Profile: Stanley Johnson. A serious environmentalist who, as COP26 looms, has at last made a convert of his son

21 Oct

“Deep down I’m a horribly serious person,” Stanley Johnson wrote in his first volume of memoirs. Just now, as COP26 approaches, we are all being warned in the most serious tones that the end of the world is nigh unless we take immediate action.

Many of the politicians and journalists who sound the alarm have only started quite recently to take an interest in the environment.

That reproach cannot be levelled at Johnson. He is 81, and throughout his career has shown a passionate concern for the future of the planet.

In the late 1960s he travelled 35,000 miles researching a book called Life Without Birth: A Journey Through the Third World in Search of the Population Explosion.

Johnson took the then fashionable view that the world was in mortal danger from over-population. He regards birth control as an urgent necessity, remarks that he has married a Catholic, but goes on to condemn the Pope (as did many Catholics) for in July 1968 issuing Humanae Vitae, the encyclical forbidding birth control:

“If any single human being is to be brought to the bar of history for crimes against humanity in this last third of the twentieth century, it must be Pope Paul VI – for he has consigned countless millions to misery and anguish, mental and material. I believe that Humanae Vitae may come to be ranked as one of the most massive errors of judgment ever made… Paul VI, on the black day in July 1968, sacrificed the whole world to save the Church’s soul.”

Serious words, and Johnson in his twenties worked for some serious organisations, including the World Bank in Washington and the Ford Foundation in New York and London.

In 1973, when Britain joined the European Economic Community, he went to Brussels as one of the first British functionaries, taking up the post of Head of the EEC’s newly founded Prevention of Pollution and Nuisances Division. From 1979-84 he served as a Conservative MEP, and became Vice-Chairman of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee.

There is scarcely an endangered animal for which Johnson has not campaigned, a senior environmentalist with whom he has not made common cause, and his efforts have been recognised by prizes awarded by Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the RSPCA and the RSPB among others.

A senior lawyer recalled often being instructed by Johnson in environmental cases and said of him: “Stanley’s terribly principled, even if it’s totally unfashionable.”

In February 2016, Johnson became Co-Chairman of Environmentalists for Europe, a group set up to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, and set out his case in a piece for ConHome in which he recalled how poor Britain’s environmental performance was before 1973:

“Our neighbours on the Continent called us the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’. We had short, fast-flowing rivers, so we were quite happy to see pollution swept out to sea. ‘Dilute and disperse’ were our watch-words, even when some of the pollutants we were discarding were known to be toxic or persistent or both. Our industry pumped its effluent into the air. Tall stacks and prevailing winds ensured that on the whole other countries bore the brunt.

After we joined the EEC all that began to change…

The EU’s Natura 2000 network is today the largest coherent network of protected areas in the world, aimed at conserving natural habitats and wild fauna and flora, both terrestrial and marine. In the UK, over 600 terrestrial sites, covering eight million hectares, benefit from the strong protection provided by the Natura 2000 programme. The emphasis now is on completing the network of marine sites and on ensuring better implementation where existing protected areas are concerned…

And, as part of the EU, the UK can be a driver for meaningful international agreements, such as those reached at the recent Paris Climate Change Conference. We may not always get all we want (we didn’t in Paris); but, without the EU, we would probably have got far less.

Of course, the environment is not the only issue which will influence voters as they try to make up their mind in the historic referendum which confronts us. Nor should it be. But I personally believe that our country’s greatest resource – its nature – will be better protected and better preserved for future generations if we remain an active, full, partner within Europe.”

Again, the tone is serious. Johnson’s record as a committed environmentalist stretches back half a century. In 2017 he switched sides and accepted Brexit, but the environmentalism remains a constant.

And yet I am conscious that by starting this profile with the serious Johnson, I have omitted various aspects of him which have long attracted more attention.

One is his compulsion on almost any occasion to tell jokes as if in order to sabotage or at least distract from his seriousness. In the late 1970s, in the run up to Britain’s first European elections, to be held under the first past the post system, Johnson looked around for a seat where he could stand, and was interviewed in Leicester, where the Duke of Rutland, chairman of the selectors, asked if he had ever been there before.

According to Johnson, he replied: “Your Grace, I have never been to Leicester before, but I have been to Leicester Square.” This joke went down badly.

After failing in three selection contests, Johnson applied to the Isle of Wight and East Hampshire, where the other contenders were Bill Cash and Sir John Peel.

He was the only one of the three who did not have his wife with him, so the selection committee asked: “Will Mrs Johnson be coming to live with you in the constituency?”

