In On the Genealogy of Morality Friedrich Nietzsche considers the nature of revenge. People with power, he suggests, can take a literal revenge on their enemies: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. People with little or no power, Nietzsche writes, when “denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge.” They have to create “a truly grand politics of revenge, a far-sighted, subterranean revenge.” This is a useful way of thinking about Brexit—and indeed its American cousin, Trumpism. Those who perceive themselves to be outsiders—whether they are or not—found in 2016 a vehicle for their resentment, a way to kick out at the so-called elites. But their triumph could not produce much by way of concrete action to change their lives. So it has turned into the grand politics of imaginary revenge.
Nietzsche’s point is that fictional vengeance is more consequential and long-lasting than the real kind. An actual reprisal can be a one-off moment. It is possible for it to be over and done with. But imaginary revenge can never be satisfied and is therefore boundless. Because it is not fulfilled, it continues to generate trouble. One of the big differences between Trumpism and Brexit is that, for Trump, this ceaseless turmoil is a good thing. It keeps his project alive, even after his own defeat.
For Boris Johnson, however, it is a problem. He came to power because he grasped and exploited the way Brexit could crystallize the desire of two large groups in English society—the affluent conservatives of the shires and the former proletarians of the vanished industrial heartland—for revenge on the cosmopolitans and liberals they blame for unwelcome change. His ability to keep those two groups together has yielded a stunning sequence of successes: in the Brexit referendum of June 2016, in the contest to lead the Conservative Party after the ouster of Theresa May in July 2019, in the general election of December 2019, and in forcing through an extreme version of Brexit that has taken the United Kingdom out of not only the European Union but also its single market and customs union.
The local and regional elections on May 6 suggest that, in England at least, this alliance has solidified into a tribal identity and allowed the Conservatives to take control of electoral territory in the Midlands and the North of England that, for a century, belonged to the Labour Party. In a parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, a port town in the northeast of England that had not elected a Conservative since the present constituency was created in 1974, the Tory candidate won a crushing victory. A thirty-foot-tall inflatable balloon of a jubilant Johnson hung over the town like a cartoon god, at once ridiculous and all-powerful. It might be the symbol of the new order of English politics—profoundly transformative but not quite serious.
On the surface, then, the victory of the Brexit project is total. It’s not just that Britain definitively left the EU at the end of 2020 but that Johnson’s reshaping of the Conservatives as the Brexit party has apparently assured their hegemony in non-metropolitan England, allowing the party that has been in power continuously since 2010 to package itself as the anti-establishment movement for radical change. The difficulty, however, is that having done its work, Brexit will not go away. Johnson, unlike Trump, does not want never-ending disarray. He thought of leaving the EU as a once-and-for-all moment, an opportunity for the disaffected denizens of both the comfortable villages and the postindustrial towns to take their revenge on the liberal and multicultural inhabitants of the big cities. They would be satisfied with their victory and then settle down under his own benignly lazy rule. He could do what he enjoys, which is to delegate most of the business of governing to others while he indulges himself with vainglorious projects like a giant bridge across the Irish Sea. Even without the pandemic, things would not have worked out like that.
The trouble is that the Brexit revolution decapitated a make-believe ruling class—not the actual elites who control Britain, but the scarecrow erected over decades by the Tory press and by Johnson himself in his career as one of its star journalists. Brexit ended the rule of the Brussels bureaucrats who were supposedly depriving the stout yeomen of England of their traditional liberties. The sleight of hand has been hugely effective, and the May 6 elections showed that the joys of mock liberation have not yet worn off. But since this insurgency is based on absurd exaggerations, it is curiously hollow. Brexit does not really change much, except, slowly but inexorably, for the worse. Because the EU was an imaginary enemy, all that has been extracted from cutting the UK’s ties to it is imaginary revenge. That force, when it becomes a political project, is much less easy to control than Johnson’s triumphant progress might seem to indicate.
