On Aristocratic Populism

One of the great questions about Boris Johnson has always been his apparent shifts in attitude. From a Telegraph bore/eurosceptic of the '90s, to the liberal (ish) London mayor of the 2000s, to the face of right wing populism and Brexit we know today, Johnson's persona appears to have seen, as Jonathan Lis put it, a number of mutations. The most common explanation for this is self interest: here we have an individual who will say and do anything for power. But I'm less sure. I think there is a kind of consistency to Johnson's attitudes, and it's one that is rather familiar. It's one of the aristocratic populist. 

Aristocratic populism is not opposed to privilege. But it is not averse to the idea of service, either. It entails the belief in some form or other of noblesse oblige- the idea that privilege entails obligations. For the aristocratic populist, this obligation chiefly entails the idea of being in touch with 'your people'; their ideas, traditions, practices etc as you see them (this may have large fictional elements). Crucially, this means not dismissing commonplace ideas as backwards, incorrect, or bigoted. As Roger Scruton, one of the most influential thinkers on the modern British right put it, it means that politics must "reassure people that their prejudices are true". 

This ideology is, on one level, inherently anti-intellectual, or at least opposed to certain types of expertise. It rests on the dichotomy of common wisdom, found in life experience and practical interactions on the one hand,  and theoretical, intellectualised understanding on the other. It is the idea that the prejudices of the common man are, for all their flaws, ultimately more sensible than the fashionable theories of intellectuals. It is, in many ways, a deeply patronising belief, as it assumes that 'ordinary' people are disinterested in and incapable of thinking beyond gut reactions, prejudice and acquired practical experience.

It is this kind of thinking that allows people like Johnson to have their reactionary cake and eat it. He does not have to actually belief, for example, in anti immigrant rhetoric himself. He can be perfectly familiar with the fact that economists tend to believe that the case against immigration has broadly been debunked. But he can believe that he is doing a kind of service, and following this sense of noblesse oblige  by not disavowing it either. Indulging common prejudices is a way of showing in-touchness with the people you govern, and a kind of act of solidarity. It is not about what you believe privately, or whether you, personally, have a problem with other ideas. But it is about whether in your mind you side with the fashionable theorists or the ordinary people, believing that the latter hold some kind of  greater legitimacy and deeper, if ineffable wisdom. 

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