Sailing through dangerous waters: language analysis reveals the peril of Johnson’s rhetoric
— Why Boris Johnson, not the Coronavirus, is the greatest threat to Britain —
Guest post by Rebecca Welshman
In his triumphant Brexit speech on 3 February in Greenwich, held at the Old Naval College, Johnson likened the newly liberated Britain to a ship about to embark on a voyage: “There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail…the wind sits in the mast.” The speech shows a startling level of complacency and bravado at a time when he should have been guiding the country to safety. Detailed analysis reveals a well-crafted veneer to a reckless and ruthless intent.
It is a speech that will make history, but for the wrong reasons. Four days previously the first two cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed in the UK, and on 30 January, the World Health Organisation declared a global health emergency. Professor David Nabarro, of Imperial College London, has said that “WHO made it very clear – to every country in the world – that we were facing something very serious”. The Greenwich speech could have been a pivotal moment, when Johnson dropped the maverick act, when he showed us that as a leader he had the wisdom and humility to put the Brexit issue to one side – even just for a moment – to give the threat of the pandemic his full and serious attention.
Instead he went with the popular idea that Covid-19 was “like flu” and not to be feared. We British are “bold”, he said, we have the “sheer guts” to do things that no other country would dream of. It took seven weeks before the lockdown happened on 23 March, with Covid-19 proliferating at an uncontrolled rate. While the government casually toyed with the idea of herd immunity, the virus steadily gained a foothold in the country. Weeks later, Johnson’s gloating speech became an echo of an irredeemable past as he went into hospital with the disease, and the deaths began piling up. The choice of that approach, at that time, has set the UK on a different course to most other countries. We have the highest coronavirus death rate of all countries in Europe.
In reviewing the UK response to the pandemic, the Guardian (19 April) suggested that the government was “caught asleep at the wheel”, and “distracted by Brexit”. While the warnings were being sounded, Johnson decided to coat the first public acknowledgement of the virus in libertarian Brexit rhetoric. At the time when he should have been planning how to protect the country that was under his care, he was busy living out his Churchillian fantasy: “We have the opportunity, we have the newly recaptured powers, we know where we want to go, and that is out into the world.” The phrase “recaptured powers” comes directly from The Birth of Britain – volume one of Churchill’s 1956 A History of the English-Speaking Peoples that delineates the birth of a nation and world power.
That Johnson’s rhetoric had reached new heights worthy of satire did not escape the notice of other countries. “Post-Brexit Britain will Soar like Superman” mocked the Washington Post. The European Council on Foreign Relations, in commentary titled ‘Britain sets sail – into the dark’, observed that Johnson had “helped himself” to Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”, but had forgotten to complete the more ominous part of the couplet: “There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail” may be all very thrilling; but Johnson omitted … “There gloom the dark, broad seas”. Perhaps the most frequently cited paragraph of Johnson’s speech is the one that hints, in true maverick fashion, that the British government would plough its own furrow in response to Coronavirus.
“We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage. Then, at that moment, humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”
When we see it written down, in all its vain glory, the language seems more vacuous than ever. Yet within it are some key phrases that tell us something more about the character of our Prime Minister, and his intentions for Britain. Take the seemingly innocuous allusion to Clark Kent, for example, the unassuming alter ego of Superman. Possibly unknown to Johnson, ‘Clark Kent’ makes three anagrams with violent or dominant associations: “knacker” (“a person who disposes of dead or unwanted animals”), “tackler” (“one who prevents the movement of an opponent”), and “central” (“very important”). Johnson’s phrase “supercharged champion” that he uses with such zeal comes from an essay by Vanessa Russell ‘The Mild-Mannered Reporter: how Clark Kent surpassed Superman’, in a collection by Angela Ndalianis titled The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero, published in 2009. Russell writes: “Clark Kent, is depicted as “the mild-mannered reporter,” the persistently denigrated butt of jokes. The figure of the reporter is a dialectical construct, a dry, dull, mild persona who exists in opposition to Superman, the supercharged champion of the underdog and vigilante seeker of justice.” In his evocation of this dualism, Johnson postulates a national character (his own) with a deceiving outer persona that conceals something “supercharged” and destructive within; an unstable identity that cannot be trusted. Perhaps most remarkable is Russell’s argument that “Kent is a performance that exists so that Superman may have a societally acceptable persona that can gather sensational news for his justice seeking.” We have Johnson – the maverick, the buffoon – the performed societally acceptable persona that we all recognise, while underneath lurks a malevolent character willing to recklessly gamble away the lives of the British public; one who remains largely unchallenged by mainstream media.
In another response to the Greenwich speech, the Washington Post observed that “Boris Johnson keeps trying to cloak himself in Churchillian optimism, declaring Monday that post-Brexit Britain was, among other metaphors, a butterfly “leaving its chrysalis,” flapping its way to new prominence on the world stage.” But in fact Johnson never mentioned a butterfly. What he actually said was this:
“And today in Geneva as our ambassador Julian Braithwaite moves seats in the WTO and takes back control of our tariff schedules, an event in itself that deserves itself to be immortalised in oil – this country is leaving its chrysalis. We are re-emerging after decades of hibernation as a campaigner for global free trade.”
