was editor of the Spectator, MP for Henley-on-Thames and shadow minister for the arts when he gave these two contrasting interviews in 2004.
Photography: BBC TV
Your demeanour gives the impression that you come from a rather privileged background. Is that the case?
I had an immensely lucky upbringing – it would be madness to deny that. I’ve been attended by every possible privilege that the English system can provide. I had a wonderful, happy childhood and then quite a cosmopolitan education all over the world, in Washington and Brussels and then briefly at an English prep school, which kind of tee’d me up for Eton. I suppose in Marxist terms I am a product of the English haute bourgeoisie – though actually my antecedents are very diverse, and many of them are not from this country – and many are not particularly well off or whatever.
Many people might envy you, but are you conscious of weaknesses in that kind of background?
Yeah. I’m the epiphenomenon of a certain type of education, and I suppose that (as people say these days) that carries its baggage with it. People look at you and think, ‘That chap needs a firm kick in the pants, or a smack in the chops.’ And I perfectly understand that – and I rejoice in it, because if nobody was motivated by irrational resentment of anybody else, life would be rather miserable, wouldn’t it? I think it rather adds to the general savour of life that people do resent me in that way, insofar as they do. Insofar as they do, I obviously have to make an effort to –
But actually they don’t! The key point is, they don’t really. Very, very rarely do I come across… I mean, why should they anyway? They don’t.
Do you think people realise how intelligent you are?
Well, I think my wife would wonder whether I am. I have to be honest with you: this is not a point on which there is unanimity amongst my nearest and dearest. I mean, I think I have my moments. Well, we all have our moments, don’t we, when we suddenly see things pretty clearly. But then, frankly, the clouds come down on me. Do you have that?
People don’t want politicians swanking around telling them what to think. They want politicians who seem to come at things from roughly the same position that they do
You are constantly self-deprecating. Why is that?
Yes, well. I don’t want anybody to make a fool of me, so I do the job myself.
We don’t live in an age of deference any more. People don’t want politicians swanking around telling them what to do or think, people don’t want politicians standing up and arrogating to themselves any superior authority or insight into things. What they want is politicians who seem to come at things from roughly the same position that they do, and so I try to do that.
People are very ironical nowadays and if you can work with that, and work with people’s tendency to look at things in a humorous and cynical way sometimes and then make your point, I think that’s a perfectly good way to do it.
I suppose it’s partly defensive. Obviously, if you stand up with your eyes bulging with messianic zeal and you propound some great thesis about the relationship between Man and the state and everybody laughs at you, somehow that’s more painful than if you make a joke, invite people’s sympathy and then try gently to suggest that there may be something in a particular thesis…
It has been observed that an ambitious politician has to be careful not to be too humorous or after a while people won’t take them seriously. Are you afraid of getting that balance wrong?
Absolutely. Of course. I may very well not get away with it. I think the chances are that I won’t. But –
I’m assuming that you are ambitious, by the way.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll put my hand up to that, no doubt about it. But you can only work with the tools you’ve got, frankly, and I happen to know that I’m really incapable of doing it any other way. So, I try to make a virtue of it.
I would say, by the way, that politics is a very, very serious business. Using humour to make points is all very well, but in the end people elect you to do a very serious job of work and they’re paying you a not insignificant sum of money to represent them in Parliament, to save their respite home from closure or whatever it happens to be. Politicians take and spend 40 per cent of what people earn in this country, and that’s a huge responsibility. These people sitting in Parliament – we all laugh at them but they’re making huge numbers of laws every day, they’re deciding what we may or may not do.
You’re both a journalist and a politician. It seems to me that we expect scepticism in the one but in the other we expect conviction.
Yeah, well, I’m a sceptic. I’m a sceptic. I do have a basic substrate (there’s a good word) layer of ideals and things I’d want to defend; but I suppose I tend not to champion them.
Do you think religion is becoming more important in our world? We used to assume that secularisation was marginalising religion, but now its global impact seems only to be growing.
My family is Muslim, Jewish and Christian, so I find it hard to believe exclusively in any one particular monotheism. Yeah, I’m Church of England, no question about it
I think religion is fantastically important. But you have to understand, I’m a product of more than one country, like the honey in Waitrose or whatever –
You had a Turkish grandfather, I think?
