Boris Johnson in the past week has seen his Tory fortunes soar. This was in a week when Johnson belatedly went and spoke to the people affected by the Yorkshire floods and faced their anger. In the same period, he struggled to answer why he might be 'relatable'; avoided giving a straight reply to that well-known killer question, 'how many children do you have?', and with wider consequences for our politics, said he didn't know the number of Russian oligarchs who fund the Tory Party.
Despite the above incidents and many more, numerous people present Boris Johnson in positive terms as a charmer, a character, someone able to get on with people, to get things done, and critically, a proven vote winner. Some of his biggest apologists go even further comparing him to some of the defining Tory PMs – Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher – all part of a largescale Johnson sycophantic industry out there.
Johnson represents the worst aspects of a certain kind of man. How is it possible, credible or defensible, for a man seeking our votes to be PM to not be able, or more accurately willing, to say how many children he has? If this were a case involving a Labour leader they would be demolished in public – often by those very papers and cheerleaders who are most passionate and convinced about the supposed many virtues and statesmanlike qualities of Boris Johnson.
Even more damningly, if this were a working-class man, or a man claiming benefits, who had the audacity to say that he did not know the answer to such a question, or was not prepared to discuss it, the response of the mainstream media would be very different. Newspaper headlines would scream that this was an example of our moral decay as a society, his case emblematic of the decline of male responsibility, and the erosion of 'the breadwinner' by the welfare state and feminism.
This is about class, gender and the brazen entitlement of a privileged class who believe that the Britain of the past 40 years gives them permission to have a laissez-faire attitude to moral manners. Hence, Tory minister Jacob Rees-Mogg – the father of six children who has never changed a nappy – recently made offensive remarks disparaging those who died in Grenfell. And tellingly, in the aftermath of these comments, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen rode to his defence saying that this was the sort of thing that happened if we wanted 'clever people' like Rees-Mogg running the country. It was a revealing kind of argument.
The moral vacuity of these men was underlined further by the revelations in the recent book by William Cash – son of serial Eurosceptic rebel Bill Cash – Restoration Heart: A Memoir
. His book has been hailed in certain places as a delightful upper-class tale of wisdom, with The Tatler
calling it 'a dark and heart-wrenching tale of loss, pain and a desperate search for fulfillment'.
Its pages contain the details of a story and dialogue which sounds straight from a bad Richard Curtis film. Cut to the glamorous backdrop of the World Economic Forum at Davos: William is in a relationship with art advisor Helen, who used to be with Boris Johnson, and who gave him 'unpaid' art advice, whatever that is. Johnson had a child with Helen, and William being a decent sort of chap is more than willing to bring the child up as his.
The dialogue begins with William saying to Johnson after the entire plan collapses, 'Listen, it's about Helen. I know things haven't exactly been easy for any of us, but can I make one thing clear?' He then states: 'I wanted to marry Helen and bring up your daughter as one of my own. It was that simple'. Johnson replies: 'Right… er… got it. Thanks for letting me know'. William then describes the closing scene: 'And then we walked off in different directions'.
You might think, writing about this today from the vantage point of Johnson being PM, that Cash might offer some pithy critique. Writing in the Mail on Sunday
he says: 'As someone who has been flattened, big daddy-style, by the emotional carnage that he often leaves around him, I found myself questioning his moral character'. But then adds: 'My conclusion is that Boris is simply unique because of his election-winning charisma'. You have to wonder if they put something in the water at Eton, and several other private schools, to destroy character and any lingering sense of morality and ethics.
That was one amongst many cases. Another that has appeared recently and is still bubbling along is the strange story of Jennifer Arcuri, an American start-up tech entrepreneur, who was able, with little business experience in the UK, to be able to access public monies when Johnson was London Mayor, and a six-figure amount from the UK Government.
As the allegations grew more problematic for Johnson about the nature of his relationship with Arcuri and his non-declaration of any interests in the awarding of public monies, a UK Government inquiry was announced which in time honoured and speedy fashion, dispensed with the idea that anything untoward had happened. Two London inquiries are outstanding.
In the midst of the election, Arcuri re-emerged in an ITV interview, where she clearly felt aggrieved that Johnson will no longer return her calls and has cut her adrift. She talked openly of their 'four-year relationship' and his subsequent cold-shouldering, stating: 'I don't understand why you've blocked me and ignored me as if I was some fleeting one-night stand or some girl that you picked up at a bar because I wasn't – and you know that'.
It underlines Johnson's lack of public ethics and record of financial and professional support for Arcuri when he was London Mayor without declaring their relationship: prima facie evidence of misconduct.
