In 2007, I happened to bump into Boris Johnson at a London party. That same day, a newspaper printed a photograph of George Osborne, then shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, in the Bullingdon Club.
The Bullingdon is an 18th-century, all-male dining club at Oxford University that has become a byword for exclusivity and wild, drunken undergraduate behavior.
Evelyn Waugh largely created the appalling modern myth of the Bullingdon in the opening scene of Decline and Fall (1928), where it is lampooned as the brutally destructive Bollinger Club—named after the champagne house.
At one Bollinger dinner, Waugh writes, “a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles.” Bollinger members included “epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates.”
The Bully in Bullingdon
To my embarrassment, I was also in that 1992 picture of the Bullingdon, standing right next to Osborne. And that’s why, in the middle of a crowded party, Boris greeted me with a hearty cry of “Buller, Buller, Buller!”
In the previous 15 years or so, I had kept quiet about my Bullingdon membership: initially because no one was interested, and then because, once it had exploded in the national press, it was a shameful thing.
Boris, who, as mayor of London, was soon in a far more sensitive position than I, was completely unashamed. And that shamelessness has meant his Bullingdon membership had no impact on his electoral successes—twice as mayor and now as prime minister.
That lack of shame is very un-English, not least when it comes to Boris’s multiple affairs—where he behaves much more like a French politician.
Boris has even pretended to have been arrested after a riotous Bullingdon dinner, when in fact he was one of the members that night who wasn’t picked up by the police.
What other politician—or human—would volunteer the lie that he had been arrested? That lack of shame is distinctly un-English. The same goes for his many affairs, where he behaves more like a French politician. And, like a French politician, he gets away with his naughty behavior while other British politicians end their careers over lesser slipups.
In a 2015 interview, I brought up the Bullingdon with former prime minister David Cameron—who was in the club at the same time as Boris (and is my second cousin). Cameron and Johnson were in the club in the mid-80s, seven years before I was.
“It’s cripplingly embarrassing when you look back at those pictures now,” Cameron told me about the Bullingdon. “I think I’ve said all I want to say about that.”
How Cameron’s shame at his Bullingdon membership contrasted with Boris Johnson’s reaction.
And how extraordinary it is that, in 21st-century Britain, our new leader is the second prime minister in just over three years to have gone to Eton and Oxford and to have been a member of the university’s most exclusive, bluest-blooded club.
It’s particularly extraordinary at a moment when there’s a real backlash against the elite. A new group, Labour Against Public Schools, has just been launched, backed by Ed Miliband, former Labour leader, attempting to ban private education.
This year, two new books have come out attacking private schools: Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem, by Francis Green and David Kynaston; and Gilded Youth: Privilege, Rebellion and the British Public School, by James Brooke-Smith.
U and Non-U
Oxford University vice-chancellor Louise Richardson has just set a target whereby a quarter of Oxford’s students will come from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2023. This summer, a high-profile BBC program, How to Break into the Elite, attacked the bias by employers, whereby public-school-educated employees get better jobs than state-school-educated employees do, despite having lesser degrees. The program concluded that soft skills (such as studied informality, being confident, and having the right clothes and accent) keep the public-school-educated employees ahead.
So, how is it that, in a Britain that’s straining to be egalitarian, the ultra-elite Boris Johnson has got the job he’s coveted since he was a little boy? Back then, his sister Rachel asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “World king,” he replied.
Part of the answer is Boris’s planet-size brains. He was a classics scholar at Eton and Balliol College, the brainiest Oxford college.
Most scholars I knew at school and university were too highly strung to get on in the modern world. But Boris not only has the huge brains; he also has those soft public-school skills in abundance: in his humor, confidence, faux self-deprecation, and studied messiness.
In many ways, he is a mixture of some of Britain’s most famous public schoolboys, whose writing styles have also influenced his.
In the case of Winston Churchill—subject of Boris’s best-selling 2014 biography, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History—Boris shares his ambition, his “black dog” of depression, his taste for painting, his humor, and his populist speeches.
Inspired in part by Evelyn Waugh, Boris plays up the old-fashioned, aristocratic Brideshead Revisited element in his manner, clothes, and disregard for bourgeois values. Waugh said he learned from his own classical education “that words have basic inalienable meanings, departure from which is either conscious metaphor or inexcusable vulgarity.”
Boris the classicist uses precisely the same technique, using Latinate words to produce metaphor or vulgarity—or both at the same time. Here he is, describing the location of his office in City Hall (a huge glass ball by Tower Bridge) when he was London’s mayor: “I’m on the, er, upper epidermis of the gonad. Somewhere near the seminal vesical, I expect.” The joke depends on using formal, scientific, Latinate terms for comic effect.
“I’m on the, er, upper epidermis of the gonad. Somewhere near the seminal vesical, I expect.”
The greatest influence on Boris’s writing is P. G. Wodehouse. Like Wodehouse, Boris uses bathos, moving from high, classical registers to low, blunt language in the same sentence.
Those Wodehousian one-liners aren’t easy to produce. Evelyn Waugh said of Wodehouse, “One has to admire a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to every page.”
Boris doesn’t always manage three per page, but there’s usually at least one per article, as I discovered when I edited his Daily Telegraph column from 2000 to 2005. His columns were invariably late—delivered after his seven p.m. deadline, when all the other columnists had to file by four p.m. But they were always jam-packed with inspired humor.
Boris knows that the British are essentially bored by politics and politicians. When I began working on The Telegraph, in 2000, I was told two rules for opinion pieces, invented by an editor of The Sunday Telegraph: “Don’t get politicians to write. They’re too boring”; and “Don’t get anyone to write about Europe. It’s too boring.”