Yep. My family background is Muslim, Jewish and Christian, so I don’t find it very easy to believe exclusively in any one particular monotheism. In fact, my children are a quarter Indian, so their ancestors adhere to a polytheistic faith.
I’m a sort of a – yeah, I’m Church of England, all right, no question about it. I was confirmed in a Church of England church, but I don’t kind of –
You sound like you’re disappearing into the clouds at this point.
Yep. Can I? Can I retreat into the clouds? It’s very complicated. Religion is a very private thing.
You seem to have an opinion on everything else, but in your writing there isn’t a lot to suggest a man of intellect who has thought through religious issues, even though they have an increasing bearing on the world today. Would you dispute that?
Actually, I once won the Wilder Divinity Prize, and the prep school scripture prize. If you ask me about the Bible, I can –
I know you can read the Vulgate, and that’s all well and good –
My faith, my faith…
I went to see The Passion of [the] Christ1Dir Mel Gibson, released on 25 February 2004 and I found myself coming out of the cinema – and this is going to shock you – whistling ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ from Monty Python. I have to say that there were moments in the film that reminded me irresistibly of Life of Brian.
My colleagues at the Spectator are quite religious and they were outraged at this, but the point I am trying to make about that irresistible urge to debunk is very simple really: if there wasn’t some residual feeling of awe and respect, one wouldn’t find anything funny in it. That may be a bit complicated, but do you see what I’m driving at?
There’s a wonderfully schmaltzy radio station called Magic FM which has a huge footprint all over the Greater London area, but when you get into the Chilterns, which is where I represent, it sort of comes and goes a bit. And that’s what my faith is like. My antenna picks up the signal pretty strongly sometimes, but then it goes away. I’m sure that’s not an experience exclusive to me, by the way.2In fact, this comparison, which Mr Johnson has made more than once, has also become associated with David Cameron – as here.
Oh no, no, no. Not at all.
Actually, I thought The Passion of [the] Christ was violent pornography. What was the point of it all? And the truth is that Christ’s death, as crucifixions go, was not exceptionally torturous. We don’t need that for the Christian faith. We don’t need to believe it was the most painful death of all time. That’s not the point.
The church spends too much time worrying about secondary issues – you know, this gay rights stuff and all that bollocks
What is the point?
The point is that God loved the world so much that he sent his only begotten Son to die for our sins. And that’s the point, isn’t it, of Christianity?
I was at a wedding in Italy the other day and it was a fantastic scene. They had this ancient prelate straight out of The Godfather who was officiating, and suddenly he said, ‘Se non crediamo in Dio, è tutta una buffonata.’ If we don’t believe in God, this whole thing is a farce. And you could see this congregation of people, who had basically come for a lovely weekend in Tuscany, sort of trembling like aspens. It was a great moment, actually.
Do you think that the church has lost that vision?
I think it spends too much time worrying about secondary issues – you know, this gay rights stuff and all that bollocks. I can see it’s important, but it’s not –
Actually, knowing the media, it’s probably not the fault of the church at all. I mean, they probably hardly ever go on about it, it’s just that it’s the only thing the media ever pick up on.
Actually, as far as I know (having, as I say, won the Wilder Divinity Prize), Christ didn’t say much on this subject.
Do you find you have become more ‘religious’ since you became MP for Henley?
No, no, I’m ashamed to say… I haven’t.
You know, I’d love to be able to paint a picture to you of a – I do think a lot about religious issues. For example, I am going to commission a piece this week on the question of aliens. I mean, if there are sentient life-forms on Alpha Centauri, perhaps more intelligent than us, how does that affect our position as God’s children, and mankind as his last word? Does he love them more than us? And what if they come and eat us up? Will that be God’s will? That’s what I’d like to know. Wouldn’t it look pretty ridiculous if that turned out to be God’s plan after all?
That’s pretty frivolous. But I think a lot about issues like abortion and embryological research. I think it’s awfully tricky. (That’s a real C-of-E view, isn’t it? I think it’s awfully tricky.) I feel ashamed of myself for not being able to produce a categorical answer, but I can’t. I mean, I can’t.
