Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister is not just a major political event. His time in office – and the nature of his departure – raise vital questions about democratic values and institutions.
Blaming the shortcomings of an entire political culture on the moral shortcomings of one leader may make us feel fair, but most of us know that rot goes deeper than one flamboyant character. The fall of Johnson can be seen as a historic point to build on – and not just in the UK.
Some have argued that the political debate that preceded the Brexit referendum was a deep one; that public hopes and fears were cynically exploited by politicians who did not even believe the content of their own messages. Johnson’s premiership fell because it apparently did not recognize any distinction between what is true and what is politically useful. Once that distinction no longer matters, democratic discourse becomes unsustainable and political communication becomes a matter of permanent decoding.
Integrity depends on binding structures, such as codes of conduct and ethics committees. It also relies on a cultural commitment by politicians and citizens to proclaim intentional fraud, corrupt practices and hate speech. The fall of Johnson is a good moment for explicit reflection on how far any democracy is willing to tolerate and even reward Machiavellian tendencies.
Red meat politics
The Johnson years highlight the important difference between a popular government and a government that makes a significant difference to its people. Too often, attention-grabbing “red meat” solutions are offered in response to difficult challenges. Flying refugees to Rwanda or declaring Brexit “done” may have provided short-lived powerful headlines and polling effects, but it is typically merely symbolic and often dangerously counterproductive.
To rule takes time and thinks. And it calls for honest judgment, followed by serious efforts to correct what is not working well. It is completely different from government through propaganda where every manifest failure is described as a success and critics are set aside or mocked.
Parliaments, which are supposed to hold governments accountable on behalf of the public, must assert their power. The British Parliament may have acted to remove a Prime Minister who looked like an electoral responsibility, but a more important role for Parliament to play is to challenge policy proposals that are clearly ill-conceived or merely crowd-dazzling gestures are presented.
The Johnson government was far from unique in promoting a number of simplistic policies. However, this was perhaps unprecedented in his willingness to flank the policy rhetoric of populism.
Better discourse certainly involves paying attention to the ways in which our current media ecology too often rewards the harshest, most controversial demagogues and enables politicians who know how to capitalize on the worst practices of journalistic trade.
Oxbridge politics in a changing world
A final, important issue is how to bring a much greater variety of voices and experiences into democratic politics. Recent events in the UK have included a damaging lobbying affair and multiple revelations of political figures breaking their own lockdown laws during the pandemic. Furthermore, Johnson’s end came in the immediate aftermath of allegations of serious sexual misconduct against a senior figure in his government.
This may have all aroused some tired popular interest in the Westminster soapie. But the overall effect was certainly further erosion of voters’ already low confidence in politics, which fueled renewed motives for withdrawal.
The end of any leader’s career is an opportunity to reflect on what expectations we have of our democratic representatives. During Johnson’s tenure, too much time was spent discussing what the British public was prepared to endure. Johnson will be leaving Downing Street soon. The question should rather be what the people want next – and how can they make it happen?