Britain, Boris and banter: as harmless as we think?

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When Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister back in 2019, a Guardian reader wrote in a letter to the newspaper: “this would be funny if it wasn’t real life.” Since then, despite the global pandemic, Brexit and a series of other political upsets, something about Johnson and the way we as a nation speak about him has remained inexplicably comical. Rather than “this would be funny,” it seems we’ve collectively decided that it is – real life or not.

A quick glance at the reaction to PMQs, or one of the many 5pm briefings we’ve had streamed into our living rooms this year, reveals a lot about how Brits think not only about our Prime Minister, but our politics more widely. From more professional satire, such as Matt Lucas’ impression of Johnson’s confused address to the nation when he first eased lockdown, to amateur TikToks made by teenagers in their bedrooms, the overwhelming response to this years’ news cycle has been to laugh. Even when we had more cases than most other countries in Europe, we dubbed ourselves ‘Plague Island’ and amused ourselves in a third lockdown by retweeting photos of Johnson giving the thumbs-up back in January 2020. “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain,” the caption reads. One retweet of this ill-fated prophecy points out that sitting on a park bench has only just become legal.

Twitter comparison

Laughing in spite of it all: how very British. Our ability to make fun of just about anything is a point of national pride, a key aspect of our identity. And therein lies the problem. This year has proved that we are incapable of taking ourselves seriously even in the most serious of situations.

The saying if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry has never been so apt.

At points, this has provided much-needed comic relief. Who doesn’t feel better after retweeting a photo of Matt Hancock practising parkour, after all? Would supermarket shortages have been entirely unbearable had it not been for the wealth of photos online capturing the most ludicrous examples of stockpiling? How could we have watched the news every night without checking social media immediately afterwards for wittier commentary than the BBC could ever hope to provide? Humour has been a way – the only way – for so many of us to get through the last year. The saying 'if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry' has never been so apt.

Comedy is not without its place in politics, either. Political satire is a powerful tool, banned by so many undemocratic governments, both past and present. It also makes politics more accessible and wider-reaching; those teenagers mocking the government on TikTok, though they might be dismissed by older generations, are engaging with and demystifying current affairs. It might not be highbrow political analysis, but it’s an accessible and enjoyable way to talk about what is happening around us. A 2019 report on young peoples’ media use and attitudes carried out by Ofcom found that, amongst children aged between 12-15, Youtube and Facebook are the second and third most popular news sources after the BBC. Additionally, news consumption via social media websites tends to be more passive, with young people generally not seeking out specific news stories. This trend suggests that social media is an important tool for including younger people in political conversations, even those that aren’t actively seeking these discussions. The power of what may seem like inconsequential or facetious tweets, then, should not be downplayed.

Yet, there is something more disturbing about the British comedic instinct. If such a large part of your national identity is your sense of humour, then it follows that you might start to believe that nothing too serious could ever happen in your country. The government’s suggestion to place more undercover police officers in bars and clubs in response to the recent protests regarding male violence was followed by tweets such as this one:

This comes not only at the same time as the investigation into a MET police officer for the murder of Sarah Everard, but also as the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has passed its second reading in the House of Commons. Increased police powers, a crackdown on the right to protest, scenes of officers dragging young women away from a peaceful vigil: this is England in 2021, an image not easily squared with our sense of ourselves as a funny, harmless island. Meanwhile, some of the most popular online content in response to these policing changes continues to propagate this self-image.

It’s easy to see how Johnson has successfully managed to exploit the Brits’ love of comic performance.

This is only exacerbated by the Prime Minister, a man whose political persona has been characterised largely by gags: search #borisjohnson on TikTok and you’ll find hundreds of compilations of his more iconic moments, such as the famous zipline incident. Most of these videos are captioned “this is our Prime Minister.” It’s unclear whether their creators think this is a good thing or not, but what is clear is that this online content has only strengthened the public perception of Johnson as laughable – and therefore harmless. Add that to his bolshy performances at PMQs, during which his retorts to Keir Starmer often attempt to portray the Labour leader as a killjoy (when Starmer challenged the easing of lockdown over summer, Johnson accused him of making ‘prognostications of gloom’), and it’s easy to see how Johnson has successfully managed to exploit the Brits’ love of comic performance.

This negation of his own seriousness as a politician appears to be working surprisingly well, although it’s presumably not a tactic that many of Johnson’s predecessors pursued. Amongst accusations of the misuse of public funds, inquiries into the initial mishandling of the pandemic, and controversial police reforms, Johnson’s approval ratings are beginning to increase. Of course, part of the reason for this is likely to be the easing of restrictions and the success of the vaccination programme, but more generally, the public seem largely to believe that Johnson is a man incapable of doing us serious harm. His mistakes are recast as amusing blunders: his failure to lock down early enough last March as he bragged about shaking the hands of COVID-19 patients fits his persona of laidback bravado. The most recent accusations – that he awarded his ex-lover over £126,000 in taxpayers’ money – seems the classic behaviour of the immoral Casanova, further bolstering this image.

Both in public and in the news, Johnson is referred to commonly as “Boris,” or even as “BoJo,” yet another sign that he has successfully cultivated, if not public trust, then at least public affection. The assumption is that he is at best a charismatic leader, and at worst laughably ineffective, but not harmful. Added to the unerring sense of security in Britain, – that we are simply not a country where especially bad things happen – this could prove a dangerous misjudgment.

To return to the Guardian reader’s comment in 2019: this would be funny if it wasn’t real life. As we wait for COVID-19 inquiry results and watch the passing of a controversial police bill, it might be time to ask ourselves for how long we can really keep laughing.