A reflection on politics with special reference to the throwing of parties in the upper rooms of Downing Street.
Public dissatisfaction with Boris Johnson’s handling of Christmas parties in Downing Street during the height of Covid lockdowns—and his subsequent duplicity over the details of those parties in response to reporters’ investigations—finally caught up to him. Last week, Johnson resigned.
In light of the debate over the severity of the lockdown measures themselves, Vladmir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and skyrocketing inflation, who was where when? questions over Christmas celebrations might at first appear trivial. And indeed, many supporters of the prime minister stressed the relatively inconsequential nature of this storm in a teacup compared to the tempests abroad wreaking more obvious and direct havoc. Relying on just this logic, Johnson himself guessed that the storm would pass, and voters would once again ask him to pass the sugar: deliver Brexit, embrace pro-working-class politics, and abate the harshness of political divisiveness with his trademark charm symbolized in his tousled blonde hair and familiar cognomen, “Boris” (his given name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson).
But in fact, throwing in-person parties during the most severe restrictions of Covid lockdown touched a nerve that went right to the heart of the British body politic: a sense that more than typical hypocrisy was in play, but that an entire moral order was at stake.
Hasn’t the expectation that political leaders uphold public standards of morality vanished? Perhaps, but unfortunately for Johnson, a reminder stood behind him demonstrating that leaders can and do have honor in public life. In contrast to his breezy disregard for the heavy measures he imposed on the British people, the head of state, the queen, observed the lockdown requirements to the letter—refusing any privilege granted by or wringable from her office.
Even an offer from Downing Street—no surprise given what was going on behind the scenes—to ease restrictions and allow more than 30 mourners at Prince Philip’s funeral was met with Queen Elizabeth’s disapproval. Her majesty would not accept an easing of restrictions for herself, even for a high state occasion and one of immense personal meaning, while her subjects had no such recourse. They had funerals, too. They were mourning the dead, too. When they went without the consolation of relatives and friends, why shouldn’t she?
Just as she did during World War II along with her entire family, the queen bore the full weight of government curtailments of personal freedom in the face of a crisis, whether or not those curtailments were fully justified. This, it turns out, is what the British people expected of their prime minister. But Johnson’s assumption that he and his staff were de facto exempt from the rules became the tell in the sight of many people that the lockdowns’ severity was not an unavoidable requirement of public health. Having succeeded in mollifying the loudest demands for the strictest (and therefore, most “successful”) lockdowns, the prime minister and those in the know snickered at their fellow subjects and carried on with a more normal lifestyle.
Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and when Johnson’s sacked senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, began leaking evidence of the rule-flaunting in January (in what we can assume was an act of supreme revenge, rather than his stated motive), Johnson “apologized” in the manner of oleaginous public-relations types: Sorry it comes across this way, etc. But everyone saw through the insincerity.
For those persuaded of the necessity of severe lockdowns, Johnson’s refusal to share in the heavy costs of his policies was a failure to stand in solidarity with his neighbors. He not only scorned equality with his fellow subjects; he put himself in a place even the queen didn’t dare to assume. Whichever angle particular Brits took, together they continued to find the prime minister’s behavior disqualifying and his presence intolerable.
Taking a step back from the scandal itself and the morbid interest we have in watching political heat finally scorch Boris’ Teflon, the divergent responses of the queen and prime minister—and the sustained public attitude towards those responses—speaks to more than public weariness with hypocrisy. The British public sensed something more serious was at stake. They sensed that Johnson’s habit of lying, flaunting rules, making and breaking marriage promises, and characteristic movement through life with a shrug of the shoulders and boyish grin, violated their sense of objective morality upon which the success of a nation depends.
It is true that the moral rectitude of the monarch matters somewhat more than that of her prime minister. Whereas a constitutional monarch is the representative of her nation, a minister—even the prime one—is a mere politician who can be recalled by Parliament and thrown out of office within 24 hours. In the British system, ministers are of less representational consequence, just as monarchs are of less political consequence.
This is not so with the president of the United States, who holds an office that merges the representational and executive function. That is why it is vitally important for a president to behave himself, and why showing respect for the office can be a demanding task for citizens who strongly object to the policies of a particular presidency.
