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Angela Tilby: Many want to be led by bad people

16 June 2023

Alamy

Boris Johnson on his 77th birthday, on Tuesday

Boris Johnson on his 77th birthday, on Tuesday

THE resignation of Boris Johnson as an MP was announced within a few hours of the indictment issued against Donald Trump by the US Department of Justice. This could be the end for these two flawed but massively popular politicians. But neither will go down quietly. It is not unreasonable to think that Mr Trump could return to the White House, or Mr Johnson to Downing Street.

Much has been written about the character traits and forms of behaviour that they have in common: the narcissism, the capacity for deceit, the routine dismissal of inconvenient rules, the casual disregard for truth, the philandering, the financial issues over loans (Johnson) or taxes (Trump). Mr Trump even appeared at one stage to recognise Mr Johnson as a kind of Mini-Me, in spite of their differences of social background and education.

But, as they prepare their next moves, less attention has been paid to why this pair rose to leadership in the first place. After all, no one was in any doubt about the kind of men they were. In the end, they were elevated by us, the electorates of the UK and the United States, with the help of the party machines, influencers, and media who promoted them enthusiastically.

It is obvious that large sections of our societies want to be led by powerful men who make no secret of their greed, dishonesty, and lust for power. Mr Trump remains a hero to his tribe, while many British voters seem to see Mr Johnson as a grown-up William Brown: Richmal Crompton’s schoolboy scamp in Just William and other books in the series, who breaks all the rules and yet wins out in the end.

Too many of us secretly admire them, not because they are good underneath, but because they are bad. If the Ship of State is going down, democracy might prove too weak to get us through, we think; by throwing off moral constraints, dishonest leaders might give us a better chance of survival.

While the mainstream Churches berate us for our socio-economic sins, and the more conservative Churches condemn us for our sexual sins, the moral foundations of American and British society seem less secure than ever. I am not expecting to hear protests from our bishops about Mr Johnson’s resignation Honours list, nor from American Evangelicals about Mr Trump’s keeping secret state documents in his shower.

Yet, unless someone speaks for the corporate “us”, there is no future apart from a descent into tribalism. Democracy is founded on the belief that a society in which every man is only for himself is barbaric. There is a “common weal”. My neighbour’s flourishing contributes to my own, and mine to his and hers. This is the teaching of the Prayer Book. The UK differs from the US, where Puritanism triumphed with its rampant individualism and sectarianism: “From pride, vain-glory and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness, Good Lord, deliver us.”

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