Do you know any poor people?
I don’t know any rich people! Not seriously rich.
It bears repeating that money isn’t everything. You need a spiritual inner life, you need a sense of what your life is about, you need some way of affirming your own worth
I ask that because people often wonder whether the people who wield influence or power, culturally, politically or whatever, have any relationship at all with anybody who is impoverished.
I’m a conservative in the sense that I do slightly believe in the power of the will – you know, I believe in encouraging people to make the best of life; but I think people are poor in many different ways, and it’s not just a question of TVs and washing machines and things that 30 years ago we would have said were signs of wealth.
I had a fascinating conversation with a sister at a mental hospital in Oxfordshire where some of my constituents are treated about what it was that was making people so unhappy. Very often this terrible loss of self-esteem that sends people over the edge is connected with the sense that they see the world around them full of people enjoying themselves and gratifying themselves in all kinds of ways, with constant images on TV of sex and money and power, and they feel excluded, they feel like failures.
So, it’s not so much absolute material poverty – I’d say, very far from it: actually, we’re richer than we’ve ever been. It is a spiritual poverty. People feel nothing inside.
I’m just repeating what this psychiatric nurse told me. She felt it was to do with people feeling defeated by the modern world, feeling that they weren’t among the winners. And that’s where faith comes in. A pretty useful thing to have in such circumstances, I’d have thought.
And how does a politician address this problem?
I think that anybody who is in a position of authority and leadership ought to… It is true, and bears repeating, that money isn’t everything and you need a spiritual inner life, you need a sense of what your life is about, you need some way of affirming your own worth other than through your material achievements. And people find that through love, they find it through work – and they can find it through faith, I suppose. But you need it…
Anyway, it’s not easy and these are big problems. I’m not going to sort this out now.
You come over as a very honest man, I think. You’re constantly questioning yourself. Do you think there is a lack of honesty in British politics?
Yeah, I think there is at the moment, I think there is. People are very unwilling to be honest. I remember saying to John Major, ‘Shouldn’t you apologise really about the ERM [débâcle]?’ and he said, ‘Oh no, oh no, oh no, you can’t do that. People would lose their confidence in politicians.’
I think [Tony] Blair has this problem over [Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction]. If he was honest, he would say: ‘I took a gamble that Saddam actually did have WMDs. We didn’t have very good evidence at all. Hans Blix & co made it pretty clear that he didn’t. I had big geostrategic reasons for needing to go with America, the Americans were going to do it anyway and I thought it would be madness for us to be separated from them and it was my duty as Prime Minister to protect our long-term interests. I thought we could easily get rid of Saddam and I assumed that the Americans would have a plan to put a new regime in Iraq. So, I’m afraid I went along with a mild subterfuge and basically I bamboozled you all into believing that there were these WMDs and I thought I’d be OK because I was fairly sure we’d find something that would enable me to back up my claim at the end of it. I’m afraid I was caught out, and that’s the truth.’
If he’d said that – well, I admit, he’d be stuck, actually, wouldn’t he? He’d be stuck. That’s the problem. But that’s the honest truth of his position.
Do you think you’ll manage to be any more honest if the Tories ever get back into power?
I don’t know. Power corrupts, and it reveals the way people are. I suppose that I would just do my best, wouldn’t I? I would just do my best.
Do you think the Tories will get back into power?
You never know, you never know. If we can convince people that the Tory party is, you know, a modernising, one-nation party that is interested in them and interested in improving their lives, that actually understands what modern Britain is really all about, that has something interesting to say about the issues people care about, then we’re in with a chance.
But frankly we need to – I don’t know what we need to do. We’ve got a problem. We’ve got a problem.
A longer edit of this interview was originally published in the October 2004 issue of Third Way.
So, you are now a novelist.3His first novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, was published by HarperCollins on 6 September 2004. What’s that about for you? Therapy? Crusade? Vanity? Money? A bit of all four?
Vanity. I’ll settle for vanity.
And is being a novelist harder than journalism?