Although Johnson’s metaphor might simply seem laughable, there is more to it that deserves to be unpicked. While the popular imagination might easily equate a butterfly with a chrysalis, moths are often overlooked, as is the preparation stage of metamorphosis in which the caterpillar feeds excessively before constructing its cocoon. Some particularly destructive types of moth larvae are known to infest the roots and bark of trees and plants, consuming them undercover before they metamorphose. Johnson’s phrase “leaving its chrysalis” readily brings to light a Victorian book by John Aston Warder on American Pomology – specifically a description of the destructive pear-borer that burrows beneath the bark of a pear tree. The moth “makes its appearance near the end of summer, leaving its chrysalis skin projecting from the hole in the bark, whence it had escaped.” In the case of the grape vine borer the larvae consume the bark and wood of the vine completely causing the vine to die and break off, before making a pod-like chrysalis within the injured roots. The internal damage caused by boring grubs often remains invisible until it is too late, causing a subterranean disaster that goes on largely unobserved in the surface world. The destruction of the host associated with wood-boring insects, unconsciously evoked here by Johnson, is reminiscent of late-stage capitalism, as predicted by Karl Marx, in which physical and social structures (social welfare, investment in health care, environment, public transport) are sacrificed for short term profit. What Johnson terms “decades of hibernation” in reality reflect decades of degradation, under successive Tory governments, of the very structures that a healthy society relies upon to survive.
Early in his speech, with a typically flamboyant flourish, Johnson urged his audience to admire the eighteenth century mural on the ceiling – to imagine how, through reasserting itself in global trade relations Britain might recapture its lost glory: “This painting above you was started in 1707, the very year when the union with Scotland was agreed – and does it not speak of supreme national self-confidence?” Sir James Thornhill’s oil painting ‘The Triumph of Liberty and Peace over Tyranny’ encapsulates a pivotal historic moment when the United Kingdom was formed and became a dominant power in Europe. However, what might seem like a fanciful and essentially harmless hark back to the days of Empire has more sinister undertones. The rhetoric has its roots in right wing nationalism, in particular the phrase “supreme national self-confidence”. The phrase was coined by Freidrich von Bernhardi (1849-1930), a controversial Prussian general and military writer, best known for his book Germany and the Next War, published in 1911. Bernhardi, credited with glorifying war, was notable for his policy of merciless aggression and total disregard of treaties. He regarded war as a “divine business”, a “biological necessity of the first importance”, and declared that “War is the father of all things”. Bernhardi’s book was welcomed by Germany’s rightist nationalists, but was most popular in England as evidence of Germany’s mounting national ill intent towards England. By 1914, the book had gone through nine editions in English. Bernhardi particularly admired a speech made by Lord Rosebery in 1893, in which the Englishman desired to expand the British Empire and impress the English spirit on the world:
“this is a great and proud thought which the Englishman then expressed…he does not here contemplate an actual world-sovereignty, but the predominance of the English spirit is proclaimed in plain language…it is a great and proud ambition that is expressed in Lord Rosebery’s words, and it testifies to a supreme national self-confidence.”
Bernhardi uses the word ‘sovereign’ four times, and ‘sovereignty’ a total of eighteen times. In the Greenwich speech Johnson uses ‘sovereign’ twice – ‘sovereign control’ and ‘sovereign authority’. The two meanings of ‘sovereign’ given by the Oxford English Dictionary are: “possessing supreme power”, and “(of a nation) completely independent”. This is hardly the language of the international cooperation that Johnson claims to be promoting. Bernhardi was not considered an official spokesman of German policy, but his belligerent right-wing views did reflect a faction within the Kaiserreich. He was an intimate friend of William II, the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, whose chief ambition was to establish Germany as a dominant world power. His guarantee of military support to Austria-Hungary in July 1914 ultimately gave rise to World War I. Bernhardi’s book was known worldwide as “the book that made the war”. It is not just a word or two that Johnson borrows – it’s an entire phrase. If we look closely at the wording, Bernhardi writes “it testifies to a supreme national self-confidence”, and Johnson, in his barely altered version, says “does it not speak of supreme national self-confidence?” In his book From Bismarck to Hitler: The Background of Modern German Nationalism, Dr. Louis L. Snyder remarks that Bernahrdi’s book “caused a tremendous sensation” across the world, and in Germany “its teachings seeped into the national consciousness…it was a potent dose of nationalism for the impressionable German mass mind.” If Johnson’s ambitions for Britain really are so benign, and in the interests of the people, then why does he borrow from such antiquated and controversial rhetoric?