Boris breaks both rules—as a politician who makes jokes about Europe. In fact, he made his name in the 1990s, as The Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, filing sensationalist, funny stories about fictional European directives banning bendy bananas and prawn-cocktail crisps. He falsely claimed the E.U. was planning to introduce a standard condom size.
He was at it again in his last leadership hustings in East London in July when he suddenly brandished a kipper in midair. He claimed the E.U. was forcing kipper producers to pack their fish in expensive ice pillows. In fact, it was domestic legislation that was responsible for the rule.
But that doesn’t matter to Boris, who has long realized that, if you wrap up your politics in jokes, a sizable proportion of the British public will love you forever.
In the flesh, Boris also charms you with that Wodehousian wit.
“Boris,” I once asked him, “I’ve got to write an introduction to your collected wit and wisdom. I was just wondering whether you ever use any classical devices in your speeches or your articles.”
“Oh, yes, I most certainly do,” he said, slipping into his ultra-serious skin. “There’s one particular Roman oratorical trick I use the whole time. Couldn’t survive without it.”
“Oh, really. What is it?”
“It’s absolutely crucial—it’s called imbecilio.”
That is classic—and classical—Johnsonian wit. Pretend to be ultra-serious and then whip away the earnest veil to show the charming joke behind.
A Rake’s Regress
His wit is crucial for someone who gets into so many romantic and political scrapes—it gets him off the hook. When, in 2004, he denied an affair with journalist Petronella Wyatt, he called it “an inverted pyramid of piffle.”
The affair did take place, but it has been largely forgotten by the public—it certainly hasn’t harmed his career the way it would that of most other politicians. But the eccentric, consciously archaic comic words of the quotation are remembered.
“Piffle” is a typical Johnson word in its stagy, mock-posh way. He learned the style early on. I first tracked it down in an article defending private schools, written in the Eton Chronicle in 1980, when he was 16:
“The Civilised World can ignore, must ignore entirely, these idiots who tell us that, by their very existence, the public schools demolish all hopes most cherished for the Comprehensive System. Clearly, this is twaddle, utter bunkum, balderdash, tommyrot, piffle and fiddlesticks of the most insidious kind.”
Boris learned early on the power of absurd, hyper-English words—his school and university contemporaries tell me the 21st-century, jolly-good-chap Boris character is just a grown-up version of the young Boris.
The funny thing is, though, Boris isn’t in fact really very English. I don’t mean by blood, although his eighth of Turkish blood—and his middle-class origins—give him an outsider-among-insiders edge in modern, blueblooded Conservative politics. He can lampoon the poshness that David Cameron—his pure British, upper-middle-class predecessor—did so much to play down. And by inflating the poshness, he makes a joke of it and diminishes its importance.
“Clearly, this is twaddle, utter bunkum, balderdash, tommyrot, piffle and fiddlesticks of the most insidious kind.”
It is this combination of hard ambition, big brains, and the soft skills of charm and humor that has propelled Boris into Downing Street.
There are other, long-term, societal factors at play, too. It’s striking that, between Alec Douglas-Home (prime minister from 1963 to 1964) and David Cameron (P.M. from 2010 to 2016), all Tory prime ministers were state-educated at grammar schools: Edward Heath (1970 to 1974), Margaret Thatcher (1979 to 1990), and John Major (1990 to 1997). But, since 2010, all three Tory prime ministers were privately educated. (Albeit briefly, in Theresa May’s case—she also went to a grammar school and a comprehensive school.)
Ever since the 1960s, grammar schools—excellent free schools, with a tough, selective entrance exam—have been largely closed by both Labour and Conservative governments. That means two generations of schoolchildren have been deprived of the elite, free education grammar schools once provided. It also means there have been fewer state-educated candidates who can match the private education of Boris Johnson, Theresa May, and David Cameron.
The British establishment is just as powerful as it ever was. Private schools educate only seven percent of British pupils. But they have educated 100 percent of our last three prime ministers. They have educated 65 percent of senior judges, 57 percent of the members of the House of Lords, 59 percent of civil-service permanent secretaries, 52 percent of Foreign Office diplomats, 43 percent of the 100 most influential news editors and broadcasters, and 44 percent of newspaper columnists. (I confess I went to private school and Oxford myself.) Even among top actors, 44 percent were privately educated, while 30 percent of pop stars went to independent schools.
A Question of Upbringing
When Boris became prime minister in July, I was reminded of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time—his 12-novel sequence about the 20th-century Establishment.
Boris is a character straight out of Powell (who was my great-uncle, incidentally). He has the ambition of Widmerpool, the antihero of the novels, combined with the charm of Nick Jenkins, the narrator, and the upper-class, muddle-headed mannerisms of Lord Erridge, the grand peer in the sequence.
It is remarkable that Anthony Powell’s niece, Lady Rachel Billington, is Boris Johnson’s godmother, while Anthony Powell’s brother-in-law, Robin Mount (my grandfather), was David Cameron’s great-uncle.
A Dance to the Music of Time may have been fictional, and Powell (1905–2000) may have belonged to an earlier generation. But he was uncannily prescient about the truth of modern Britain. The rise of Johnson and Cameron to No. 10 shows how right Powell still is: connections and power keep on drip-drip-dripping down through the generations.
Despite the anti-elite feeling in the air, Boris’s rise to power confirms that the Establishment is alive and well. And the Establishment rewards the same combination of education, charm, connections, and humor as it did when the action starts in Powell’s books, a century ago.
Harry Mount is editor of The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson—the 10 Downing Street Edition (Bloomsbury).