Having conceded this, however, Johnson’s laxity and indulgence affected more than his personal actions. It influenced his entire administration. Many dozens of staff engaged in dissolute behavior at those boozy parties and, when caught, refused to take responsibility. There was a pervasive spirit of wantonness in Downing Street. All of it betokens a loss of belief in objective morality.
English-speaking cultures since the 1960s have made distinct moves toward moral slackness. It’s easy to mock this observation; the caricature that all who make this observation want to return to the 1950s is, by now, pretty boring. It is impossible to radically remember a past decade in time, and there is plenty about the 1950s that is undesirable to resource. But what we can’t dismiss is the desirability of a culture that inculcates self-discipline, and the recognition that the generation of Elizabeth Windsor did a better job of nurturing that discipline than did the generation of “BoJo.”
For BoJo is as much a victim of his own impetuous desires as the surrounding culture that urges him to fulfill them. His culture encourages him to “speak your truth,” with the underlying premise that he—like everyone else— is an autonomous self, unbridled by the bonds of duties and corresponding rights with others. He, with the culture’s encouragement, is to “define [his] own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life” as a “right” that is at “the very heart of liberty.” Boris has spent a lifetime taking up this right to define his own concept of meaning with full gusto. And the meaning is, him.
Our cultures deny there is any objective meaning beyond the self’s desires, prompting us to react with a kind of incredulity whenever we are called-out for selfishness. And, given the premises we’re fed, this incredulity is understandable.
Boris was incredulous when his and his administration’s actions were challenged, because long ago Boris gave up on the virtues of piety and honor. Even in his resignation speech, last week, he still refused to accept his wrongdoing. He postures as a man of magnanimity—writing self-reflective biographies of Winston Churchill—and part of him, inevitably, will long to achieve this greatness.
But Boris is a post-Christian pagan, one who can recite the Iliad in Greek, but not a pagan proper. Homer knew eusébeia, the inner response to the things of God that shows itself in reverence for those things God has made good. But Boris’ post-Christian paganism is of a different sort, a worse sort than the original version because it apostatizes from the completion of paganism for which Homer et al. looked. Neither the virgin nor the adulterer know the sublime depths of marital fidelity, but only one is innocent.
To explain the “tragi-comedy” of our loss of belief in objective morality, C.S. Lewis delivered a series of lectures later bound into the book The Abolition of Man, reflecting on Anglophone cultures’ turn to moral relativism (this was the 1940s). He noticed how, even in a post-truth culture, when prominent and widespread acts of selfishness occur, we continue to clamor for the very qualities of self-denial that our culture’s underlying moral premise (fulfilling the self’s desires is intrinsically good) renders impossible. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find philistines in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
And yet despite our faulty moral premises, we cannot help recognizing right from wrong. The British people somehow knew that what the queen did was good, and what the prime minister did was bad. Not that they happened to enjoy what the queen did, and not enjoy what the prime minister did, but that one action was objectively good, and the other was objectively bad.
To explain this innate sense of objective morality, Lewis borrows from ancient Chinese philosophy the concept of the “Tao.” The Tao is, as Lewis describes it, Nature, the Way, the Road. “It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.”
After noting the ways in which the Tao (“the law of nature” or “natural law”) is universally recognized by civilizations across time and space, Lewis continues to say that those who recognize and seek to obey the Tao have a foundation for the concepts of right and wrong. For example, to call children “delightful” or old men “venerable” is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality that demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.
Lewis admits he does not enjoy the company of children, but he recognizes this response as a defect in himself, as one might recognize tone deafness as a defect. Because our approvals and disapprovals are recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, our emotional states can either be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we know that liking is due but cannot feel it).
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To deny any such objective order to the universe is to cease to be human. To impose a political order that denies the objective order is to abolish all of mankind.
The British people were wise to see in Johnson a flippancy toward our universe’s objective moral order. He may not have desired to impose an entire political scheme denying right and wrong, but allowing him to stay in office would have made the public complicit in such a view.
Like Trump, Boris promoted policies demanded by the public for the common good of the nation, even when he personally was not invested in the merits of those policies. In that sense, he served his nation well. But the liberation of Britain from Boris’ abolition is, like Brexit, a sign that Britain’s body politic is in good health.