4 May 2020

To reinvent Britain, Boris must first reinvent himself

By Tom Stuttaford

9/11 revisited

Six months ago, almost to the day, I was at a family christening at the Episcopal, or Anglican, church of St. Thomas in Manhattan. St. Thomas’s does these things in such a way as to compel the attention: with warmth, with friendly flair and with seriousness rather than sententiousness. What’s more, having arrived breathless, rain-drenched and late, together with my older brother, the father of the baptismal child, I had been appointed official photographer, as a punishment. I therefore had to stay focused.

All the same, a christening is a christening is a christening and, from time to time, my thoughts wandered: to my own childhood; to my parents who sadly hadn’t lived to see the birth of this, their youngest grandchild; and, as can happen in church to the best of us, to matters mystical and metaphysical.

They wandered, too, to what – then – was still uncontestably the darkest chapter in New York’s post-war history: in other words, to 9/11. In truth, this has a habit of happening wherever I am, and whatever my state of mind, but on this occasion, it had good reason to do so.

St Thomas’s was where the official memorial service was held, nine days on, to 9/11’s British victims and I had read Tony Blair’s memorial address only a few hours earlier. I had also, just the previous day, been to the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, a searing monument to the beauty, sadness and mystery of existence that doesn’t easily fade from the memory.

No one can accuse Tony Blair, the orator, of being shy of life’s spiritual questions or poetic truths or wary of seeking to cut to the philosophical core of this or that issue – and of course he wasn’t here.

This was how he concluded:

For my reading, I have chosen the final words of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, written by Thornton Wilder in 1927. It is about a tragedy that took place in Peru, when a bridge collapsed over a gorge and five people died. A witness to the deaths, wanting to make sense of them and explain the ways of God to his fellow human beings, examined the lives of the people who died:

“But soon we will die, and all memories of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning.”

Who among those who lived through it will ever forget 9/11: the tragedy and trauma of it, its drama, its horror and hideous fascination; the fine words and noble sentiments; its capacity to make us, all of us, not just Americans, but especially Americans, and in particular New Yorkers, suddenly not simply angrier and more fearful but also bigger, better, kinder, gentler, sadder-yet-wiser; and not simply in the privacy of our own homes but also in the community, in the workplace and, if we had them, in our public lives?

And who can forget what Tony Blair called, a moment before the passage above, the “surging of the human spirit” and the “profound sense of solidarity” – by which he surely meant the sense of social as well as international solidarity – that followed in its wake; or in spite of all that came later, would ever wish to?

The previous year – Y2K – had seen the publication, to general acclaim, of Bowling Alone, the social scientist Robert Putnam’s classic study of the gradual decline, since 1950, of social, civic and family life in the United States; and its negative implications for Americans’ sense of connection to their communities and to one another.

9/11, though, seemed to turn back the clock. We weren’t quite on Walton’s Mountain – not quite – but America’s sense of community appeared reborn; United we stand became the national rallying cry; trust in government rose, according to one opinion poll, to giddy levels; and, in an unheroic age, every firefighter was suddenly a hero. Indeed, there were heroes everywhere: real people, for a change, not celebrities; ordinary people with ordinary or apparently ordinary strengths, weaknesses and lives; ordinary police officers, health workers, construction workers, public servants.

According to Putnam, it was actually attitudes that had changed rather than behaviours but, all the same, it was a time when ordinary life, and the social infrastructure that sustained it, started to feel more than ordinarily precious, and even extraordinary. It was an undeniably communitarian moment.

We’ve heard quite a bit in recent weeks about the differences between 9/11 and the coronavirus crisis: that the immediate human and economic cost of this crisis has been greater by far than that one, with more to come; and that it’s been, and remains, very much more challenging not only in medical but also, because of its sheer scale, in organisational terms. We’ve heard, too, that there are risks to drawing too many such parallels: that politicians who talk as if we are under military or terrorist attack may be more likely to act without due regard to civil liberties. 