If the devouring of its children is the true mark of a revolution, Brexit’s revolutionary credentials are unquestionable. In the five years since the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, three regimes have fallen. David Cameron, who called the referendum, resigned as soon as the results came in. His successor, Theresa May, a lukewarm Remainer who was born again as a radical Brexiteer, lasted for just three years, and for two of them she seemed to be in office but not in power, repeatedly humiliated by defeats in Parliament. What can be thought of as Boris Johnson’s first government, dominated by Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, the unelected advisers who ran the successful Leave campaign in 2016, survived for sixteen months, from July 2019 until November 2020.
And now, in spite of its electoral success, the supposedly more orthodox and settled Johnson administration that followed the defenestration of Cummings and Cain looks increasingly unstable. The woman who was meant to be the public face of its new professionalism, the highly experienced journalist Allegra Stratton, was appointed Johnson’s press secretary in October 2020 and departed in April 2021. Her exit coincided with the extraordinary revelation that Johnson had personally phoned British newspaper editors to accuse Cummings, his former right-hand man, of leaking text messages in which Johnson promised to arrange favorable tax treatment for a pro-Brexit businessman, James Dyson.
Cummings retaliated by publishing a blog post in which he in turn alleged that Johnson had tried to “cancel an inquiry” into a previous leak of sensitive information “just because it might implicate his girlfriend’s friends.” He claimed he had told Johnson that this “was ‘mad’ and totally unethical.” More damagingly, he raised the question of who had paid for Johnson’s extravagant renovation of his flat in Downing Street:
I told him I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended.
Cummings also called for an urgent parliamentary inquiry into Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, offered to tell everything he knows to such an inquiry, and lamented, “It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.”
The politics of revenge is back with a vengeance. As Nietzsche has it: “The worms of revenge and rancour teem all round; here, the air stinks of things unrevealed and unconfessed.” Two days after Cummings’s blog post appeared, someone leaked to the right-wing Daily Mail comments made by Johnson last October after a contentious cabinet discussion on the imposition of further Covid-related restrictions: “No more fucking lockdowns—let the bodies pile high in their thousands!” Johnson denied saying this but both the BBC and the main commercial TV channel, ITV, quoted sources confirming that they had heard the remark, suggesting that more than one knife is out for him.
This is all very Brexity, which is to say that it has a distinctive fusion of serious import and comic absurdity. Cummings’s new pose as the defender of ethics, truth, and integrity is as phony as his notorious claim—written on the side of the Vote Leave campaign bus—that departure from the EU would result in £350 million a week going to the National Health Service. This is the man who explained that he drove thirty miles in violation of Britain’s first lockdown in May 2020 to test his eyesight. He surreptitiously altered his own blog to make it seem that he had referred to the threat of a “Sars coronavirus” as early as March 2019, suggesting that, whatever his eyesight, his foresight was miraculous. And his concern for “proper disclosure of political donations” is a delicious dollop of hypocrisy from the man who ran the Leave campaign that was found by the official Electoral Commission to have broken the law by funneling excess donations through a front organization to a subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica. Cummings is Iago performing in drag as Desdemona, the amoral manipulator playing the wronged innocent. It would take a heart of stone not to hoot with hilarity.
The scandal that has been called “cash for curtains” or “cash for cushions” has the same burlesque quality. In the tribal divisions of which Brexit was both a symptom and a cause, it has been an article of faith for Leavers that Remainers, in contrast to themselves, are members of a metropolitan elite cocooned in privilege. This was always a fiction: about half of the Leave voters have been defined as “Affluent Eurosceptics” or “Comfortable Leavers.” But Johnson’s deliberate dishevelment—the unkempt hair, crumpled suits, and scuffed shoes—cleverly elide these questions of social status. He makes a great effort to make it look like he doesn’t care for keeping up appearances. But his partner, Carrie Symonds, clearly does.
