December 19, 2021 8.48 pm This story is over 23 months old

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to relive it; isn’t that right Boris? 

As a classical scholar, Johnson should know better

In 1905 the Spanish philosopher George Santayana said in The Life of Reason “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. In 1948 Boris Johnson’s all time hero Winston Churchill paraphrased the sentiment to the House of Commons saying, “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Ironic indeed then that Boris, who has written so much about his role model Winston, has not had that in mind since he moved into Churchill’s former home a couple of years ago.

Of course those were heady days indeed. His party behind him and an 80 seat majority you could forgive Boris for forgetting himself, if it were not for the fact that he is our Prime Minister.  Boris enjoyed the full support of his party and the shires, even now some of the staunchest of Tory opponents in what became known as ‘the Red Wall’. Even his monumental reputation as a liar and opportunist seemed no obstacle to his aspiration to Churchillian greatness.

So what went wrong? Well, it seems that Scrooge-like economy with the truth, a seemingly insatiable appetite for sleaze and personal aggrandisement actually still are an obstacle in British politics. His unassailable personal charm and Maverick ‘can do’ attitude perhaps are not after all enough to deflect people from his more unsavoury characteristics.

Boris Johnson’s self-serving character has never been a secret, his invented personification of the Brexiteer par-excellence was a gambit that paid dividends and did indicate a certain skill to judge the mood of others. It was however never very convincing when the varnish was scratched off and did not indicate an ability to self-analyse or reflect.

As a self-serving opportunist, if Boris thought re-joining the EU would save him from his current sea of troubles, he would start touring the UK tomorrow in a bus telling us how many millions of pounds we would get if we rejoined the EU.

Remember the two articles he wrote for the Telegraph before deciding that Brexit would suit him best. (Note him, not Britain)

What is incredible about Johnson is he is described as a classical scholar and a historian. As a graduate in Classics from Balliol College, he must have read many stories from Ancient Greece & Rome of treachery and double dealing, of unbridled personal ambition and its consequences

Greek tragedy, according to Collins Dictionary, is a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.

It involves three stages. Catharsis, Hamartia and Hubris. A combination that begins with ridding oneself of all emotions or principles, of excessive personal pride and that final personal error of judgement that collapses the empire the protagonist built.

As a classical scholar, Johnson would have read all of these phenomena. As a historian of 20th century politics and author of a book on his hero, he must have come across Churchill’s famous comment from 1948.

Unfortunately the Greek tragedies tell us that it is usually hubris that finally brings down the hero. The inescapable belief in one’s own infallibility, sense of entitlement and divine mission. Johnson is only guilty on two counts there, he has never believed in any mission, divine or otherwise. He makes up for that with the other two in spades.

It is possible that in the early pre-dawn hours of the day, he is now visited by the characters from Euripedes, Aeschylus and Sophocles he learnt of as an undergraduate. That’s the usual scenario just before the final battle, the truth finally breaks through the hubris and the hamartia is at last clear to see.

That’s where the similarity ends. If Johnson is deposed by an ever-growing mob of those who once supported him, you will see no sad valedictory speech and certainly no falling on swords. He will have seen it coming well in advance and have already activated the only plan B that has ever mattered to him, that being Plan Boris.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.