The similarities, however, are real, at least here in Britain. New York had its first responders: the New York City Fire and Police Departments and the Emergency Medical Services; we have our NHS, our public services, our key workers. The United States had its rush of humanity, humility and community spirit; so, now, does the United Kingdom. Uncle Sam wiped his spectacles, looked again at the little guy and suddenly saw his grandeur; and that’s what John Bull seems to have done, too.

The 350 billion dollar question is whether it will last.

I well remember a television interview, shortly after 9/11, in which, with darkly joyous cynicism, Gore Vidal predicted that none of it would: that it was the shallows, not the deeps which would win the day; materialism, consumerism and brute individualism, not anything even remotely resembling anyone’s idea of communitarianism.

I listened uneasily and sceptically: uneasily to the tone and sceptically to the opinion.

He was right, though.

The change in mood did last a while but, lacking a champion in the White House, and confronted by a news-and-politics agenda that had moved, literally, on to different territory, it had gone the way of the fairies within a year or so.

Will the same happen now in Britain? Will the present kinder, gentler, more respectful national mood survive the passing of the worst of the current crisis? Or will our apparent yearning for more unity, more community and more humanity – or what Rory Stewart, alone amongst senior British politicians, would call love” – prove skin deep?

It’s impossible, because far too early, to say.

One thing we surely can say, though, is that much depends on the man who, last Monday, returned to work at Number Ten, our increasingly enigmatic but also, whatever his flaws, seemingly increasingly essential Prime Minister.

Will he let the new mood slowly fade? Or will he seize hold of it, become its champion and, after ensuring it’s sufficiently free enterprise-friendly, and maybe adding a dose of financial realism, turn it to his own purposes?

My guess is the latter. It’s well suited not only to his personal style and temperament but also, albeit with a tweak here and there, to his central mission.

Boris wasn’t actually elected simply to get Brexit done. Boris was elected, too, for his one nation-new nation-global nation vision for post-Brexit Britain. Boris was elected to reunify, re-energise and to some degree reinvent Britain and Britain’s place in the world. 

That was always going to be a colossal and colossally complex task; and it has lately got considerably more so. There will now be rebuilding as well building to do, and only a shoestring budget with which to do it; not to mention, or so we hope, the tail end of a pandemic to manage.

He’ll find the job that much easier with the zeitgeist in his sails.

Boris Johnson, the great communicator

It’ll be easier, too, if he’s communicating to the best of his abilities.

For me, relative to his exceptional potential, Boris has always tended slightly to underperform as a political communicator. It’s not that he hasn’t outperformed most of his contemporaries. He has. Aided and abetted by the scale and originality of his personality – his humour, his irrepressible quirkiness, his remarkable linguistic gifts – he’s outdistanced the vast majority by a country mile. It’s that he could and should have done rather better. 

This was true, too, I fear, of the first phase of the current crisis. ‘Campaign in poetry, govern in prose’, they say; but you surely have to wage war in both. It didn’t seem to me he was doing the prose thing with much success or conviction; or the poetry thing at all.

People tell me he’s in reality a shy man: not simply shyer than he appears, which wouldn’t be difficult, but fundamentally shy, a kind of shy extrovert. I’m inclined to believe it; and also that it helps explain his underperformance as a political communicator.

The problem is this. Boris the public speaker isn’t shy only of the military-managerial style and mood of so many more conventional leaders; and that was second nature – too much so – to David Cameron. He’s shy, too, of its antithesis: of the wholeheartedly lyrical, the truly personal, the intellectually weighty and emotionally intense, the Churchillian-for-modern-ears, the vulnerable; in fact, at least in vaguely normal times, of pretty much everything but Wodehousian humour and Falstaffian bonhomie.

It’s thus a shyness that severely limits his room for rhetorical manoeuvre, his ability comfortably, without inhibition or apology, to vary the menu, and his capacity, gracefully and to dramatic effect, to shift between different registers; which in turn limits his power to connect, profoundly and personally, with the country he leads; and therefore, as night follows day, also his possibilities as a leader.

