Say what you will about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – the man clearly grasps the political power of meta-narratives. Tom McTague profiled Johnson in the latest issue of The Atlantic, and concluded that to Johnson, “the point of politics – and life – is not to squabble over facts; it’s to offer people a story they can believe in. In the prime minister’s view, those who wanted to remain in the EU during the Brexit referendum didn’t have the courage to tell the real story at the heart of their vision: a story of the beauty of European unity and collective identity. Instead, they offered claims of impending disaster were Britain to leave, most of which haven’t come to pass, at least not yet. The story voters believed in was fundamentally different—in Johnson’s words, “that this is a great and remarkable and interesting country in its own right.” “People live by narrative,” he told me. “Human beings are creatures of the imagination.”
Johnson is right about several things.
1. Offering people a story they can believe in is fundamental to political power.
2. A storyline of “We believe in our country” is probably more powerful than one that focuses on staving off disaster, unless the two are one and the same, as in Churchill’s stirring speeches during World War II.
3. Focusing on “European unity and collective identity” might have been compelling.
However, the argument for leaving the EU focused on Britain vs. Europe, which can only be seriously answered by selling a positive story of Britain-within-Europe, and that’s getting relatively nuanced. Simpler stories are usually more emotionally engaging. Further, Stability is a powerful meta-narrative genre, and for the Remain campaign to focus on threats to stability makes sense, unless people can feasibly dismiss those threats as unrealistic. (Denial is often the easiest course of action.)
Johnson is apparently relying on another powerful meta-narrative genre: Restoration. As McTague puts it, “What, after all, is Brexit but a rebellion against an ostensibly unfair system, fueled by the twin angers of trade and immigration, that aims to restore to Britain a sense of something lost: control.” Johnson’s mission “is to restore Britain’s faith in itself, to battle the ‘effete and desiccated and hopeless’ defeatism that defined the Britain of his childhood.”
But Johnson is more practical than, say, Trump was with his own Restoration storyline (MAGA). Instead of returning to the “good old days,” Johnson is arguing for a new and positive vision of Britain, and McTague gives a great metaphor from the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab: “instead of ‘some big cumbersome whale,’ the country needed to be ‘a more agile dolphin.’“
McTague describes a “coherent intellectual framework for Johnsonism,” based on a book by his foreign policy advisor, John Bew: Realpolitik. “According to Bew, realpolitik is based on four interlocking principles: politics is the law of the strong; states are strong when they are domestically harmonious; ideas matter because people believe them, not because they are true; and finally, the zeitgeist is ‘the single most important factor in determining the trajectory of a nation’s politics.’“ He tells us that Johnson “believes that if you repeat that it is morning in Britain over and over again, the country will believe it, and then it will come to pass.”
It’s absolutely true that getting the people to believe in a positive future is an essential step in achieving that positive future, but it only works if the belief is both realistic and motivating – “and then it will come to pass” leaves out a lot of hard work. Although Johnson is obviously more intelligent and better educated than Donald Trump, his faith in the power of narrative reminds me of Trump – believing something does not simply make it so.
As McTague notes, “Johnson must now address problems that cannot be dealt with by belief alone. If his domestic economic project fails, some fear the country will turn toward xenophobic identity politics. If he cannot unify the country at home, his bid to make Britain more assertive on the world stage may prove impossible.”
The second of those two goals, unifying Britain, is something meta-narratives are qualified to do, especially if Johnson figures out how to engage Scotland effectively so it doesn’t leave. The first goal, though, requires actual economic policies with good outcomes, not just a good storyline. That is, meta-narratives are important for politics, but leadership requires effectiveness too.