Harder. Harder. Harder. There’s more of it.
You play many different games. You are an editor, an MP, a TV celebrity –
Up to a point, perhaps – a B- or C-list TV celebrity.
And now a novelist. Is this all by glorious accident or cunning design?
Sheer unwillingness to settle for any particular thing and a desire to keep my mind constantly spinning over. If you can find lots of little engines to spin your own hamster wheel, then it takes a lot of mental effort away. Because I do so many different things, I never have to worry about what I am going to do next, because there are so many things that I just have to do next, a lot of them in the next couple of hours.
I have an everlasting agenda of things to do, which is a brilliant system for avoiding introspection, and brilliantly dispenses with the need for all abstract contemplation about the meaning of existence – or the purpose I might have on this planet.
I remember when I first became editor of the Spectator. There would be this time on Thursday afternoons when I had made all the phone calls I had to make, and I’d suddenly be conscious of the black cloud of depression moving in from the west, and it was really about not having enough to do, and that’s partly why I do it.
To be honest, I was always a little like that at school and university. I would always ceaselessly and pointlessly engage in just about every activity going. The debating society, rugby, acting – all mental displacement activity, but I don’t think there’s any harm in that. I don’t believe a life of abstract contemplation is necessarily suited to me and I’m very happy just blasting on. As Bismarck says, ‘He goes farthest who knows not where he is going.’4He appears to have in mind a remark attributed to Oliver Cromwell: ‘No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.’
You seem to fear introspection.
I probably do. I just don’t dare look under its stone. And I won’t. The cupboard will remain locked. I will never go to that terrible fridge marked ‘psyche’. I’ll never open it. No, forget it. Someone else can do that. Sod it. The truth is, it’s probably like Peer Gynt.5See theatrehistory.com. I’d probably find nothing there anyway. That’s what I’m terrified of.
I have got a bad temper sometimes. It can be quite savage. I’ve always had natural aggression. … It’s the caveman thing, I suppose, and I think I am largely composed of it
Or you might find something better than you could possibly imagine.
I see two sides of you: there is the benign Boris, overflowing with buffoonery and camaraderie, in public at least, and then there is the quite profoundly angry Boris.
I have got a bad temper sometimes, actually. It comes through in my writing. It can be quite savage. I don’t know what it is. I’ve always had natural aggression. If there was a ball on the ground in rugby, I had to go for it. I just loved that feeling of flinging myself at it. It’s the caveman thing, I suppose, and I think I am largely composed of it.
I have moments of imagination and intelligence. I’m acutely conscious of my mental equipment being pretty good, but it’s not as good as some people’s. I’m not a brilliant mathematician or anything like that. So, energy and aggression [are] a great help. After school and university, where you merely compete on an academic level, it’s the energy you need. It’s all about energy – and taking exercise. That’s incredibly important, because it’s all hormonal.
The secret of life – and here, I’m afraid, I take a completely reductionist view of things, an approach I find very useful – the secret of life is that we are all composed of drugs. Our mood swings are entirely generated by our own personally selected pharmacopoeia.
And the human soul?
The human soul might be another way of describing the same thing. I’m convinced that rather than taking artificial drugs you can become aware of the naturally occurring substances in your body. There are lots of things which affect our moods, and if you are cunning you can create them in yourself.
There is a bloody good book waiting to be written about this, a fantastic super-seller.
How to Make Your Own Mood…
I think we should think more positively about manufacturing our own moods – and how to deal with that five-o’clock paranoia after you’ve been drinking at lunchtime, which is the worst thing. If you drink a bottle-and-a-half of wine at lunchtime, five o’clock comes round and God! it hits you. And you cannot bear it, you know everyone wants to kill you. Paranoia, self-disgust, horror.
And is it all gone by six o’clock?
If you start drinking again, it goes.
There’s a stain of inner bleakness across all this.
I suppose there must be. Bleak, bleak, bleak. But I do believe in people’s goodness. I think people will tend towards good.
I’m always interested in the Stoic idea, living free from care, benign… What’s that like? I can’t imagine. But I want to stay on the treadmill, because I enjoy it
Yes. Oh, certainly. It’s fascinating to watch. Each generation faces different sorts of moral problems, and we all fumble towards solutions.