Boris is great with words. Great speakers, though, aren’t just great with words. Great speakers, like great actors, are great at being present in the moment. Great speakers are great at projecting their innermost selves; great at creating and controlling atmosphere; and great at moving between different – often excitingly different – atmospheres and personae: between Falstaff and Henry V, say.

Great speakers have humour, yes, and no doubt bonhomie, but they don’t hide compulsively behind them; and they have other things, too, including clarity. Great speakers leave audiences enlightened, and perhaps inspired, not amused but confused. Still less do they attend interviews armed with a cunning plan to conceal themselves, from viewers and interviewers alike, behind a blond wall of noise. Great speakers have great clarity, great energy, great projection, great humanity, great range and a taste for rhetorical risk.

Like many, however, as I watched the video that Boris made on emerging from hospital, I found myself wondering if something in him had changed or was changing.

I had suspected there might be a BBC and a BAC, a Boris before and after Covid, and so – at least for that brief, shining moment – it proved. It was pitch perfect; it was what the doctor ordered for him and for us all; it was frankly magnificent: the beating heart, the damp, exhausted eyes and the gentle roar of the wounded lion back from battle, older, wiser, a little softer; not weaker, just freer, free at last to stop concealing and start channelling the vulnerability that of late, but before as well as after his illness, had been so very visible behind his eyes; not weaker, stronger and, in suddenly more human times, more human; not weaker of purpose, stronger.

It was as if his brush with death had liberated him; and there was the pleasing thought, too, that the Queen’s authoritative but touching first broadcast – with its cleverly understated echo of the blessed Vera: “We will meet again…” – might also have played its part: helped paved the way, given him permission, reminded him of what a Prime Minister can be and, at a moment of crisis, should be.

My mother liked to reminisce about the double act that, for her, and for many, were Churchill and the King during the war: to simplify, Superman and Everyman, albeit valiant Everyman, or vulnerable but valiant Everyman. It seemed to me, watching that video, not simply that Boris was authentically both; but also that he had it in him to do both as a public speaker – to shift engagingly, compellingly and regularly between them – and that it was time he resolved to do so; time that this dual persona became part of his, let’s be honest, now rather too familiar shtick.

People don’t listen to politicians; and not for long, or not about politics, or only out of one ear, or not with their hearts, to simple entertainers. People listen to people. People listen to fellow human beings with something to say and a palpable need to say it and to be understood; and if they’re politicians, they listen to them, vote for them, forgive them, vote for them again. “People, as someone said, may forget what you said but will never forget how you made them feel. They’ll never forget a moment of human connection; but nor will they forget its absence.

Boris must have been reminded of this a thousand times. In that video, though, and to some extent a week ago, on the day he returned to work – as he stood, talked and wrestled invisible muggers to the ground outside Number 10 – it looked and sounded as if he might at last be beginning to understand what it really means; or what it might mean for him; and as if he were up for the challenge.

Then came yesterday’s uncharacteristically emotional “tough-old-moment “interview in The Sun, with its dramatic account of the struggle to save him: the story of Britain’s most powerful man, rendered frail and powerless by disease; and the debt he knows he owes medical science, his “awe-inspiring” medical team and, perhaps above all, his nurses.

His interviewer, David Wooding, also had the impression that he was a changed, more complex, man; and wondered if his near-death experience might not turn out to be the “galvanising” moment that unlocks the door to greatness. As Wooding wrote, that “remains to be seen”.

Some things, however, do not: in surreally difficult times, Boris has a vision to communicate and sell to the British people and persuade them to help him deliver; or at least, in particular with Scottish nationalism in mind, not to obstruct.

And I don’t believe he’ll do it without digging deeper, opening up, becoming more three-dimensional, sharing a bit more of Boris the human being.

Or to put it another way, if he wants to reinvent Britain, he could do worse than to start by reinventing himself in the public imagination.

Wilfred might help, of course.

A baby usually does.

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Tom Stuttaford is a senior coach and chief speechwriter at AGL, a London-based communications consultancy.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.