‘Tuck your shirt in!’ It’s going to be a bumpy ride: Boris Johnson’s swerve to Brexit – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

‘Tuck your shirt in!’ It’s going to be a bumpy ride: Boris Johnson’s swerve to Brexit

yates

Prof Candida Yates

Professor of Culture and Communication in the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University.

She has published widely on the psycho-cultural dynamics of politics, emotion, gender and popular culture. She is the author of The Play of Political Culture, Emotion and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan) and co-editor (with Caroline Bainbridge) of Media and The Inner World; Psycho-Cultural Approaches to Emotion, Media and Popular Culture (Palgrave Macmillan).

Email: cyates@bournemouth.ac.uk

 

EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 6

Section 6: Parties

Back in February, Boris Johnson came out as an Outer. After months of indecision and ‘a huge amount of heartache’, Johnson decided to stab David Cameron in the front and align himself with the likes of Nigel Farage and George Galloway to vote ‘no’ to Europe. What Johnson shares with Farage and Galloway is his performative value as a celebrity politician who is ‘political box office’. Elsewhere, I have applied the theme of flirtation to the practice of political communication alongside the identification with different political positions (Yates, 2015). Today, political flirtation applies equally to politicians and voters within the scene of promotional party politics. Boris Johnson’s flirtation with voters on the theme of Europe provides an example of this phenomenon and his seemingly spontaneous, un-spun qualities are key to his ability to connect with the public. Combining discourses of nation and empire with that of a kind of boys-own masculinity, Johnson has repeatedly stressed the threat posed by the ‘European powers’ to the border shores of Britain. Like helpless infants in an Edwardian nursery, he conjures up a picture of the threat of an all-engulfing Brussels ‘Nanny’ who has lulled the British into some kind of passive state of acquiescence, pleading for the British to ‘be brave’, to wake up out of their slumber and imagine ‘an independent future’ (Johnson, 2016).

Johnson’s political identity is slippery; as joker and skilled political orator he seems to enjoy cocking a snook at the establishment whilst at the same time, as a white, upper middle class, Oxbridge educated member of the Conservative Party, he also symbolises all that the establishment is held up to be.’

There were mixed reactions following Johnson’s initial Brexit call to arms. Some were thrilled that the ‘blonde bombshell’ managed to upset the plans of Cameron. Others viewed him as opportunistic and self-serving in his last-minute swerve towards Brexit. As some pointed out, in the preceding months, Johnson had said that he was definitely not ‘an outer’ and that his instincts were to stay inside Europe (White, 2016).

For those of us who have followed Johnson’s career over the years, it came as no surprise that he should have changed his mind (Yates, 2014). Johnson’s political identity is slippery; as joker and skilled political orator he seems to enjoy cocking a snook at the establishment whilst at the same time, as a white, upper middle class, Oxbridge educated member of the Conservative Party, he also symbolises all that the establishment is held up to be. With one eye on the banking service sector and one on the electorate, he has managed the potential contradictions of his political position by adopting a persona associated with Englishness and amateurism. In this way, he harks back to an earlier era of deference whilst simultaneously appearing to refuse the patriarchal structures of authority that shaped it. With his teddy bear looks and public gaffes that make people laugh, Johnson is a seductive figure. It is as if he often appears to represent a cuddly toy with whom the electorate can play, thereby undercutting the notions of governance that his roles as former London Mayor and Member of Parliament represent.

Like his fellow Outers – Farage and Galloway (and over the waters, Donald Trump), Johnson’s apparent lack of deference to the establishment sits well with an electorate who are increasingly cynical and disenchanted with politics and the affective dimensions of his appeal should not be underestimated. It is interesting to explore the emotions that get stirred up when identifying with politicians in such contexts who may be idealised and loathed in equal measure. In an age of precarity, feelings of helplessness and anger may also give rise to an envy of politicians and the power and prestige that they seem to represent. Yet Johnson manages to ward off any potential envy of his position as a wealthy politician and journalist by representing himself as an un-impinging figure that people can enjoy.

It is arguably this very traditional English trait of refusing to commit and take things too seriously which taps into Johnson’s populist appeal as a flirtatious, ‘post-ideological’ politician, who plays down traditional party loyalty and appeals across cross party lines within the South of England in particular. Despite his Thatcherite love of the free-market, Johnson has constructed a persona that fits more with that of a benign, eccentric character straight out of the comic pages of The Dandy. As a media professional surrounded by other media professionals, he is skilled at using contemporary methods of political communication to associate himself with a particular nostalgic fantasy of Britain as ‘a truly great country’ as being located within an earlier, less complicated age of nannies and flag-waving street parties. This nostalgia can be read as a defence against the losses and uncertainties of late modernity. The desire to look back, or at least to turn away from the contemporary malaise and to identify instead with the retro, personality-driven politics of Johnson, can be seen in that broader psychosocial context, alongside the more specific features of the contemporary political moment framed by fears of migration and the experience of austerity.