And is it possible for a good person to succeed in party politics?
Sure. I think Blair in some ways is quite a good person. Michael Howard is a good person – a very good person. These are not bad guys. I think the public would find them out quite quickly if they were bad.
I’m very struck by people in the House of Commons, by how hard-working they are, and by how much they know about things and care about things you wouldn’t expect them to take an interest in. I have a higher regard for politicians now than when I used to be a journalist. The accepted line in Britain is that they are idiots, scum, self-serving twits, and I don’t think that true at all. Obviously they are all driven by their ego, their ego desire to feel important and liked, and in a certain sense, these are vices – but maybe they can be made to work for the public good.
Are the egos of politicians any different from those of the rest of us? Or is it just that more massaging goes on, the nearer you get to power?
I think their egos are getting larger. They do swell under substantial stroking. But we all need an ego massage. We all have people who do that for us; otherwise, our lives would be hell.
Unless we said goodbye to our egos. Then, they wouldn’t exercise that power.
Very hard to do. And not what is required necessarily. I don’t think God demands that we say goodbye to our egos.
I’m not talking about God. I’m just pondering how to find happiness as a human.
I don’t know about that. To say goodbye to your ego and try to be happy? I’ve never tried that.
Ego puts us on a treadmill of pleasure and pain…
Yes, it does. Yep.
And if you are happy with that treadmill –
I’m always interested in the Stoic idea, living free from care, benign… What’s that like? I can’t imagine what it would be… Tranquil, undulating trance.
But, for myself, I want to stay on the treadmill, because I enjoy it. It’s great fun.
Except sometimes at five o’clock.
This interview was originally published on Simon Parke’s blog and is used here by permission.
|⇑1||Dir Mel Gibson, released on 25 February 2004|
|⇑2||In fact, this comparison, which Mr Johnson has made more than once, has also become associated with David Cameron – as here.|
|⇑3||His first novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, was published by HarperCollins on 6 September 2004.|
|⇑4||He appears to have in mind a remark attributed to Oliver Cromwell: ‘No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.’|
Boris Johnson was born in New York in 1964 and christened Alexander Boris de Pfeffel. He was educated at Eton and studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford, where in 1983 he was president of the Oxford Union.
After graduating in 1987, he joined the management consultants LEK but left after a week. A spell as a journalist on the Times ended when he was sacked for falsifying a quotation (as it happened, from his uncle). He next reported for the Wolverhampton Express and Star, and wrote leaders and features for the Daily Telegraph. In 1989, he became the latter paper’s European Community correspondent, and six years later he was appointed assistant editor. He wrote a political column for the Spectator in 1994–95 and then for the Telegraph until 1999, when he was made editor of the Spectator.
In 1997, he stood unsuccessfully as the Conservative candidate for Parliament in Clwyd South. Three years later, he was elected MP for Henley-upon-Thames with a majority of 8,458. In 2003, he was appointed a vice-chair of the Conservative Party, and a year later he joined the Shadow Cabinet as shadow minister for the arts. His six-point ‘manifesto’ proposed convening a summit so that Damien Hirst ‘and the rest of the gang’ could ‘explain to the nation what it all means’ and presenting ‘an indistinguishable replica’ of the Elgin Marbles to Greece ‘to end this acrimonious dispute between our great nations’.
He is the author of three books: the autobiographical Friends, Voters, Countrymen (2002) and an anthology of his journalism, Lend Me Your Ears, and the novel Seventy-Two Virgins (both 2004).
He has appeared several times on BBC TV’s Have I Got News for You, twice as a guest presenter. One stint in 2003 earned him a Bafta nomination.
He was named political commentator of the year in 1997 by What the Papers Say, editors’ editor of the year in 2003 by the British Society of Magazine Editors and columnist of the year at the 2004 British Press Awards. He writes a weekly column for the Telegraph and a monthly one (as motoring correspondent) for GQ.
His first marriage lasted less than a year. He married the barrister Marina Wheeler in 1993 and they have two sons and two daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 September 2004