The Lost Cause of Boris Johnson

Like many Americans miss Trump, there is remorse among a number of Britons over their leader's impending exit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during an election campaign trail in Manchester in November 2019. AP Photo
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His full name was Charles Edward Louis John Sylvester Maria Casimir Stuart. He was born in Rome in 1720 and he wanted to be King of Great Britain. Nowadays he is called Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A handsome lad, Bonnie Prince Charlie is remembered especially in Scotland in sentimental ballads and romantic tales of courage. He was the key figure in the doomed 1745 Jacobite rebellion to overthrow the British government and King George II. At the battle of Culloden in the Scottish highlands in 1746, in less than an hour, Crown forces under the Duke of Cumberland destroyed the Jacobites, killed about a thousand, ended the rebellion, and Bonnie Prince Charlie headed into history.

But history – or at least the way he is popularly remembered – has been kind. Folk songs about the Jacobites, including the hauntingly beautiful News From Moidart are still sung and recorded. If there are any lovely songs about the main beneficiary of Culloden, King George II, I certainly haven’t heard any. Failure sometimes persists in folk-memory, more than success and there is something romantic about big losers. Humans love a Lost Cause, and an attachment to "what might have been" goes way beyond the Highlands of Scotland.

In the US, the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy endures especially in the southern states. More recently, it has been linked with the Lost Cause of Donald Trump and his failure to win the 2020 presidential election. The result was the Trump-inspired rebellion in Washington in January 2021 that threatened to disrupt Joe Biden’s inauguration. Perhaps the discovery of top secret documents at Mr Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago will finally destroy the former president’s reputation, but among the Trump ultra-faithful that is perhaps unlikely.

I doubt there will be any romantic folk songs about Bonnie Boris

Encyclopaedia Britannica calls the Confederacy Lost Cause "a myth that attempts to preserve the honour of the South by casting the Confederate defeat in the best possible light". Those captivated by the Lost Cause call the American Civil War "the War of Northern Aggression". Deceit about the past, especially about the reality of slavery, has become a powerful distortion in the present and political danger for the future. Ever since Mr Trump lost in 2020, he and his supporters have claimed the election was stolen from him. The Stop the Steal movement continues noisily on the American right, on TV and radio talk shows, social media and elsewhere. This dangerously wrong-headed complaint about the past remains a live political issue in the present, especially among Republicans, as the US heads into November’s mid-term election.

David W Blight, a professor of American History at Yale university, argues that "the lies have now crept into a Trumpian Lost Cause ideology, building its monuments in ludicrous stories that millions believe, and codifying them in laws to make the next elections easier to pilfer. If you repeat the terms 'voter fraud' and 'election integrity' enough times on the right networks you have a movement". And Mr Trump certainly still has a movement, although a probe led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation may eventually shame him even among the deluded faithful.

In Britain, meanwhile, we have the beginnings of our own Lost Cause myth.

Conservative party members are choosing a successor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a tedious and apparently endless contest. There is a mood of weariness among those Conservative members and a bizarre kind of remorse that Mr Johnson is going, despite all his scandals and lies.

Pro-Trump protesters occupy the grounds of the West Front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. EPA

A Times and YouGov poll between July 19 and August 2 found that 40 per cent of Tory members would even now still pick Mr Johnson over his potential successors, with Liz Truss on just 28 per cent and Rishi Sunak on 23 per cent. In a recent BBC Radio discussion, Conservative party members in Sussex kept repeating how difficult the job would be for Mr Johnson’s successor because Britain seemed in such a mess. Not one reflected that the person in charge of much of that mess for the past two and a half years was Mr Johnson himself.

And so Mr Johnson is already a new Lost Cause, mourned by some of his party faithful, even though he is still Prime Minister and remains deeply unpopular among most British people. Accountants are used to calculating profit and loss, and a recent scathing article in the International Accountants Bulletin suggested that the Johnson years were not so much a Lost Cause as a huge lost opportunity: "UK investment performance has gone backwards under Johnson’s leadership ... the country’s FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] performance has lagged behind all other countries in the G7 since Johnson came to power in 2019. Johnson has damaged the reputation of UK plc and the effects of this will be felt long after he is gone."

Since the Lost Cause myth about Mr Johnson has already begun, the only question is whether he goes away quietly like Bonnie Prince Charlie or loudly complains about how badly and unfairly he has been treated, like Mr Trump. I think most of us know which possibility is the more likely. But I doubt there will be any romantic folk songs about Bonnie Boris.

Published: August 31, 2022, 9:00 AM