The trouble started with a rather gushing cover story on her by Anne McElvoy in the April 2021 issue of Tatler, a magazine for rich people and their fans. While praising her makeover of the Downing Street flat, McElvoy reported in passing that it was “much improved from what a visitor calls the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ of the [Theresa] May years.” John Lewis is a British institution, a chain of stores that most people—and it seems safe to say most Tory voters—regard as rather upmarket. The comment was not even attributed to Symonds herself, but nonetheless pressed directly on the raw nerve of English society: the class anxiety that is germane to Johnson’s own persona. He is faux posh. His upper-class manner is as much an act as his rumpled comportment is. He generated a lot of income from his column in The Daily Telegraph and from giving highly paid speeches, but he does not have real wealth. The truth behind the scandal is that he cannot afford the lavish refit of the flat by the woman Tatler calls “one of smart set’s most loved designers, Lulu Lytle.”
Lytle’s style is, like Johnson’s, maximalist. It is also retro-imperialist. Her wallpaper and sofa covers are based on “Eastern Mediterranean and North African fabrics.” Images on her company’s website show walls crowded with prints of Mughal princes in turbans and dark-skinned men in flowing silks. This postmodern boho Orientalism has a second-time-as-farce quality, the exoticism of the empire’s heyday replayed as “smart set” status symbolism. You escape from the John Lewis nightmare of mere bourgeois comfort by going through the looking glass and into the dreamworld of a nineteenth-century colonial ruling class.
But Johnson doesn’t have the money to pay for this passage without getting into financial difficulty. Hence his need to construct an elaborate scheme of beggary that seems to have involved the bills being paid initially by the Cabinet office, then by the Conservative Party, then by a private donor, and finally, and only after the whole affair became a political embarrassment, by Johnson himself. Under questioning, he has repeatedly insisted on this last link in the chain while refusing to acknowledge all the others. This has led the Electoral Commission to believe that there are “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred” and to launch a formal investigation into the prime minister’s conduct. This seems like a great jest on the jester himself. Johnson is being rewarded politically for tearing apart the fabric of his country, but he could find himself in serious trouble over actual fabrics.
There is comedy too in the grotesque outrageousness of Johnson’s performance as the super villain relishing the mound of corpses that his resistance to another “fucking lockdown” would create. Johnson’s perfecting of a campy clownish style of self-conscious exaggeration was crucial to the whole Brexit show. His stock-in-trade as a journalist, and then as a politician, was to take a dull technical EU regulation and hype it up into a threat to the British way of life, all done with a knowing smirk acknowledging that, of course, he didn’t really believe this stuff. Reveling in mass death was, for him, just a way of turning his trusty amplifier up another notch. Hyperbole is his mother tongue.
The problem is that Johnson is no longer a mere performer. The pandemic is real—as are the bodies that piled up during his disastrous dithering when Covid-19 first hit Britain in the spring of 2020. According to the epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, the British government’s adviser at the time, Johnson’s delayed response cost 20,000 lives. His current popularity owes much to the impressive vaccination program his government has implemented, allowing for the lifting of most of the public health restrictions. But he has been forced to concede the establishment of a public inquiry into his overall response to the pandemic, and it may be quite uncomfortable for him. Brexit is not just a slogan. An especially damaging version of it is beginning to play out in reality. When Johnson unleashed forces that profoundly destabilized his country, he did so merely to further his own ambition to rule. But he did not think about what it would be like to inherit the consequences of his own recklessness.
He won that stunning election victory in December 2019 with the slogan (devised by Cummings) “Get Brexit Done.” It was, on the face of it, an odd appeal for a project that Johnson has hailed as the beginning of a new golden age of British greatness. But it captured rather brilliantly the sense that Brexit was a very tedious process and one that even its supporters not only wanted done but wanted to be done with. And that was also Johnson’s own desire—that the whole business be consigned to the past, that the horse he rode to power be quietly put out to pasture. This was precisely the intention behind the ousting of Cummings: the dirty work was complete and it was time for the gang to go legit. A normal Tory regime would get back to business as usual, which is, after all, the business of being, over three centuries, the world’s most successful ruling party.
That can’t happen. There can be no return to British normality. This is, firstly, because Johnson himself is not normal. He lacks not just the “competence and integrity” to be prime minister but also the self-control. He got to Downing Street by being utterly careless—of both truth and consequences. It’s too late to stop now, and his latest victories will surely deepen his belief that he is untouchable. Secondly, there is no going back because Brexit will go on disturbing the entire British polity. This is because it is forging new identities and allegiances. But it is also about something even more fundamental: the loss of a basic correspondence between reality and the way it is represented officially. Johnson may be a very successful democratic politician. But he is undermining one of the conditions of democracy: the expectation that those in power at least acknowledge what is actually unfolding.
