JOHN HUMPHRYS: Beware any leader who speaks of ‘The People’s Priorities’
Boris Johnson is guilty. Yes, I know he hasn’t been tried yet. The Electoral Commission has barely begun its investigation into whether he broke the rules over the most famous piece of home decorating since Marie Antoinette moved into her apartment in Versailles a few centuries ago.
And anyway not everyone understands the arcane rules governing political donations in their many guises. Some may say: ‘He paid out of his own pocket in the end, so what’s the problem?’
The problem is that he’s playing us for fools. That’s more than just an affront to our intelligence. It’s an affront to democracy. I base that seemingly harsh judgment on one seemingly simple phrase: The People’s Priorities.
Mr Johnson uses it endlessly and has been doing so for years. He’s not alone. It’s a tactic politicians routinely deploy when they get into a spot of bother.
Boris Johnson is guilty. Yes, I know he hasn’t been tried yet. The Electoral Commission has barely begun its investigation into whether he broke the rules over the most famous piece of home decorating since Marie Antoinette moved into her apartment in Versailles a few centuries ago. (Above, in Hartlepool ahead of the May 6 by-election)
The problem is that Mr Johnson is playing us for fools. That’s more than just an affront to our intelligence. It’s an affront to democracy. I base that seemingly harsh judgment on one seemingly simple phrase: The People’s Priorities. (Above, with David Cameron)
Rather than deal with the allegations against them, they loftily declare that we shouldn’t trouble our pretty little heads with all this nonsense when they are dealing with the great concerns that really matter.
Think of a police officer at a crime scene. Move along, folks, nothing to see here. Mr Johnson, in a bizarre self-parody, said exactly that in the Commons this week.
But there’s something especially troubling about ‘The People’s Priorities’. The very notion is bogus. There isn’t a ‘people’ with a set of priorities. There are lots of people with lots of different priorities. Lumping them together is worse than misleading. It’s simultaneously patronising, self-aggrandising and even menacing.
It conjures up the image of a governing elite who know far better than the lumpenproletariat what’s good for them. It assumes ‘they’ don’t know it themselves.
When Attlee became prime minister after the war, one of his most senior ministers said something that would give any modern spin doctor a heart attack: ‘We are the masters now.’
When Tony Blair took over half a century later, he said: ‘We are the servants now.’
Attlee’s minister may have been staggeringly naïve to have used that language, but he was able to be honest largely because he had no spin doctor to guide him. Alastair Campbell would have locked him in his office until he’d come to his senses.
When Attlee (left) became prime minister after the war, one of his most senior ministers said something that would give any modern spin doctor a heart attack: ‘We are the masters now.’ When Tony Blair (right) took over half a century later, he said: ‘We are the servants now’
Blair said what Campbell told him people wanted to hear.
But this is about more than applying a political judgment to the use of language. It’s a matter of honesty and dishonesty. And Johnson crosses the line from the one to the other when he claims to know ‘the people’ and their priorities.
Let’s try to ignore the glaringly obvious fact that he is as much a ‘man of the people’ as I am the Queen of Sheba. He is the most elite of the elite. And not just because he went to Eton.
Look no further than the nauseating image of him posing with supreme arrogance in white tie and tails with fellow members (all male obviously) of the ghastly Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. How interesting that another old Etonian who followed him into the club was David Cameron — another posh prime minister who made it to the very top and whose probity is also now the subject of investigation.
Not that there is anything new about politicians abusing their position. What is sinister about Johnson’s endless references to ‘The People’s Priorities’ is that it smacks too much of the notion of a ‘general will’. That was the phrase coined by the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to describe a collective view held by society as a whole.
It was seized upon by the most radical zealots of the French Revolution to justify the Reign of Terror and the guillotine. Dictators have claimed approval of the ‘general will’ ever since.
The great irony, of course, is that they have invariably ended up exercising the absolute power that they condemned in their predecessors. Even today we do not have to look far to find a democracy in which some very senior figures have hinted at the possibility of a coup.
Just across the Channel, in fact. Some very senior figures in France have just published a letter suggesting that members of the armed forces should intervene if the government does not change its policies on immigration and get a grip on what they call Muslim terror.
That, they say, is what the French people want. Surprisingly, you may think, they have not been laughed at.
The day Hirst’s career went pop…
Damien Hirst was apparently puzzled when the queue for his latest exhibition was shorter than the queue for the fizzy drinks machine installed in a side room. It contained cans of Coke signed by Hirst for a pound apiece.
The buyers were rushing off to sell them on eBay for as much as £2,000 a pair. One gallery visitor was quoted as saying he’d never seen a drinks machine empty so quickly.
I wondered what a good a friend of mine, an accomplished artist of the old school who struggles to make a living, thought of it.
‘Excellent!’ he told me. ‘Hirst has become the richest artist in the world, not because of any great talent but because he has been supported by a cartel of greedy, philistine gallery owners, art critics and dealers. At last the exploiter has been exploited — and by his own fans.’
Maybe, but he’ll probably turn it into an ‘art work’ and make another killing.
Democracy is meant to be the antidote to tyranny precisely because it denies that there is such a thing as a ‘general will’.
It recognises that society is not a single monolith but a collection of many people, each with their own views and their own priorities.
What elected governments must do is find a way of peacefully resolving those different views and priorities. Some will win, some will lose, but the process is continuous so that democratic government is a never-ending competition between people’s different priorities.
The idea that there is a single thing called ‘The People’s Priorities’ doesn’t get a look in. Or at least it shouldn’t.
Our own democracy has proved remarkably robust. On the vanishingly few occasions in our recent history when disaffected figures, such as the newspaper magnate Cecil King, have tried to coax powerful friends or associates to consider staging a coup they have been met with sneers rather than cheers.
When we finally lose patience with our leaders we deal with them using the ballot box rather than the army barracks. Most of us don’t really care what our prime minister thinks of our favourite department store and whether his fiancée has vastly expensive and execrable tastes in wallpaper.
Indeed, while the Mail’s poll today will raise concern in Tory HQ, the overall picture shows the party has held on to its lead over Labour despite ‘Wallpaper-gate’.
Hardly surprising given the enormous feelgood factor created by the promise of a Covid-free future.
But it won’t last for ever. The Government has serious criticisms to face over the way the pandemic was handled before we were rescued by the vaccine.
There are deeply troubling questions to be answered about why contracts for vital equipment were handed to incompetent suppliers with uncomfortably close links to ministers. These are questions about integrity.
And Mr Johnson has his own inquiries to face before all that. At least three and, possibly, four. At the heart of all of them is his integrity. There were a few gasps in the House when he was asked straight out this week if he was a liar, but we knew the answer already.
We know he has lied when he’s been under pressure. And we appear to have forgiven him.
But he’s under a lot more pressure right now. The Electoral Commission has said there are ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect an offence has occurred.
Boris Johnson may yet discover that if there really is such a thing as ‘The People’s Priorities’ they may include having a prime minister the people can trust.
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