You might not immediately put Boris Johnson and Scots Acid-Marxist R.D. Laing in the same room, but the more you watch the Foreign secretary in action the more you think of Laing’s The Divided Self, An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Today’s speech (‘Lets Unite Around Brexit Vision‘)was undoubtedly a pitch for the leadership but the whole Brexit affair is increasingly redolent of the regression therapy Laing pioneered at Kingsley Hall in the 1960s. Infamously Mary Barnes, a patient suffering from schizophrenia, underwent regression treatment taking her back to her infancy and painted the walls of her room with her own faeces. The treatment, whilst controversial was ultimately successful after she was given paint instead by Laing’s resident psychiatrist colleague, Joseph Berke.
The Foreign Secretary was essentially encouraging us as a ‘Family of Nation’s’ (aka ‘Partnership of Equals’) to smear our home with our own faeces, and did it in such stark terms that at last Brexit makes sense. It is of course an exercise in national humiliation, and of economic suicide but … we should “do it with confidence”.
There’s an accusation that Boris-Bashing is light entertainment and that he is such an easy target and a buffoon that he should be ignored. But this misses two points. One he is, somehow, the Foreign Secretary. Second, amongst his blustering and his speech patterns that combine obscure classical references with Edward Lear, he is explicitly ideological. His freeform language soup often makes grammatical sense but semantic nonsense. But if Theresa May is renowned for saying and doing nothing other than repeat gnomic mantras in a trance like tharn state of perpetual indecision, bold Boris tell us it all in gory Globalist Nationalist detail, even if it does spill out onto the floor like the contents of last nights dinner.
This wasn’t a serious political address. It was an after dinner speech with brandy and cigars, at White’s.
Johnson spoke of ski instructors, toblerone, flame retardant-sofas and organic carrots but said nothing about the Irish border question, the Customs Union or the Single Market.
It was a 4,500 word speech, but not a single one of them was ‘Ireland’.
It was of course littered with Johnson’s trademark vulgarity, this particular extract stands out:
“That is pretty much what the British people already do. We have a bigger diaspora than any other rich nation – 6m points of light scattered across an intermittently darkening globe. There are more British people living in Australia than in the whole of the EU, and more in the US and Canada. As I have just discovered we have more than a million who go to Thailand every year, where according to our superb consular services they get up to the most eye-popping things.”
Of course much of it was not just deeply offensive it was tangibly incontrovertibly incorrect, or, as we used to say ‘lies’.
“There is no sensible reason why we should not be able to retire to Spain (as indeed we did long before Spain joined the EU), or anywhere else. We can continue the whirl of academic exchanges that have been a feature of European cultural life since the middle ages, and whose speed of cross-pollination has been accelerated by the web as well as by schemes like Horizon or Erasmus – all of which we can continue to support, and whose participating scholars are certainly not confined to the EU.”
Except none of this is true and none of this has been established, because for months and months and months his government have been engaged in paralysis and political game-playing inertia. Anyone who has more than a passing understanding of EU educational, academic, cultural, medical or civic funding and exchange projects (and that’s whole load of people) will know precisely that the door is sliding shut on billions of euros worth of funding that will effectively shut us off from Europe.
This is an inter-generational scandal of epic proportions.
The idea that you can restrict freedom of movement and deny the rights of European citizens living here whilst simultaneously demanding that everything stays exactly the same for economically useless Brits on the Costa del Sol is quintessential cakeism. Its likely to be laughed at by the Spanish and the Portuguese.
Still I suppose we could go to war with them as Michael Howard suggested last year.
He has at least admitted that something is broken. If something is in dire need of a change of direction, a rupture, it’s because something is wrong.
As the playwright Peter Arnott observed:
“Boris Johnson is putting forward what seems to be a perfectly rational, liberal case for English nationalism. The key point he made…the only one, really, to which Remain had and has no answer…is that there is no European “demos” in the UK. There is no sense in which the UK feels “involved” with the European Project in the same way other member states do. The answer, implicit in his quotation of JS Mill, is to create a sense of identity and community that underpins democracy and directs the purpose of government. This, like the word or not, is what “nationalism” does. It did it for the UK in 1945, for example. He sees Brexit as a means to this end…and maybe, for England, it is. Maybe there can be a renewal of purpose for both the left and right in a new, nationalist project.
Jeremy Corbyn seems to agree with him on that. But what is perfectly plain from this perspective is that on both left and right this is an ENGLISH project of renewed identity of which the Scots and Irish are simply not a part. We are, at best, an ill regarded afterthought. The Unity that Boris is demanding of “us” is simply not a possibility in all of the nations of the UK. Unity demands of the Scots that they agree to cease to exist as a distinct polity. It isn’t gong to happen. Brexit is a decisive further step in the Break Up of Britain.”
The message was plain to be united we must destroy ourselves to the greater cause, even if they can’t be bothered to articulate what that is.
Like much of English nationalism it’s just so self-evident that even to ask for it to be defined is a form of treachery.
The problem for Boris is not just that his speech was an abject failure, it’s not clear who it was an abject failure for.
Was it to go above the heads of the media direct to the public? The fact it was trailed in The Sun makes this feasible, and the jokey incoherent racist jibes about immigration make this probable. But then the reference to the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ process and the ‘lapidary status of the codes of Hammurabi or Moses’ and the endless showy classical references make it, if this was the intention, a fat flop.
Was it to go over the heads of his own boss direct to the EU negotiators. No, it was too barmy and riddled with nationalist barbs to be effective at doing that.
No, this was a speech aimed at his colleagues and party members. This was a leadership speech. The content didn’t matter, it was all about tone. If this speech had subtitles they would read “That walking disaster can’t string a few words together in public but I can. Believe in me.”
As John Crace pointed out this didn’t work either:
“The foreign secretary didn’t really have any hard facts to back up his Panglossian vision of a deregulated world with Britain at its centre, free to do whatever it chose, whenever it chose. What he did have was a few lame tropes. Britain wouldn’t be inward-looking: people would still be free to go off to Thailand to indulge in a little casual sex tourism. No one laughed. A bead of sweat broke on Boris’s forehead. It was all going horribly wrong. He then squeezed in a dogging reference. Still no one laughed.”
But none of this matters because Brexit is not a rational thing. This is all about ’emotion’ and ‘anxiety’ according to the Foreign Secretary, and in the world he inhabits bluffing, bullshit and ‘just being confident’ probably does assure success.
The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot noted that: “Johnson says the customs union and single market have acquired “unexpected emotive power.”
It’s not “emotive” it’s the reality of crashing economies, unemployment, businesses going bust and food rotting in the ground.
So we don’t need rational dialogue, facts, answers or coherence. We need mood music. We need confidence. We need confidence.
The line here is dripping with unconscious ideology projected out across the land:
“Let’s instead unite about what we all believe in – an outward-looking liberal global future for a confident United Kingdom. So much of this is about confidence and national self-belief.”
This is becoming more and more hallucinogenic.
How is Scotland supposed to respond to this?
I’m reminded not just of Mary Barnes regression therapy under Laing but of another Laingian experience.
In Sean Connery’s first wife Diane Cilento’s autobiography, 2006’s My Nine Lives she recounts how Laing and Connery took acid together in 1964. In a later memoir Edna O’Brien recalled how Connery had advised her in 1970 not to take the drug because his bad trip with Laing had carried “a freight of terrors”.
This is a confidence rick based on England’s identity crisis. To actually watch Johnson’s speech and take it in and realise that this is happening in our time is sobering. It’s time to stop the hallucination.