Bollocks to Boris!

Boris-7Boris Johnson has been accused of using extreme language after calling the Act requiring him to seek another extension to Article 50 ‘The Surrender Bill’. The title of our post is borrowed from the rather more extreme slogan used by the Liberal Democrats to characterise their opposition to Brexit – “Bollocks to Brexit”. Extremely vitriolic language has been directed at the Prime Minister, his character has been attacked and he has been described as an unelected Prime Minister.

Over the last century there have been twenty different Prime Ministers, from Lloyd George to Boris Johnson. Only six first became PM following a General Election (Atlee, Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron). Of the other fourteen: eight won a later General Election (Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Baldwin, MacDonald, Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Major) but four never did (Chamberlain, Douglas Home, Callaghan and Brown), one remained PM in a minority government (May) and one has yet to face the electorate (Johnson), who has offered to do so but which group will he join?

Prime ministersTo say Boris Johnson is unelected is meaningless and misleading. We don’t elect Prime Ministers, we elect MPs, who then nominate one of their members to ask the Queen if he or she may form and head a government of ministers. The PM can be replaced by the Queen, usually because the former cannot continue due to illness, death or by losing the confidence of ministers, Parliament or voters; these days there is usually a process to select a party leader who will take over. Ministers have not lost confidence in Boris, Parliament refuses to say whether it has confidence in him and voters haven’t been given the chance.

Johnson has also been criticised for his ruthlessness in withdrawing the whip from Conservative rebels who voted against his Government. However, when he does eventually face a public vote it will be a Brexit-dominated election and he cannot therefore offer them a confused or divided choice, all his candidates must say where they stand and stick by that (or resign their seats).

Eton boysBoris is often criticised for being another posh Eton boy, like David Cameron and several Prime Ministers before him, but there is a difference. Annual fees to attend Eton College today are about £43,000 which is a lot more than most parents can afford; Ian Cameron would have paid the equivalent for the period that his son attended but Stanley Johnson did not because his lad won a King’s Scholarship. The school was created in the fifteenth century by Henry VII to educate bright boys whose families could not afford to buy their education, but because of its excellence richer parents offered to pay for their sons to be taught there. The system still exists but only fourteen students a year get scholarships, based on an examination—other past scholars include George Orwell and the philosopher AJ Ayer. Eton does not have huge endowments, so since the 1960s scholarships have been means-tested, we don’t know what the Johnsons contributed. Other public-school educated politicians include Clement Attlee, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn. None of these upper middle class kids won scholarships, Boris earned money at school by correcting other boys’ maths homework—he’s no fool.

So we should look beyond the personalties to the policies. It’s good to talk across the Brexit divide, that’s how we can learn to refine our arguments, which may lead to better insight or even to changing our opinion to some degree, perhaps radically. However, we don’t think it helps if we try to compare the character or mendaciousness of the people and organisations involved; there is no agreed way to measure these attributes and we are bound to apportion different weights to things said and done. It is more important to examine the policies rather than to question the motives and integrity of the people, otherwise we descend into a fruitless debate about who has told the biggest lies.

Brexit liesFor example, you can blame a £350 million figure for swinging the Referendum result or counter that with the numbers in the Government’s pre-election leaflet sent to all households (£4,200 was one of these, the amount by which families would be poorer if we left the EU). [1] Neither was an absolute lie but both were designed to mislead us. Instead we should discuss the merits of the EU and its benefits, to the UK in particular. There are rational arguments and evidence we can bring to the discussion from both sides. There are contradictions, counter arguments and questions that can be raised against the former, and there is alternative evidence or challenges to pit against the latter. It is hard to escape from ‘confirmation bias’ but it helps to confront the equally-likely selectivity from the opposite viewpoint.

Let us debate rather than squabble. Our next post will suggest how we can reset our minds by addressing the core of our beliefs.

[1] Britain Strangled in Europe


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