Brexit is still, for much of the English public, in its Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera phase. On May 5, the day before the elections, Johnson staged an amateur reenactors’ version of nineteenth-century gunboat diplomacy. About sixty fishing boats from Normandy and Brittany, claiming to have been unlawfully shut out of waters around the Channel Islands they have worked for centuries, staged a protest by trying to blockade the Jersey port of St. Helier. The British sent two Royal Navy patrol vessels, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, armed with cannon and machine guns, to ward them off. The French responded in kind with naval vessels of their own. The trawlers returned home after six hours but Johnson had his headlines, like the Daily Mail’s “Au revoir! Two Royal Navy ships send French fishermen scurrying back home after one of them RAMS a British boat—but Boris says gunboats will remain off Jersey as bitter row over fishing rights escalates.”
The reality is that British fishers get nothing but grief from these war games. They depend on being able to sell their fish to EU markets. The Brits don’t like the oily fish caught in their own waters, so most of this catch is sold to the Continent. EU countries, in turn, sell the Brits the whitefish they do like. So the UK imports around 66 percent of the fish it consumes and exports about 80 percent of its own catch. You can’t export fresh fish from Britain in bulk to Japan or India—the market has to be close by. It is, but Johnson’s Brexit has made it much harder to access. What does he do about this? He sends gunboats and he tells lies. He simply denies that the Brexit he created and negotiated is happening.
On Christmas Eve, 2020, Johnson finally agreed to the terms on which the UK would leave the EU. At his jubilant press conference, he announced that future trade between the two entities would be free of tariffs and quotas. This is true. But he then went on to claim that in addition “there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade. And instead there will be a giant free trade zone of which we will at once be a member.” Non-tariff barriers are the inspections and forms that certify that, for example, a consignment of British shellfish being sent to Paris conforms with EU safety standards and classifications. Johnson was saying clearly that he had negotiated a deal in which the EU had agreed to accept British goods and produce without all of this immensely bothersome and expensive red tape. This was not a slip of the tongue. The claim is in the written text of Johnson’s speech as it was published on the British government’s website. It has not been deleted or withdrawn.
But it is breathtakingly deceitful. The cross-party parliamentary committee on the environment, food, and rural affairs—a majority of whose members are Conservatives—published a report at the end of April on the plight of British exporters of meat and seafood to the EU. It cites the experience after Brexit took effect in January of one seafood exporter who discovered that “71 pieces of paper [were needed] for one lorry of fish.” The Jersey gunboat stunt was necessary because the Garden of Eden promised by Johnson has already become a dense jungle of bureaucratic tedium.
Consider just one of the forms that British food exporters now have to manage because they are no longer in the single market: the export health certificate (EHC). In order to send a consignment of food from Dover to Calais and then onward to its destination, the exporter has to complete an EHC for every part of the consignment and print out every page. Each page (including any blank pages) must then be signed and stamped by a certifying officer who has inspected the consignment. This process has to be completed in multiple languages: one set in English, one in the language of the port to which the food is being sent (usually French or Dutch), and one in the language of the country to which it is ultimately going (perhaps Italian or German).
The Commons committee cited the example of a single consignment for which the certifying officer had to stamp the documents seventy-two times. None of this comes free. EHCs alone are “costing in excess of £200 in [veterinary inspection] costs” every time. This is part of a broader increase of between 60 and 100 percent in the cost of exporting to the EU.
