04 January, 2009

Debating-Hall Blues

I’m beginning to think like Boris Johnson. Give me an issue, any issue you like, and I am instantly ready to decry the meddling EU, unleash a deep guffaw in the direction of the Lib Dems, or recoil in horror from one of Livingstone’s horrific bendy-bus contraptions. At any moment I might seize upon one of our great country’s proud traditions and defend it against all-comers.

This is the result of ploughing through an anthology of his articles from the Telegraph, Guardian and Observer, Have I Got Views For You. And, despite my long-held policy of holding in contempt any book with the author’s face on the front (especially when said author is a conservative/car fanatic/‘TV personality’), I must admit to having rather liked it.

The articles are rarely more than five or six pages in length – and this is probably why the whole book has had such a brain-washing effect. Within each piece is the issue, as Boris sees it, a blinding riposte to those Trots/Lefties/Europhiles/Europeans, and a concise and punchy outline of the virtues of the Conservative approach. There can be little doubt that he knows how to perfectly frame an argument.

It’s immediately obvious that Johnson is possessed of a wonderful literate flair. His blustering style is imbued with a dazzling charm and wit, and his public school education is seeped into each and every page. The Lib Dems, he says, are muddle-headed mugwumps whose “policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it.” He draws comparison between Virgil’s Aeneid and the Middle East, between the classic tragedies and modern sleaze.

Maybe this is what holds me back from fully entering the world of Boris – it takes just a sniff of debating-union glamour to summon images of the Tory benches during PMQs, bellowing and baying like so many drunken sixth-formers. A nerve is struck as soon as Blair is reeled out as a ‘public-school prefect’, and my flirtation with Conservatism is all but ended.

Instinctively too, there is shock and reproach a few hundred pages in, when one realises that one has given a persuasive, indeed masterful politician freedom to expound his views without response. Without the opposite and alternative viewpoints present when these pieces were first published. It was nearly too late – like a virus or a vampire he nearly won you over.

Have I Got Views For You should be a book you would ‘dip’ in and out of, but one needs to be more at ease with Johnson’s views than myself to find that enjoyable. Instead, I read it in one go, finding not entirely to my surprise that a) Boris, formerly a journalist, is a wonderful writer, that b) he takes a fairly centrist, moderate conservative stance on most things, and c) that the Mayor of London is of course much smarter than he makes out.

So this collection is a good start if one wants to know the mind of Boris – just take care you don’t end up knowing it too well.

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