Adding to this tapestry of class, gender and deference hard-wired into the DNA of the UK was the BBC Newsnight
interview of Prince Andrew by Emily Maitlis. In a near hour-long examination solely focused on Andrew's friendship with the convicted serial sexual abuser Jeffrey Epstein, Andrew didn't offer sympathy or empathy for any of Epstein's many victims. Asked if he regretted in retrospect his friendship with Epstein, Andrew replied that he did not, that it had introduced him to lots of 'extraordinary people', and that it was 'actually very useful' for him.
There are similarities – as well as differences of scale – between Boris Johnson, Prince Andrew and Donald Trump. The excesses of Trump are legion – one week after public deliberations began into his impeachment – and there are literally thousands of examples of his unacceptable behaviour and comments since he first emerged to run for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2015 and then became US President.
Take just two examples. In the battle for the Republican nomination, he was confronted by Megyn Kelly of Fox News
in August 2015, who repeated a list of the derogatory things he had said about women in public – 'fat pigs', 'dogs', 'slobs', and 'disgusting animals' – to which he responded: 'I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct'. After the event, as is his character, he went on the attack saying the previously unsayable: 'There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever'.
Then in October 2016, now the Republican nominee and with one month to the election, a tape emerged of Trump boasting of how he moved on women even when they didn't want it. In it, he said: 'You know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful women – I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. I just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy'. Many thought this the end of his campaign, but he dismissed it as 'locker room talk', survived and won the Presidency. Worse was to come.
Trump has tapped into deep-seated prejudices, anxieties and fears and amplified them into a turbo-charged crusade for bigotry, hatred and a sense of his own victimhood. In so doing, he has abused the office of the US Presidency, but one dimension of his grotesque rule is his expression and projection of masculinity and manhood, which presents strength and confidence, but is clearly shaped by fragility, doubt and turmoil.
The US writer, Jackson Katz, has worked on pioneering studies and projects on men, masculinities, sexism and sexual violence, and in a study of politics observes that: 'Gender plays a major role in US Presidential politics,' and has 'long been the site of ongoing cultural struggle over the meanings of American manhood'.
There is another thread running through this – the shameless behaviour of Johnson and Trump, and the actions and associations of Prince Andrew – and this is the range of excesses which are now deemed permissible in the present age of seismic inequality and the 'super rich'.
The past 40 years have seen a fundamental shift in income, wealth and power across the globe from the forces of labour and towards that of capital, and also to the most tiny group of the ultra-rich. In the UK, the share of GDP which is taken by labour – meaning all of us by our collective working endeavours – has fallen from 64% in 1976 to 54% now, and looks set to continue to fall for the foreseeable future.
Once upon a time, politicians including those from the centre-right tradition – across the developed world – operated within a moral framework. They may have reinforced class inequality and the power of an entrenched elite, but in times past they also acknowledged a civic code of greater responsibility and ethics. This was the conservatism in the UK of those oft-cited icons: Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, even Ted Heath; in the US, Dwight Eisenhower; the Christian Democratic tradition of West and then united Germany; and Gaullism in France. This is not a dewy-eyed sentimental argument about a past golden age, but one to point out that the age of managed capitalism of 1945-75 produced a kind of politics and leadership, including on the right, which protected the idea of the social contract.
Politics in the 21st century have long ago departed such a menu of insight, wisdom, compassion and understanding our inter-connectedness. Instead, this is a time of brutal, shameless, selfish power – politically, economically and socially – by, and in the interests of, the plutocratic class.
It is not an accident that directly related to this we have the denigration and destruction of the codes of behaviour of public leadership by the likes of Johnson and Trump – replicated by the likes of Putin, Erdogan and Orbán. There is an unreconstructed, aggressive masculinity channelling the fears many men have about their traditional roles and status in society, work and at home being undermined and challenged. Alongside this, some men use their positions of power to undermine others or be abusive, sexually and non-sexually: all of which will come into public light and debate in Scotland in the forthcoming trial of Alex Salmond next year.
The battle against the debasement of public life will take many forms, but one critical area is that of men and masculinity, and the notion of what it is to be a good man. Good men do not walk on by, act as bystanders, or remain silent, but instead challenge the actions of men who hurt women, children and other men. Some men sometimes question whether this is necessary or prefer a quiet life, but as Jackson Katz argues in The Macho Paradox,
men gain from challenging sexism and abusive behaviour as well as women: 'When we ask men to reject sexism and the abuse of women, we are not taking something away from them. In fact, we are giving them something very valuable – a vision of manhood that does not depend on putting down others to lift itself up'.
This wisdom has been used all around the world, working with American gangs, businesses and public bodies globally, and in Scotland with men who are violent, contributing to the pioneering work of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (SVRU). Looking at the state of the world, including our own country, we really need to start talking about men and masculinities, and confronting the destructive behaviour of too many men, including those who hold power and are damaging public life and the norms of society. Central to this is men not being silent and not colluding in unacceptable behaviour which harms all of us.