In form and feature, face and limb/ I grew so like my brother,/ That folks went taking me for him/ And each for one another.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would be perfectly qualified to jig to that number if he disciplined his hair with a touch of Brylcream. Then he would look like Donald Trump’s twin. Will the resemblance arrest or accelerate the nosedive his reputation has taken in the British media?
He has so far been greeted dismally. A “new nadir” in public life, screamed The Independent. “A shameless clown”, it went on. The Guardian thought Johnson and Trump made for a pair: “two loud-mouthed man-children”, singularly lacking in character.
After three years of a nondescript Theresa May, is Great Britain only capable of producing a Prime Minister who the British intelligentsia dismisses as a man of doubtful ability and character? Similar things are happening elsewhere, but let me confine myself to the trans-Atlantic cousins.
To make my point, let me describe the scene in November 2016, on US election night at my friend’s Dumbo Loft in Brooklyn, New York, where we had collected, say, 20 friends from all sorts of disciplines — state department veterans, world bankers, Columbia University faculty, artists, writers and a Fox News journalist. Everybody was eager to pop champagne bottles as soon as Hillary Clinton’s victory became imminent. But when Donald Trump won Florida, the party was suddenly in the grip of something between hysteria and melancholia. The woman from World Bank was shrieking like she had seen an apparition. A woman from the neighbouring loft was banging at the door. “Please let me in; I can’t bear being alone.”
It fell to my lot to commiserate with the crestfallen. They, each one of them, had difficulty digesting my diagnosis: “If you make Bernie Sanders impossible, you make Trump inevitable.”
How does this maxim apply to the elevation of Boris Johnson?
Well, “if you make Jeremy Corbyn impossible, you make Boris inevitable”. I am aware that these formulations would be anathema to friends who are sworn to “liberalism”, according their own lights. Liberalism, which defined one’s life in the 1960s and ’70s, is an open-minded accommodation of diversity in faith, tastes, manners and customs. Economists, committed to capitalism, ignore the warts it has developed.
Crony capitalism, for instance, which renders the people redundant except for casting their votes during elections. The control this system has on the media helps perpetuate the corporate-government nexus. It is then a simple barter deal — you promote my interest, I promote yours. Come the next elections, scramble to devise some new strategy to market yourself. Turn to terrorism if other issues do not work.
The perpetuation of this arrangement in democracies worldwide has caused a fatigue factor. In an earlier age, people revolted against the feudal system; they are now trying to bring about radical change through the ballot box.
There are known and unknown eruptions in parts of the world where people are “struggling” outside the system altogether because the ruling class controls all the instruments of the modern democratic state.
The unending post-9/11 wars, the continuing ascendancy of the Deep State, the disparities leading to Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party in retaliation, generated an anti-establishment wave. This is what Bernie Sanders sought to ride. But the establishment in its Democratic Party avatar had set its heart on Hillary Clinton, who was up to her neck in Deep State plots in Syria, Libya and, of course, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In an anti-establishment atmosphere, projecting Ms Clinton as the candidate was clearly ironical. The Clintons, after all, were the establishment in Washington. Hence her defeat and the consequent gnashing of teeth at the Brooklyn Loft.
Reverting to Britain, once Prime Minister David Cameron’s referendum on Brexit in June 2016 had gone wrong, the Conservatives have been on a weak leg. Theresa May, limping from London to Brussels with a hundred stops en route, always empty handed, lost support for the Tories. In direct proportion to the Conservatives’ vulnerability is the right-wing media’s tendency to paint Jeremy Corbyn in lurid colours as a raving anti-Semite, a friend of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. The Economist even dressed him up as Che Guevara. The spirit of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s permeates American public life till this day.
But its resurgence in the UK is all part of the establishment digging its heels in to keep the centre of gravity of global discourse so far to the right that leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders look like Communists. Nameless lobbies worldwide have alerted everyone who watches TV news or reads newspapers to a danger that is more malignant than all — anti-Semitism.
A recent BBC Panorama programme crossed all the red lines to paint Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as an arch anti-Semite.
This label is being foisted on Mr Corbyn as a follow-up to the threat given by Mr Corbyn’s arch-opponent in the Labour Party, Lord Peter Mandelson.
He threatened quite publicly to mobilise opinion to “undermine Corbyn”. Lord Mandelson’s tantrums followed an opinion poll, published in the Telegraph in 2017, which confirmed that public opinion was in favour of Jeremy Corbyn as the next Prime Minister. Being left of centre, Mr Corbyn terrifies the establishment.
A weak and vulnerable PM like Boris Johnson would not like to have a popular Leader of the Opposition glaring at him in the House of Commons.
One of the roles the new home secretary, Priti Patel, will be expected to play would be to have Mr Corbyn collapse under the persistent anti-Semite tirade. Ms Patel was sacked from Theresa May’s Cabinet for unauthorised trips to Israel to meet Likud Party leaders. Mr Corbyn is in danger.
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi...