Boris Johnson’s overthrow of mainstream politics was built on a coalition of powerful neo-liberal radicals and working-class nationalists. It is not the first time that ordinary people have placed their hopes in an anti-establishment right-wing leader. In the Seventeenth Century, Oliver Cromwell’s overthrow of the English Establishment gave rise briefly to popular hopes of building a new society.
The flowering of hopes of democracy and the dream of a new society was brief; Cromwell’s Puritans created a society every bit as oppressive as that peopled by the English aristocracy. It would be three centuries and the election of Clement Attlee in 1945 before a society emerged where there would be care for everyone. The trauma of war and the misery of the preceding decade made the English determined that they were never going back to the old ways.
The disappointment of working-class hopes is not something confined to the past, the Thatcherite revolution of 1979 was built on the attraction of voters who had previously been solid Labour voters. Within a decade, Margaret Thatcher declared that society did not exist. Talking to Woman’s Own magazine in 1987 she said,
“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.’
Mrs Thatcher’s words were a licence to ignore problems that could only be addressed by the State, the “sink” housing estates sprang directly from an abdication by Government agencies of responsibility for those who simply could not do the things she suggested.
Perhaps the true test of the radicalism of Boris Johnson will be if he is able through the reforms he has promised to working people, whether he can deliver real improvements in standards of living and public services, or whether it is simply a British elite that replaced the European elite. If he fails to deliver, the next election will bring a backlash from those who have placed their hopes in the promised revolution.