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This is an updated version of an article published at Public Seminar on July 30, 2019.
Politicians like to tell stories about themselves. Leaders like to tell stories about their country. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is the first since Winston Churchill with both a prominent personal story and his own discernible interpretation of national history. Indeed, Johnson has attempted to co-opt Churchill into both, particularly when it comes to the UK’s relationship with Europe.
What do Johnson’s methods of storytelling and the content of his tales tell us about the man and his premiership? To many on this side of the Atlantic, he is simply an enigmatic buffoon — little more than a jumped up Trump mini-me with a plummier accent. In fact, Johnson has a distinct conception of history and his place within it, which is both a product of his upbringing and his experience in politics and as a journalist. He demonstrated his Churchillian self-confidence when he expelled the war leader’s own grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, also a Member of Parliament, from the Conservative Party for rebelling on a Brexit vote.
The Conservative Party leadership election, which also served as the selection process for the UK’s new prime minister, prompted a number of well-informed biographical pieces on the presumptive winner. Yet most miss Johnson’s relationship to history, and the ways he has manipulated and mobilized the past in the protracted Brexit debate. Examining Johnson under a historical lens, including his writings on Churchill and his journalistic career, helps us understand his thinking, and, in turn, the kind of prime minister he is.
Sonia Purnell has described how, in 1988, the Times of London asked the young reporter Johnson to write a piece about the fourteenth-century English king Edward II. Archaeologists had found remains of a castle belonging to Edward on the banks of the River Thames. The paper asked Johnson to cover the story because he “seemed to know his history.” In a now infamous and much-quoted incident, Johnson decided to spice up the story by concocting a quote about the castle’s role as a meeting point for Edward and his lover Piers Gaveston, and attributing it to his godfather, Dr. Colin Lucas (a history professor at Balliol College, Oxford). The problem: Gaveston was beheaded in 1312. The castle was built more than a decade later. Lucas contacted the Times in rage, and the paper fired Johnson.
This episode highlights not only journalist Johnson’s attitude to the truth, but also his willingness to play fast and loose with the past for the sake of a good story and his own gain. This tendency was on display again in 2006, when Johnson combined his wit, charm, and knowledge of the “classics” (the Oxford degree in ancient history, philosophy and literature) in presenting a documentary film about the Roman Empire and an accompanying book called The Dream of Rome. Others who worked on the project noted how lazy he had been in his historical research, but also saw his charm shine through in the presentation. Johnson even went as far as joking that those who refused to wear togas in the Roman Empire were like Euroskeptics resisting rule from Brussels today.
Bearing those episodes from his own past in mind, Johnson has instrumentalized history during the Brexit debate, enabling the Vote Leave campaign’s victory in the referendum and his own rise to the premiership. Johnson and the Brexiteers configured their own version of Britain’s historical relationship with the EU in very specific ways. Here, Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill (much loathed by historians), provides insight into Johnson’s own attitudes towards the European Union. The Churchill Factor relies on the idea that one man can make history. It demonstrates Johnson’s interest in a world shaped by “great” men. The book is at pains to emphasize the role of an individual in influencing events. One cannot help but notice that Johnson’s study of Churchill was really a means by which to present himself as the wartime leader’s natural heir. In order to create that impression, Johnson misrepresented Churchill as a Euroskeptic and turned him into a prop for the pro-Brexit cause. Although Churchill was ambiguous on the precise role the UK should play in Europe, particularly before the Second World War, he was one of the leading voices calling for greater European unity after he lost the 1945 general election.
There is one noteworthy commonality between the two men. Both Johnson and Churchill used the Telegraph newspaper as a mouthpiece for their ideas. In December 1946, Churchill published a manifesto in the paper, highlighting the European Community’s role as a peace project, called “United Europe: One Way to Stop a New War.” Nearly 70 years later, in a now infamous March 2016 column, Johnson came out in support of Brexit under an eerily similar headline with the totally opposite meaning: “There is only one way to get the change we want — vote to leave the EU.”
Johnson has continued to use his platform as a journalist throughout his time as a politician, and declared in a Telegraph interview in 2016 that the EU wants a single “authority” in Europe, as Hitler did, only “by different methods.” Other Brexiteers have followed Johnson’s example, by weaponizing their own brand of European and colonial history at every stage of the debate. As prime minister, he has continued to place opinion pieces in the Telegraph, although he is no longer a paid columnist for the paper.
Johnson’s decision to bring the controversial chief strategist of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, into Downing Street as his key adviser, reflects a clear intention to continue the use of such tactics in office. Most recently, as Cummings and Johnson readied the Conservative Party for the launch of their general election campaign, the prime minister referred eight times to a bill to stop the UK leaving the European Union with no deal as the “surrender bill.” The Brexiteers’ — and now the government’s — self-conception as underdogs fighting a heroic battle against an authoritarian pro-European elite continues to be the centerpiece of their message. Johnson’s warlike language fuels the fires of division in the hope that hardline Brexit voters will continue to support the Conservatives in the December 2019 election.
While exploiting Churchill’s legacy, Johnson and others have leant on simple, misleading historical analogies to present Britain as an underdog nation oppressed by evil Europeans. The historian Richard J. Evans noted last year that these allusions were often “spurious.” Liam Fox, another Brexiteer as well as former international trade secretary, also caused controversy in 2016 by tweeting that Britain was one of the few European countries that did not need to feel ashamed of its twentieth-century past. The pro-Brexit press, including the Euroskeptic Sun and Daily Mail newspapers, have repeated and amplified these messages. Boris Johnson may have convinced some when he wrote that the EU shares similar aims to Hitler, but there is no historical evidence that either sought a single government in Europe. These allusions to Nazism and the British underdog spirit have enabled Brexiteers to breathe life into the historical image of a malevolent Germany, in order to construct a narrative which placed liberation from an all-powerful Europe at its core. Johnson led the way in its construction.
Perhaps as historians we can venture to suggest how Johnson came to believe he could manipulate history in this way. Lurking in the background are the two institutions which shaped Johnson’s upbringing and his sense that he had the power to change history: Eton College and Oxford University. Biographers and commentators alike have gone to great lengths to illustrate the cocktail of privilege and entitlement which characterized both institutions in the nineteen-seventies and eighties (and continues to plague them today). Eton and Oxford have shaped generations of young men who believed they were born to rule. Johnson was foremost among these, and was one of the most prominent characters during both his high school and university days. Glimpses into his personal story help us see how historic institutions can imbue their students with a sense of their own importance. They breed men like Johnson, who are smart enough to know some history, and believe even more strongly that they can manipulate it to their own advantage.
If Johnson’s dealings with his and his country’s past tell us anything, it is that historians must challenge the new prime minister’s rhetoric. If we look beyond the bluster on Brexit and his desire for a new, “global” Britain, we see a man whose worldview today is best understood through his cavalier attitude to history and frequent disregard for the truth. Whenever Johnson speaks of Britain’s future in the context of the Commonwealth or the British Empire, or describes the Brexiteers’ battle against the EU as Churchillian, historians must stand ready to defend the facts and their historical context.
Alistair Somerville is a graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and produces the Europe Desk podcast in the BMW Center for German and European Studies.