by Alistair Somerville
February 18, 2020
Politicians like to tell stories about themselves. Leaders like to tell stories about their country. The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is the first since Winston Churchill with both a prominent personal story and his own distinct interpretation of national history. Indeed, Johnson has attempted to co-opt Churchill into both, particularly when it comes to the UK’s relationship with Europe.
What do Johnson’s methods of storytelling and the content of his tales tell us about the man and his premiership? Johnson has a clear conception of history and his place within it, which is both a product of his upbringing, and his experience in politics and journalism. As Prime Minister, he demonstrated his Churchillian self-confidence when he expelled the wartime leader’s own grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, from the Conservative Party for rebelling on a Brexit vote in Parliament.
Yet most of the recently-published biographical pieces miss Johnson’s relationship to history, and the ways he has manipulated and mobilized the past in the protracted Brexit debate. Examining Johnson under a historical lens, including his writings on Churchill, helps us understand his thinking, and, in turn, the kind of prime minister he is turning out to be.
Sonia Purnell described how, in 1988, the Times of London asked the young reporter Johnson to write a piece about the fourteenth-century English king Edward II. Archaeologists had found remains of a castle belonging to Edward on the banks of the River Thames. The paper asked Johnson to cover the story because he “seemed to know his history.” In a now infamous incident, Johnson decided to spice up the story by concocting a quote about the castle’s role as a meeting point for Edward and his lover Piers Gaveston, attributing the quote to his godfather, Dr. Colin Lucas, and Oxford history professor. The problem: Gaveston was beheaded in 1312, while the castle was built more than a decade later. Lucas contacted the Times, and the paper fired Johnson.
Johnson has instrumentalized history during the Brexit debate, enabling the Vote Leave campaign’s victory in the referendum and his own rise to the premiership. Here, Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill provides insight into Johnson’s attitudes towards the European Union. The Churchill Factor relies on the idea that one man can make history. It demonstrates Johnson’s belief in the power of “great” men. One cannot help but infer that Johnson’s study of Churchill was really a means by which to present himself as the wartime leader’s natural heir. In order to create that impression, Johnson misrepresented Churchill as a Euroskeptic and turned him into a prop for the pro-Brexit cause. Although Churchill was ambiguous on the precise role the UK should play in Europe, particularly before the Second World War, he was one of the leading voices calling for greater European unity after he lost the 1945 general election.
There is one noteworthy commonality between the two men. Both Johnson and Churchill used the Telegraph newspaper as a mouthpiece for their ideas. In December 1946, Churchill published a manifesto in the paper, highlighting the European Community’s role as a peace project, called “United Europe: One Way to Stop a New War.” Nearly 70 years later, in a March 2016 column, Johnson came out in support of Brexit under an eerily similar headline with the totally opposite meaning: “There is only one way to get the change we want — vote to leave the EU.”
The Brexiteers’ — and now the government’s — self-conception as underdogs fighting a heroic battle against an authoritarian pro-European (often German) elite continues to be the centerpiece of their message.
While exploiting Churchill’s legacy, Johnson and others have leant on simple, misleading historical analogies to present Britain as an underdog nation oppressed by evil Europeans. The historian Richard J. Evans noted last year that these allusions were often “spurious.” The pro-Brexit press, including the Euroskeptic Sun and Daily Mail newspapers, have repeated and amplified these messages. Allusions to Nazism and the British underdog spirit have enabled Brexiteers to breathe life into the historical image of a malevolent Germany, in order to construct a narrative which placed liberation from an all-powerful Europe at its core.
If Johnson’s dealings with his and his country’s past tell us anything, it is that historians must challenge the prime minister’s rhetoric. If we look beyond the bluster on Brexit and his desire for a new, “global” Britain, we see a man whose worldview today is best understood through his cavalier attitude to history and frequent disregard for the truth. Whenever Johnson speaks of Britain’s future in the context of the Commonwealth or the British Empire, or describes the Brexiteers’ battle against the EU as Churchillian, we must stand ready to defend the facts and their historical context.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Public Seminar in November 2019.
Alistair Somerville is an M.A. Candidate in German and European Studies at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He is editor of The Transatlanticist and produces the podcast, The Europe Desk.