by Rod D. Martin
December 28, 2019

A friend of mine suggested that there is much to be feared in Boris Johnson’s “populism” and “nationalism”, a slippery slope perhaps that could lead Britain (and the United States) into dark places. 

So let me briefly discuss populism and nationalism, and introduce my conservative American friends, or at least those who might be concerned about such things, to Boris Johnson.

First, most people assume “populism” to have ideological content. That is the common view, but it has been my experience that it’s wrong (though widely believed, because the elites always hate it and demonize it). Populism is merely anti-elitism, and takes many, frequently different, ideological forms. It is far more stylistic than substantive, though also highly egalitarian (albeit not in the theological sense).

Likewise, nationalism is simply the belief that one group of people should not be ruled by a different group of people. Nationalism is the destroyer of empires (including Britain’s), not the creator of them. Nationalism does not imply any particular additional beliefs, or group thereof: you can have nationalists who are libertarians and nationalists who are totalitarians, and everything else in between.

Boris Johnson is labeled a populist and a nationalist, and some fear that could mean some form of authoritarianism on the horizon. But that is not at all supported by anything except fearmongering.

It has been my distinct impression that Boris Johnson is more Thatcherite than he is “One Nation”, despite the fact that he is campaigning and governing on the term “One Nation”, which historically implies a much greater focus on Britain’s welfare state than did Thatcherism. That choice helped ease a lot of Labour voters over the hump in the recent general election, much as Donald Trump’s appeal to the working class helped him win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Those Labour voters primarily voted Tory because they were angry at the British elite doing all in its power to thwart the Referendum — whether they had personally supported Leave or Remain notwithstanding — but Boris’s vocal identification with One Nation Conservatism certainly eased their decision.

Despite this, Boris is no Harold Macmillan or Ted Heath (nor is he Enoch Powell, but that’s another discussion entirely). Boris is a nationalist insofar as he does not wish to submit Britain’s sovereignty to unelected Franco-German bureaucrats in Brussels. Boris is a free trader (more so probably than Trump), he’s a capitalist (albeit in favor of a more robust welfare state than I would prefer), and he wants nothing so much as to create a giant free trade area with the United States and its USMCA partners as well as the Commonwealth nations, shorn of the political superstructure of the European (or any other) superstate. He’d like a free trade deal with the EU also — on pretty much the same terms as the EFTA states — which hardly seems improbable, much less scary.

In short, Boris Johnson is a neo-Thatcherite with Disraelian (in the modern sense of that term) overtones. Indeed, if he were an American I very much doubt he would even support the NHS: that’s just something that can’t be avoided in British politics. He’s also a legitimate intellectual, having been editor-in-chief of the Spectator for years. He frequently quotes long passages from ancient authors in their original tongues (like Powell, but not at all like Trump). 

Would I prefer Nigel Farage? Certainly. Is that going to happen? No.

Neither Boris nor any current leader of the Tory Party is anything you should fear. Indeed, along with Farage, Boris Johnson may be the world’s strongest evidence that “populism” and “nationalism” are not at all what our self-appointed elites claim they are.

Boris Johnson’s “Populism” and “Nationalism” originally appeared as a Facebook post by Rod D. Martin.