‘Boris’ – a very British dictator

<p class="has-drop-cap has-dark-gray-color has-text-color" style="line-height:1.6" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">If you stand at the end of the principal corridor of the Uffizi Gallery you can see the air bridge that winds its way down to the Ponte Vecchio, over the river Arno and on to the grand Pitti Palace 1.2 km away on the south-side. This 'Vasari Corridor' was built as an escape route by the Medici family who once used the Uffizi as their office block, and the palace as their house. It allowed the great Cosimo I an escape route from violent menace, and to walk home, or attend mass, without having to mingle with the sometimes volatile crowds. The Medicis were benign, prudent dictators who understood well what Myanmar's current ruling military mafia don't – that even their overwhelming power rests upon consent. My old research boss, Barry MacDonald, was invited by a prison governor whom he was interviewing if he'd like to stay for lunch. Barry asked what the food was like<em>. "Are you joking! The food is very good – otherwise the guests wouldn't stay." </em>If you stand at the end of the principal corridor of the Uffizi Gallery you can see the air bridge that winds its way down to the Ponte Vecchio, over the river Arno and on to the grand Pitti Palace 1.2 km away on the south-side. This ‘Vasari Corridor’ was built as an escape route by the Medici family who once used the Uffizi as their office block, and the palace as their house. It allowed the great Cosimo I an escape route from violent menace, and to walk home, or attend mass, without having to mingle with the sometimes volatile crowds. The Medicis were benign, prudent dictators who understood well what Myanmar’s current ruling military mafia don’t – that even their overwhelming power rests upon consent. My old research boss, Barry MacDonald, was invited by a prison governor whom he was interviewing if he’d like to stay for lunch. Barry asked what the food was like. “Are you joking! The food is very good – otherwise the guests wouldn’t stay.” 

This, of course, points to the ‘bread and circuses’ strategy adopted by the ancient Roman dictators and more recent adherents such as General Franco of Spain – cheap food (and cigarettes) and mass entertainment: gladiators for the Roman citizen; bullfights for the Spanish. Consent and impunity can be bought. Keep the people satiated and you can avoid accountability. 

What, then, of Boris Johnson? He and his administration enjoys many of the benefits of dictatorship – notably, impunity from the consequences of incompetence, State abuse or corruption, of which there are numerous examples – from nepotism, to cronyism, culpability for thousands of Covid deaths, ministerial mishaps, outright racism, cruel indifference to poverty, and so on. But one aspect of government incompetence is the failure to mind their backs. There are insufficient enticements to ensure consent and collusion. Into the gap, of course, springs the media which is increasingly right-wing and disposed, if not to support ‘Boris’, then to ensure that the Labour Party does not again resume power. But they demand a parallel, if more luxurious, ‘bread and circuses’ strategy, and can only be relied upon in the short-term. Meanwhile, there is no ‘Vasari Corridor’ or its equivalent. Once the citizenry has tired of ‘Boris’ and his clique’s incompetence and impunity they will not tear him apart, but they will dispatch him, just as they did Churchill immediately after WW2. 

Britain, I believe, is not now Tory, as John Harris in the Guardian wrote, unlikely to be wrenched away to vote Labour again. But one does wonder at the levels of tolerance the citizenry shows for government abuse in the form of relentless, ruthless austerity and rampant corruption. Just how long will it take for us to tire of it? The consent principle underpinning dictatorships means that there is aways an ’emperor’s clothes’ dimension to prevailing power – a reluctance in the citizenry to see and acknowledge naked vulnerability. But history tells us that see it and act upon that, they usually and eventually do.

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