Opinion: in the Age of Entertainment, it is more important to be amusing and whacky rather than competent or honest to succeed in politics
There is historical inevitability to the coronation of Boris Johnson as the UK's next prime minister. Only two candidates are left in the race: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the blond versus the bland. What will follow in the next few weeks will be a mere formality and no amount of scrutiny over Johnson's private life will derail what we have all known for a long time now. In a deeply polarized society consumed and damaged by Brexit, Johnson represents the logical conclusion of a very illogical process started three years ago by a misleading and unnecessary referendum.
The Marxist British historian Eric Hobsbawm is best known for his brilliant multi-volume account of the long 19th century: The Age of Revolution (1789–1848); The Age of Capital (1848–1875) and The Age of Empire (1875–1914). The first volume starts with the French revolution, but the real protagonist is in fact the Industrial revolution in Britain. The second and third volumes focus on the domestic development and inevitable global domination of capitalism.
From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University, asks if anything can stop Boris Johnson's bid for 10 Downing Street
There is something very British about Hobsbawm's account of the 19th century, in part because Great Britain seems to be at the centre of everything, from the industrial revolution to the British Empire. It is nostalgia of Great Britain as a global leader, the greatest world power, that helps to explain the visceral hate for the European Union in some quarters in England today and the desperate desire to reclaim a long-lost true British identity through Brexit.
After his acclaimed trilogy on the 19th century, Hobsbawm subsequently published another volume, a history of the short 20th century, The Age of Extremes (1914-1991). Here, the focus is on the horrors of total war, genocide, more imperialism and exploitation, and technological terror.
This pathetic yearning to turn back the clock also explains the logic behind leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg's recently published book, The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain. Met by historians with near universal disdain and ridicule, this reactionary book tells us a lot more about Britain today than it does about 19th century Britain. Hobsbawm once said that "xenophobia looks like becoming the mass ideology of the 20th-century fin-de-siecle"; it would seem Brexit has proved Hobsbawm right.
From RTÉ News, January 2019 interview with Boris Johnson
Hobsbawm died in 2012, but if we were to pick up where he left off, what would be an opportune title for a volume that covers the period from 1991 to the present? Perhaps a strong candidate might be "The Age of Entertainment". While the richest and most influential people on the planet In the 19th and 20th century were industrialists and bankers, they tend to be actors, musicians, bloggers and sportspeople today.
It's entertainers who currently pace the corridors of power. America has seen the rise of actors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and a TV personality like Donald Trump. In the Ukraine, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky has just been elected president. Other comedians in positions of power include Jimmy Morales, the current president of Guatemala, and Beppe Grillo, the founder of Italy's Cinque Stelle (Five Stars) Movement. If we include sports, we find ex-footballers such as George Weah (the current president of Liberia), and Romário (elected to the Brazilian senate in 2014) and ex-cricket star Imran Khan (the current prime minister of Pakistan). The list is endless.
It seems that the Conservative Party’s property-owning, middle-aged, middle-class voters don’t just want to vote. They also expect and demand to be entertained for taking the trouble of performing their civic duties. In the global theatre of democratic politics, buffoonery has been elevated first to an art-form, and then to a political-catalyst.
From RTÉ Radio 1's Marian Finucane Show, a profile of Boris Johnson by Sonia Purnell, author of Just Boris - A Tale of Blond Ambition
Eton-educated Johnson is not a comedian, but he is smart enough to understand that it is more important today to be amusing and whacky rather than competent or honest to succeed in politics. The evidence is overwhelming. In America, on pure entertainment value, there was only going to be one winner in 2016 between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Things are not different in Britain today, which is why Jeremy Hunt cannot hurt Johnson’s impressive political machine of self-promotion.
The long 19th century of Eric Hobsbawm was also when the modern idea of democracy first came to the fore, but the meaning of democracy is becoming increasingly elusive and alien with the passing of time. Apart from being a procedural mechanism for electing rulers, democracy is also a value, an ideal, a moral belief - or at least it should be.
Over a period of just over two centuries, the idea of democracy has followed a parabolic trajectory. It has evolved from a utopian aspiration to a legitimate claim to a heroic ideal worth dying for and, finally, to the present culture of egotism and greediness, gelled together by the imperative to be amused. For the present generation of Tory voters brought up on Big Brother and other reality shows, even a domestic fracas has entertainment value. In the age of instant gratification where screens reign supreme, the biggest challenge is how to convey the message that democracy is no laughing matter, preferably in 280 characters or less.
From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, John Rentoul, chief political commentator for The London Independent on the problems facing Boris Johnson's bid for prime minister
Johnson may be a joke, but he will have the last laugh. This may be regrettable, possibly disastrous, but hardly surprising. After all, as Rupert Pupkin says in The King of Comedy, "better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime".
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