I read Boris Johnson’s Tory conference speech in full. I can’t say it was a pleasant experience, but it was a remarkable one.
I have had a bit to do with such speeches over the years – devising themes and ideas, helping to draft them, taking part in rehearsals, and commenting on them afterwards – but never for anything like this.
Of course, such set-pieces are meant for delivery, not reading, and all the more so when the person delivering them is as much – perhaps more – an entertainer than a politician.
But it would be a mistake to assume that he is also stupid.
Even allowing for external input, his range of cultural reference is extraordinarily wide – for example the first four paragraphs include the French term for nightclubs (meant no doubt to imply something saucy), a comparison of one of his Cabinet to an American rock star, a cruel but clever alliteration about Corbyn, and mentions of magic potions, staple guns, carbines and sewing machines.
However, you can have too much of a good thing. There are 79 paragraphs in total and eventually it is like gorging on far too many sickly sweet cream cakes.
It has always been difficult to get a hold on what Johnson is or believes.
Tom McTague of The Atlantic magazine, in an important long read entitled “Is Boris Johnson a Liar”, calls him “both the most underrated and most overrated politician” he has ever met and the reaction to the speech illustrates that.
Certainly, the content does, from time to time, give some insight into his deeply conservative and very traditional view of these islands, or rather the part of these islands he knows – the Home Counties of England – which he then lazily applies to the whole thing.
A few months ago, I heard Boris Johnson recounting a story about his life that was not, strictly speaking, well… true.
It’s not in his biographies. Was he really a “visiting professor of European Thought” in Australia?
A story that reveals much👇 https://t.co/IqDFfJEZhn
— Tom McTague (@TomMcTague) October 4, 2021
Given the greedy buying up of much of London by Tory-funding oligarchs and the continuing scandal of massively inequitable Scottish land ownership, only someone who is an unashamed product of that background and completely careless of contemporary reality could speak of “our landscape [which] has been plotted and pieced and jigsawed together by centuries of bequests and litigation, a vast testament to security of title” without any sense of irony, let alone criticism.
Scotland features hardly at all despite Johnson’s claim to be the “Minister for the Union” and I think that is significant, too.
For him Scotland is simply part of England, worthy of less attention and respect but still capable of being jollied along in the Johnsonian way.
In fact the speech is just that – a highly polished inclusive act of jollying along, playing with relish to his own gallery to which he slyly parodies himself in order to secure their laughs, their applause and – vitally – their voting support.
Yet this act will not wash forever with the Tory faithful, particularly if Johnson’s recipe for the future is as flawed as it appears to an increasing number of commentators and more and more of the public.
Johnson’s thesis is that the UK economy is “an old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity”.
Ignoring Tory responsibility for that situation, and of course the fact that the SNP have pointed out the broken nature of the UK for years, Johnson goes on to prescribe Brexit as the remedy.
Brexit will, he claims, reduce the flow of immigration and allow stronger trading links across the globe, resulting in a high-wage, high-skill economy.
He accepts that may take some time, but he is arrogantly confident of the outcome.
There is of course no evidence for this at all. Migration does not drive down wages, but expands the economy.
The reality of Brexit Britain:
⛽️ Fuel shortages
🛒 Empty shelves
💡 Soaring Energy Bills
— Yes (@YesScot) September 30, 2021
Moreover, membership of the EU, in permitting free movement of people goods and services based on an agreed “pooling” of sovereignty shares prosperity, enhances prospects and deepens beneficial mutual reliance.
It is now beyond doubt that becoming a third country and leaving a market which not only provides that help but also has established trading links negotiated from strength is already harming the UK economy and will have serious and long-lasting detrimental effects.
But in postulating his solution, Johnson is, implicitly at the very least, accepting there are alternatives.
For Scotland rejoining the EU and returning to a larger market, while still trading with the UK on the same basis as other EU countries, is demonstrably more likely to lead to a more stable economy and greater business and societal certainty.
It will also secure – as has happened in Ireland – a reduced trade dependency on the rest of the UK and an increased range and volume of trade with the EU leading, again as in Ireland after Brexit, to more direct EU links.
This is the ground on which the battle for Scotland’s future lies and Johnson, by accepting the UK is broken, has finally accepted the legitimacy of the debate.
🗳 Democracy didn't stop in 2014, people in Scotland have voted to have another say over Scotland's future.
🏴 Scotland will have the chance to choose a better, fairer, green future in an independent Scotland.
— Yes (@YesScot) September 18, 2021
However, unlike 2014 there is no status quo, no alleged stability provided by the “broad shoulders” of the UK, which he admits have withered and collapsed.
The choice is to trust – against all the evidence of fact, performance and character – the showman as he tries to keep the balls of Brexit in the air or choose the proven normality of being an independent member of a club of 27 other independent members, working together and sharing a deeper-rooted prosperity.
In the speech, when talking of his brush with Covid, Johnson praises the nurses who “pulled my chestnuts out of Tartarean pit.”
It is a typical overblown Johnsonian reference. In Ancient Greek mythology, Tartarus was the cosmic pit below the earth in which demons were confined. Later it described the place where the souls of the wicked were kept in purgatory.
Things may not get that bad, but they are certainly going to continue to deteriorate.
Yet Johnson has himself now accepted there is a choice of two futures.
Consequently, the Yes movement needs to offer and enthusiastically promote the only one that will work for 21st-century Scotland – independence.