George Orwell in his classic novel ‘1984’ portrayed a totalitarian regime whose policies were justified by the need to fight a fictional enemy. Some modern leaders are following this ‘Orwellian Playbook’.
I have observed his tactics over the last few years. I have seen the invention of a bogeyman outside his own country who was supposedly the enemy. I have seen the allusions to a glorious past in which his country was more dominant and respected. I have seen his disinclination to take a realistic view of the present, and the tendency to motivate by a false vision of the past rather than by any realistic vision of the future. I have seen the ability to lie blatantly about his own motives and about his opponents, knowing that objective evidence could easily disprove the lies, but knowing also that seeding the lie will cause it to propagate among those unwilling or unable to check the facts. I have seen how he seeks to motivate his fellow citizens to damage their own interests in order to pursue his fantasies.
I have seen the faux-legal attempts to evade constitutional checks. I have seen the legislation designed to suppress peaceful protest and to cripple those organisations that could place some limits on the power of the country’s leader. And all this is combined with an unshakeable belief that rules are for other people.
And does Boris Johnson show any penitence for this? Scarcely. The only grudging apology is when he has been found out. He shows no more penitence than Vladimir Putin, to whom the two paragraphs above could also apply.
At this point outraged Johnson supporters may exclaim “It’s wrong to equate Boris Johnson with Vladimir Putin”. I would agree. I am not equating the two, but I see common factors in their tactics. I do, of course, acknowledge that the deaths inflicted by Putin are violent, direct, intentional and unforgiveable. These are very different from the covid deaths suffered by those with inadequate PPE that was supplied because Johnson presided over a culture of awarding covid contracts to unqualified cronies. Those deaths were a less direct result, less obvious, and surely unintended (though a predictable result of procuring PPE from unqualified sources). But I see common factors in their tactics.
One significant difference between the two environments is that while both men initially came to power in elections considered by many to be fair and democratic, Putin is much further down the path of dismantling democratic freedoms than Boris Johnson is. However, Johnson is undoubtedly on that path. His belief that he can do whatever he can get away with and that the rules do not apply to him, is much wider than Partygate, although that serves as a barometer of his attitude. His inclination to lie in the House of Commons, well documented by Peter Stefanovic, demonstrates a contempt for Parliament, just as his prorogation attempt did. Johnson even attempted to rip up the Parliamentary procedure for investigating corruption in order to save Owen Patterson from suspension. On perceiving a threat from the independent Electoral Commission, he has sought to restrict its powers and make it subservient to the government of the day. He has not gone as far as Putin; but it’s an open question as to how far he would go if he could escape democratic restraint to the extent that he would like.
Both Johnson and Putin’s tactics can be found in the Orwellian playbook. Deceit that is intended to influence people’s actions is abuse. Ukraine’s Government was cast as an evil oppressive administration. Putin’s description of genocide in Ukraine by a minority such that the general population were likely to welcome the Russian troops, was arrant nonsense, intended to make it more likely that his troops would obey orders and march into Ukraine. This is an abuse of his own people, sending them, on false pretences, to an unexpected outcome for his own purposes, one that, had they been aware of it, they may have resisted. His motivation would appear to be to recreate the dominance of a perceived glorious Russian empire from the past.
There is no true vision of the future that Putin is prepared to advocate; the notion of grateful Ukrainians welcoming the Russian military was always a fantasy, which presumably Putin did not believe himself; what future outcome did he in fact intend? Nobody knows. Subjugation and repression of Czechoslovakia (a smaller country) after the Prague Spring of 1968 required 500,000 Soviet troops, and the Museum of Communism in Prague shows the brutal repression and torture that enforced that occupation. The Ukrainians are not a compliant people likely to accept Russian rule meekly, even if Putin’s troops were to achieve some whole-country military victory. So even the Putin supporters have no idea of where Putin might be leading them, even if Putin himself does.
Brexiters led by Johnson cast “Brussels” as a nefarious foreign empire that had colonised the UK against British desires, rather than as a membership organisation of which 28 nations were a voluntarily part. The vision was of the past – “Take Back Control”. Danny Dorling eloquently described the links between Brexit, the loss of empire, and the attempt by some (largely English) to regain past ‘glories’.
In the UK, lying to the electorate was considered fair game. Trade with the EU was predicted to be as easy as before. New trade deals would give us fantastic new capabilities not enjoyed by EU members. Inward migration would be cut to the tens of thousands, a plan accompanied by the supposition that this would be a benefit. There would never be any checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. And much more. These policies were all fantasy and their proponents were either incompetent or deceitful or both.
There was no real future Brexit vision, just vague slogans such as “Sunlit Uplands”, “Take Back Control”, “We hold all the cards” and “Global Britain”; if the leaders had any vision of a beneficial Brexit they would surely have made clear what these benefits would be and would thereby have had a stronger case.
Johnson’s focus was not on the outcome though, but on a process which would enhance his popularity. Putin has no vision for Ukraine, but the process of war enables him to call on support from the Russian populace as he peddles lies about where this is going and resorts to slogans about “fighting shoulder to shoulder”. Both Putin and Johnson declare that they need to take back control from some imagined enemy.
As far as Brexit is concerned, we have some benefit of hindsight. We can see increased bureaucracy, reduced trade with the EU, and labour shortages because, when the UK government gained the ability to set its own immigration rules, it created a policy which crippled many industries; the Government initially said that these issues were nothing to do with Brexit and then rolled back, at least for a time, some of the Brexit provisions that had caused the problems. We have seen Frost, Rees-Mogg and the government report thrashing around, belatedly attempting and failing to find some tangible “Benefits of Brexit”.
This is, of course, the wrong year to be thinking about Benefits of Brexit for the first time because, if the change was beneficial, the Benefits should have been identified in advance; but the inability, two years on, to devise anything more substantial than these 101 pages of rubbish, demonstrates beyond any doubt that not only was there no positive vision for Brexit – the motivation was negative, “get away from the EU”, which is rarely a useful motivation – but, even in 2022 , there is still no positive vision for where this very costly and damaging change is taking us. Similarly, Putin has no vision for the future of Ukraine.
A deceitful leader needs the populace to stay deceived. This is difficult, because the tendency is that “Truth Will Out”, People may become aware of the deceits, and start to protest. Putin’s War has been met with considerable protests on the streets, but Putin’s police have suppressed demonstrations, confiscated placards, and arrested protesters. Johnson is not so far down this road; but the Police and Crime Bill allows the police to outlaw particular demonstrations, and even contains legislation on dealing with “One-Person Protests”. How scared must the Government be of Steven Bray telling the Truth? (Even before this legislation is law, police have confiscated Steven’s banners linking the Tories to Putin.)
Distractions and deceit
Johnson has had the assistance of two worldwide crises to distract attention from his misdeeds – Covid-19 and Ukraine. It would doubtless be wrong to say that he wanted either of them to happen, but it’s likely that he was relieved at the opportunity for distraction that each crisis presented.
Putin clearly brought about the Ukraine invasion. For those who believe his message, a war against a declared common enemy is, he may have reckoned, a distraction that was likely to increase his support.
While some of Boris Johnson’s decisions have been idiotic, he is not obviously an idiot. If so, this means that he has deceived the electorate in order to take us to a place which he knew or suspected to be disadvantageous, for his own gain but not for our benefit.
How much he learned directly from his many Russian friends we don’t know. But both take their tactics from Orwell – lies if repeated often enough become accepted, or at least people give up trying to discern the truth. A common enemy bolsters support for the leader who points to that enemy.
Johnson operates from the same Orwellian playbook as Putin.