He then draws attention to the global poverty rates that show a reduction in people living in extreme poverty; a statistic that he tries to align with free trade:
“And since these notions were born here in this country, it has been free trade that has done more than any other single economic idea to raise billions out of poverty and incredibly fast.
In 1990 there were 37 percent of the world’s population in absolute poverty – that is now down to less than ten per cent.
And yet my friends, I am here to warn you today that this beneficial magic is fading.”
Johnson presents free trade as a salvation, yet the gap between rich and poor in his own country has never been greater, with 44% of the UK’s wealth owned by 10% of the population, five times the total wealth held by the poorest half. When the inequalities of our country are considered in the light of the current crisis, it is clear that the two are inseparable. Professor Nick Cowern tweeted on 29 April that it’s “highly significant that the two wealthy western countries with worst problems of social inequality and deprivation – the US and UK – have accounted for nearly half of all global Covid-19 deaths to date.” The Greenwich speech shows that Johnson, without a thought for how Covid-19 would impact poor and disadvantaged areas in Britain, steamed ahead with his ideal of British exceptionalism, deliberately shifting focus away from the problems inherent in the UK. It has since been proved that Covid-19 has wreaked havoc in the most deprived areas of Britain, with a death toll twice as high than in wealthier parts of England. Yet Johnson’s turn of phrase here is mysterious. How many who may have felt swayed by the phrase “beneficial magic” are aware that it comes from witchcraft? What is such a phrase doing in a Prime Minister’s speech about Brexit? The term stems from late antiquity when the distinction between good and harmful magic was made. “Beneficial” or “white magic” is defined in The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West as “practices and divination that were regarded as harmless and even beneficial to the community”. “Harmless” and “beneficial to the community” sit in dialectical opposition to Johnson’s agenda for the future of Britain where our poorest communities have been torn apart by years of austerity and are now being ravaged by Covid-19.
We may also wonder why he is so quick to rely on aggressive metaphors. Free trade is being “choked”, he says, countries are waving tariffs around “like cudgels”. In his recent speech outside No. 10 after returning to work, he said of Covid-19: “If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.” We have been told that we are “at war with the coronavirus” and that we are “winning the fight”. It is strange how it is always something or someone else doing the assailing when right now Boris Johnson is the greatest danger to the future of this country. Writing of Johnson’s language in the Guardian (1 May), Marina Hyde said “Such metaphors are all very much “model’s own”. It’s an almost unique form of self-confidence…most holders of the position get themselves a speechwriter. But not Johnson.”
But there is still more in the Greenwich speech that deserves notice, particularly in relation to the current crisis. When referring to trade deals with America, Johnson said this:
“I must say to the America bashers in this country if there are any that in doing free trade deals we will be governed by science and not by mumbo-jumbo because the potential is enormous.”
Right there is the catchphrase that has come to dominate the government’s response to coronavirus: “we will be governed by science”. Many experts have voiced concern over the government’s claim that it is “following the science” in its handling of the pandemic, pointing out that far too much weight has been given to the views of behavioural scientists and modellers. As tweeted by Kenan Malik, columnist for the Observer and author of The Quest for a Moral Compass, “‘We’ll be guided by the science’ seems to be the phrase ministers reach for to avoid answering political questions” (9 April). Controversy has also arisen around the secrecy surrounding the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), and the involvement of Dominic Cummings and data scientist Ben Warner who worked on the “Vote Leave” campaign. Whatever influence Cummings and Warner may have had in shaping the advice given by SAGE in the early stages of the outbreak, being “led by the science” was clearly a Brexit strategy long before it was a Coronavirus strategy.
Brexit and Covid-19 present major opportunities for Johnson to remake Britain’s nationalist image under a “one nation conservative government” with all the supremacism and authoritarianism which his well-used phrase entails. Indeed, the former Brexit secretary David Davis recently urged the government to “carry on” with a Brexit deal during the coronavirus crisis, saying that the government should “take advantage” of the economic uncertainty. We have recently seen the passing of the Coronavirus Bill, which has significant human rights implications, the unprecedented attack on Trans rights, the widespread issue of Do Not Resuscitate Forms to our most vulnerable citizens, and the removal of protests against HS2, construction work for which has been allowed to continue throughout the pandemic.
While Johnson may be able to largely evade scrutiny about Covid-19, his speech at Greenwich betrays where his preoccupations lay at this time, and offers some stark warnings about what may lie ahead. His rhetoric is imbued with a pattern of subliminal messaging, designed to nudge the mass British consciousness towards embracing nationalist ideology. His ostensibly optimistic metaphors often carry a flip side with darker connotations which go quietly unobserved. His affable style, glossed in a coat of false bravado, makes this rhetoric all the more repellent. One thing is certain – history will not look favourably on his premature celebration of Britain as a liberated country, at the time it was being overtaken by a deadly virus. We should not be in a hurry to forget that this ‘supercharged champion’ led us directly into a national catastrophe; one that would have been less severe if he had, with due humility, heeded the early warnings. What is he going to lead us into next?