Boris is back in the ascendancy. Just a few months ago, his political demise seemed certain after the revelations of Partygate and allegations of egregious behaviour at the heart of his government. But taking the stage at the Conservatives Spring Conference in Blackpool last weekend, Boris was back at his boisterous best, beaming of confidence, earning heaps of applause from his party members, as if the very same people weren’t plotting to oust him a month earlier. What has changed? Well, the tragic war in Ukraine. Putin has, as Rod Liddle polemically wrote in the Spectator, saved him.
With his domestic authority severely undermined, he has turned to the grand stage of world politics. A year ago, Boris and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace read Putin’s revisionist historical essay on the supposed mythical connection that binds Russia and Ukraine together, leading them to conclude that the ramblings of Putin were not an innocent intellectual exercise, but the actual pretext of the terror witnessed today. Against all objections from Sir Humphrey-type diplomats, they decided to ramp up support for Ukraine by teaching methods of modern warfare and supplying vital military equipment, showing for all of Boris’ faults - which are manyfold - guts isn’t one of them.
I must admit that it gives me some pleasure to see Mr. Macron wander around, incapable of admitting his defeat in negotiations with Putin. And seeing la perfide Angleterre singled out by Zelensky for their help in the continued resistance to the Russians, stating that it wouldn’t be possible without them.
This fact did not go untouched in Boris’ conference-speech. He boasted of Global Britain’s influence with the usual flamboyance and populist gestures, we have come to expect of him. Besides rallying up the party stooges, there were interesting bits in his speech: namely, his unflinching support for the principles of democracy and liberal values. A bit of a surprise from a man, who recognized and triumphed from the apparent death of neoliberalism, and at times during the Brexit debacle undermined democratic processes.
In recent years, the western world has seen a rebellion against elements of liberalism. The argument from both the socialist left and reactionary right sounded roughly like this: the unleashing of global capitalism has led to a lopsided economy, where the vast bulk of wealth is concentrated in larger cities, depleting rural areas of resources, talent, and crucially the belief that the future has something in store for them. The attainment of more prosperity is the goal of governments, but the categorical error made by previous politicians was in their belief that; the free market cannot and should not be constrained or that increased wealth benefits all. It hasn’t been the case. Instead, ordinary people have been shafted and subjected to forces beyond their realm of influence.
You would have to be a fool to question the huge strides made in settling social questions, which has given way to personal expression and enterprise, making our societies more equal, free, tolerant, and frankly more enjoyable to live in. But the same argument pertains; at some point and for some people, the endless expansion of freedom will uproot and alienate them, since collective truths become untenable in an environment that praises the sacredness of the individual, ultimately leading to widely divergent sentiments on culture and meaning. The ideology inherently bears the seed of its own destruction by the sin of arrogance: history will end, personal autonomy will prevail, the fallibility of mankind will be reversed, and the need for wicked myths and narratives will be put to bed.
All is not bad, though. As the war in Ukraine continues, the response by the West could indicate that liberalism is returning with a vengeance. It may be that the sight of bloodshed on the European continent touches upon something instinctually in us, recognizing that for all the tumult this last decade, the West still has precious to offer in democracy, free speech, rule of law, and pluralism. In contrast to the oppressive regime of a despot. The question is whether we can overcome the juxtaposition of asserting power internationally with the domestic political, cultural dissent seen throughout Europe.
We can perhaps find a clue by looking at John Bew, a well-respected historian and Boris’ foreign policy wiz. Bew wrote a book on the relatively unknown German political thinker Ludwig von Rochau, who in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 saw his dream of liberal democracy crushed by the unexpected counter-revolution of the strongmen and emperors in Europe.
Von Rochau got tired of his fellow radicals and decided to get real. He reached the conclusion that while liberal ideals were desirable, they had to understand the fundamental nature of power. Time couldn’t be spent by indulging in abstractions. They instead had to seize the levers of government and assert their will. Their neglections effectually left the door open to rulers who by blood and iron - as Bismarck put it - clung on to power for the next decades to come. This was not to happen again.
Rochau formulated a theory based on four interlocking principles: ‘law of the strong is the determining factor in politics’; that ‘the most effective form of government is one that incorporates the most powerful social forces within the state’; that ideas matter depending on how they influence society; and finally, that public opinion or the ‘spirit of the age’ is crucial in determining a nation’s direction’
The first principle we currently see in action. Putin has started an unjust war on the assumption that Ukraine would bend to his will and wishes, while also thinking that the West was too feeble to counter him. This hasn’t been the case. Instead, he has felt the full wrath of Western economic power, with sanctions swiftly implemented. Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas essentially finances Putin’s warmongery, but the Germans' refusal to go ahead with Nordstream 2, the rest of Europe’s serious desire to unwind itself from Russian energy, and Britain’s expulsion of oligarchs living in so-called Londongrad display a unity rarely seen. This crisis shows that security policy and economics are undoubtedly entangled together, and that realization hopefully means that the West won’t turn a blind eye to strongmen due to immediate self-interest, which in the long term have shown to be counterproductive.
The central idea of the Johnson government: “levelling up and uniting the whole of the United Kingdom” is to try to incorporate the most powerful social forces, to rectify inequalities with a new economic settlement, and to create a positive narrative that encompasses the whole of the nation. It is wishful to think that they will achieve this, partly due to Boris’ unstable position and his unserious personality, but also due to the still ongoing friction in Britain between classes. But if they manage to revitalise their domestic politics, there is scope for a Global Britain to emerge with something distinct to offer. Their history is filled with bad imperial decisions, but equally also with their wholehearted commitment to liberalism, home and abroad, as the slogan goes.
At the heart of the discussion of the Boris phenomena, lay the assumption that he is fundamentally unprincipled and amoral. All evidence points to this conclusion, but in the contempt of which people hold him, they underestimate his political genius, which lies in the ability to sense the ever-changing zeitgeist and with a sleight of hand adjusting his position to ensure his own survival. And the spirit of the age has fundamentally changed these last few months, in favour of an order we can call post-liberal.
By restraining the destructive elements of the ideology, while adhering to the basic principles, it is conceivable that Britain and the West can unite with real purpose and fight against authoritarianism around the world. And then the future might not look so grim. We are seeing ideas unfold again, albeit in very tragic circumstances…