in December — which the UK is hosting — he had the opportunity to deliver the speech of a lifetime.

Instead, it was an exercise in glibness. The jokes weren’t even funny. A nod to Britain’s world leading offshore wind industry was turned into a painful pun linking “Boris” to “Boreas”, the Greek god of the north wind. Gales of laughter did not follow. (In any case, the prevailing winds in the North Sea are westerly, so the deity in question would be Zephyrus.)

What made the whole thing so frustrating is that buried within the bluster there was a serious thought:

We still cling with part of our minds to the infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure and we combine this narcissism with an assumption of our own immortality. We believe that someone else will clear up the mess we make, because that is what someone else has always done.We trash our habitats again and again with the inductive reasoning that we have got away with it so far, and therefore we will get away with it again.
- Boris Johnson

It’s a vitally important point — and I wish he’d spent more time developing it. Of course, no one expects a profound meditation on hubris from Boris Johnson. But then no one expected a warning about the destructive side of capitalism from Margaret Thatcher — it’s what made her speech so powerful. If only he’d followed her example. 

Join the discussion

  • What an accurate summary of Boris; it also describes why he is not suitable to be PM. The fact he is a liar also disqualifies him; if he consistently lies to his family who he loves in some way, he will definitely lie to me who he has never met.

  • If a prerequisite to being a politician was never having lied, not one person on earth would be fit for office

  • Which politicians don’t lie? Now think of the US who gets such huge coverage. For 4 years I listened to people moaning about how Trump lied. Now there is Biden and the lies are coming thick and fast.

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