That is what nostalgia for the past amounts to. In this respect at least, Britain really has managed to return itself to the postwar world of seventy years ago. The parliamentary committee report quotes one chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association as saying of the new post-Brexit regime that it “feels as though we have stepped back into the 1950s.” The blizzard of paperwork, the inky smudge of stamps, the exhausted scrawl of signatures, the repetitive strain injuries to wrists and brains, the vast waste of time and money—all part of the Merrie England of the glory days that Johnson has restored. What makes this all the more surreal is that the promise—as Johnson’s longtime employer The Daily Telegraph put it in 2017—to “cut the EU red tape choking Britain after Brexit to set the country free from the shackles of Brussels” was a large part of the Leave appeal. The most prominent backer of the Telegraph’s campaign was Johnson himself, then foreign secretary.
Does any of this matter? In the short term and in non-metropolitan England, obviously not. The pandemic has occluded most of the immediate consequences of Brexit—when everything is disrupted, it is hard to trace effects to causes. The horrible tedium that has been inflicted on British exporters is itself, as a news story, horribly tedious. What chance has an export health certificate against the Royal Navy sending the perfidious French invaders scurrying back to Europe? Johnson’s base—the pro-Brexit voters of England—think of his lies in the same way tens of millions of Americans regard Trump’s fabrications: the more outrageous they are, the more they enrage the enemy and therefore the more gleefully they can be received. The cloak of tribal loyalty still gives Johnson the political superpower of immunity from the consequences of being caught saying things that are flagrantly untrue.
But the “grand politics of revenge” that Johnson did so much to set in motion has yet to play itself out. There is that scorned Svengali, Cummings, whose destructive power was most amply demonstrated in the Brexit referendum, when he showed himself to be ruthless, wily, and in possession of a good nose for the weaknesses of his enemies. His reemergence as a vindictive ghost from Johnson’s past seems improbably melodramatic, making British high politics into an old gangster movie in which the guy who went down for the crime that set his buddy on the way to becoming the boss comes back to claim his own. But the return of the repressed is the deep narrative of Brexit—all of England’s unresolved problems of identity coming back to haunt it. It makes a weird kind of sense for the architect of Brexit, Cummings, to be the one who most threatens its greatest beneficiary.
What Johnson has to fear from this stuff is that it is so damned entertaining. He has triumphed because so many of the English find him amusing, colorful, diverting. Serious politicians like the Labour leader Keir Starmer seem to them dull by comparison. But the Cummings story and the torrent of leaks it has loosed are not dull. They are funny in the way that Johnson is funny, which is to say they drape serious political and democratic issues (like covert funding of a prime minister) in the bright decor of trivialities. Even the Tory tabloids cannot resist them. It’s striking that the Daily Mail has led the detailed reporting of the story of the Downing Street apartment. Johnson is a celebrity before he is anything else, and the curse of celebrity is that the same kind of journalism that profits from its creation equally relishes its destruction.
Even if Johnson escapes this trap, there is a much bigger Brexit story that will continue to unfold in the coming years. The UK contains, in effect, five polities: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Greater London, and the rest of England. Johnson is dominant only in the last of them. Because of its size and number of parliamentary seats at Westminster, this is enough for him to win a majority. But it is not enough to secure the future of the UK. Brexit’s seismic effects are shaking the other four entities. London, where Johnson was mayor for eight years until 2016, has just reelected Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Northern Ireland has no elections this year, but its largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party, which formed an alliance with Johnson over Brexit before he betrayed all the promises he made to it, is in crisis and its leader has been ousted in an internal coup. In Wales, Labour has successfully resisted the Conservative tide, and support for independence, long a marginal cause, has been rising steadily.
The most potent reaction to Brexit is in Scotland, where 62 percent voted against it in 2016. The Scottish National Party (SNP) went into the elections to the devolved Scottish Parliament on May 6 promising that if pro-independence parties (essentially the SNP and the Greens) won a majority, it would demand the right to hold another referendum. Remarkably, Johnson did not appear even once in Scotland during the election campaign; his unpopularity there is such that his own party saw him as a liability. The SNP and the Greens did indeed win their pro-independence majority, making the breakup of the Union a very real possibility. Johnson as a child wanted to be “world king.” It is not unthinkable that he may end up being both the uncrowned monarch of provincial England and the last prime minister of the UK. This is the problem with imaginary revenge—those who inflict it can also find themselves subject to it.
—May 13, 2021