Boris Johnson’s run of bad decisions on Brexit and Covid have their roots in a saga of elite entitlement and superficiality
When the novelist John le Carré died earlier this month, among the passages quoted by journalists was a short excerpt from The Secret Pilgrim, published in 1990. In the book, the words are spoken by Le Carré’s fondly loved character George Smiley. “The privately educated Englishman – and Englishwoman, if you will allow me – is the greatest dissembler on Earth,” he says. “Was, is now and ever shall be for as long as our disgraceful school system remains intact. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damned fool.”
The words are a cutting summary of the far-off era of upper class treachery and cold war subterfuge, but also fit the less romantic time of Brexit, the pandemic and a Conservative party whose leadership by two public schoolboys has so pushed us into disaster. Therein lies a huge part of the national tragedy that, amid stranded lorries, a shamefully high death toll and some of the greatest peacetime blunders this country has ever made, has recently seemed to be reaching some kind of awful climax. Of late, some of the best writing about the mess we are in has focused on Boris Johnson’s character flaws, which are undoubtedly a big part of the tale. But what has been rather less examined is the fact that his shortcomings blur into a much longer story about our longstanding ruling class, and its habit of creating crisis after crisis.