Prospect: Calling Boris Johnson “the British Trump” shows a misunderstanding of parliamentary democracy

This article was first published in Prospect Magazine.

Boris Johnson is Britain’s Trump. The left’s rhetoric is becoming increasingly bereft of ingenuity, to the point that this is now the go-to line. It was most recently regurgitated by Jeremy Corbyn in his speech earlier this week. During ‘Corbyn in Corby’—an instant classic—everyone’s favourite magic grandpa declared that our new Prime Minister is, for all intents and purposes, the same person as President Trump, insofar as he “protects the vested interests of the richest and the elites while posing as anti-establishment.”

Of course, the irony of Jeremy Corbyn brashly slapping the ‘anti-establishment’ label on the Prime Minister is that his Labour leadership is, in itself, profoundly populist, albeit much less successfully. Corbyn’s abysmal personal approval ratings are a useful demonstration of what happens when haphazard stabs at populism go terribly wrong.

The remainder of what he said is, as usual, many miles off the mark. Beyond baffling hair and arcane promiscuity, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have very little in common. The latter is nationalist and protectionist, while the former is a progressive liberal.

Whatever his ill-judged and rightly critiqued comments elsewhere, Johnson recognises and welcomes the benefits of immigration. He speaks emotively of his vision for a post-Brexit Global Britain, propped up by thriving free trade relationships, while Trump is calling himself ‘Tariff Man’ and starting trade wars with America’s most important economic partners. Johnson rose to power to fulfil the mandate of the people, whereas Trump stokes his base by churning out nationalist fury, gleeful bigotry and xenophobic bile.

As convenient as the comparison might be for Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson is not merely the British transliteration of President Trump. This is not to say that Britain is exempt from Trump’s brand of politics: the populist wave that carted him into the White House in 2016 was an international one, and its reverberations are still being felt today. Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, for instance, were propelled to the top of their respective governments by the same electoral shudder that gave us President Trump.

The difference in Britain’s case is that our political system is uniquely resilient to populist insurgency. The British electorate is just as susceptible to the nationalist trend as its Western neighbours; the proportion of voters who approved Brexit is higher even than the vote share earned by Trump.

But the Mother of Parliaments is designed to keep crackpots at arm’s length, meaning that there was no opportunity for an outsider to ride the wave and plant themselves at the top of government. That is why it can be so difficult to see that Britain’s Trump is, in fact, Nigel Farage.

Farage and Trump’s respective politics are strikingly similar. America First is directly mappable onto Farage’s nationalistic view of post-Brexit Britain. Both men yearn for stronger borders, both in terms of immigration and trade. Both captured the political imaginations of their respective homelands through their contrarian, anti-establishment right-wing populism.

The only obstacle to the fulfilment of Farage’s Trumpian destiny by soaring to power in the UK is our electoral system. In the US, thanks to the open nature of the presidential primaries, anyone with an ounce of charisma and a hefty bank account can come within touching distance of genuine political power.

Under the considerably more British First Past the Post model, personality counts for much less. Farage was unable to penetrate the establishment because he did not have the backing of the incumbent giants (and their party machinery)—a problem that Trump never faced.

The equivalent of Trump’s ascension for Farage in Britain would have essentially involved his winning the leadership of the Conservative Party, in the same way that Trump effectively seized the leadership of the Republican Party. The key distinction is that Trump was able to bypass the near-universal disdain of the Republican establishment thanks to his grassroots momentum. Voter support is of no such use in Britain if the incumbent party refuses to back you as a member, let alone its leader.

As a result, the best that Farage could muster was to build up political pressure whilst planted very firmly outside the tent. He did, of course, do this extremely successfully, to the point of strong-arming the Prime Minister of the time into a career-ending referendum and changing the course of British politics for a generation. But he will never enjoy Trumpian levels of power.

Farage may have fired the Brexit starting pistol, but he will never cross the finish line. He was even denied the chance to be the official face of the Leave campaign. Boris Johnson is the man the people and the system, arm in arm, have chosen to execute this landmark mandate—and history will cast Johnson as the protagonist in the Brexit tale, with Farage tossed to the side-lines as little more than a supporting character.

Ultimately, this is because Farage is a populist, and the British political system offers no tolerance to populists whatsoever. Our parliamentary structure of government is expertly designed to preserve the status quo as far as possible, so that even in the face of an almighty roar of transnational populism and the shock of a momentous and systemic change such as Brexit, we still end up with broadly the same politicians as before.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s