To which he replied: “Mrs Johnson will possibly be coming to live in the constituency, but certainly not with me.”

Johnson was at this point in the process of getting divorced “very amicably” (by his account) from his wife, Charlotte. This joke went down well and he got the seat.

Thousands of other jokes might be mentioned, and have often been mentioned by Johnson himself.

But to describe him as keen on jokes does not do justice to his ability, indeed his yearning, to place himself at the centre of events. Here is a man who in 2017 reached a wider public by appearing on I’m a Celebrity.

And even that does not cover the point which, in an attempt to see him at the start of this profile as himself rather than as an appendage, has not yet been mentioned. Most reports about him remind the reader in the first line or two that he is the Prime Minister’s father.

Stanley Johnson was born in Penzance on 18th August 1940. His mother, Irene Johnson, was staying at the time with her parents, Stanley and Marie Louise Williams (née de Pfeffel), at their house in Carbis Bay, which is where the G7 countries met this summer.

He was brought up at the family farm on Exmoor and sent to school at Sherborne, where he became head boy. An early sign of a certain originality and eye for the main chance was his winning of a Trevelyan Scholarship by writing a project on “The Teddy Boy Problem as observed in West Ham”.

He read English at Exeter College Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry and met his first wife, Charlotte Fawcett, who was reading English at Lady Margaret Hall.

They went together to America, Stanley having won a Harkness Fellowship to study there, and on 19th June 1964 she gave birth in New York to the first of their four children, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

The marriage was happy and also excruciatingly unhappy, and ended in 1979, but the two of them remained to the end on amicable terms. Stanley got married again in 1981, to Jennifer Kidd, and had two more children.

Various characteristics have come down from Stanley to his eldest son, including an indefatigable, at times almost unhinged optimism; a compulsion to make every joke suggested by any given situation; and a fondness for the mannerisms of a stage Englishman, occasionally hard to distinguish from those of a cashiered major.

What lies behind such persistent frivolity? What is each of them hiding? The angry but lazy answer is nothing, which is one reason why the Prime Minister’s chances of success have been so persistently underestimated.

In Stanley’s case, there is the serious, long-term commitment to the environment, and as COP26 comes into view, he finds he has made a convert of his son.

Churchill, walking with destiny. Johnson, winking at destiny.

6 Oct

Never underestimate most people’s lack of interest in politics – as practised at Westminster, anyway.  Here at ConservativeHome, we’re obsessed by it.  Our readers are at the very least interested in it.  So it’s sometimes an effort to remember that most of Britain is Rhett Butler: “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

But now and again, a politician breaks through the cloud of unknowing and becomes a Given, a Fact – like the weather.  Modern Britain has seen three.  The first was Margaret Thatcher.  The second, Tony Blair.  The third, Boris Johnson.

Each vanished inside themselves and returned as an icon.  Thatcher was embraced first hesitantly, then decisively, as embodying the end of a clapped-out post-war settlement.  She became, with apologies to Dominic Raab and the gang, Britannia Unchained.

Blair was the beneficiary of revulsion at Conservatives who had run out of steam, and he projected an archetype of the age: of youthful, ideology-light, transformative leadership – a standard model in the west since J.F.Kennedy.

The Prime Minister has a smaller majority than either (though at 80-plus it is perfectly satisfactory) but a bigger inheritance: indeed, nothing is ever more likely to become him like his victory of almost two years ago.

After inheriting a broken party on nine per cent of the vote, expelling a swathe of his senior MPs, falling into an even bigger Parliamentary minority, wrangling with the judges and somehow gaining an election, Johnson won it and delivered Brexit.

This was more fundamental break with the recent past than Blair’s or even Thatcher’s.  So if Thatcher was Britannia and Blair Kennedy, who is the Prime Minister?

We won’t for a moment waste our time and yours by probing what he passed off yesterday as a speech.  Insofar as it was one, its content was levelling up – a traditional Tory idea of a One Nationish kind, to be achieved by electic mayoral methods: more Blair than Thatcher.

No, what Johnson did yesterday was less to make a speech than paint a picture: “generally funkapolitan party”…”my chestnuts out of Tartarean pit”…”chewed his pensive quill”…”raucus squaukus from the anti-AUKUS caucus”…“reprendre le control”…

“Build Back Beaver…the greatest Frost since the great frost of 1709…fibre-optic vermicelli…66,000 sausages aboard…”aquatic forest of white turbines”… “if you can steal a dog or cat there is frankly no limit to your depravity”…

This is what he has been doing all the way from his stint as the Daily Telegraph‘s Brussels correspondent (“Brussels bureaucrats have shown their legendary attention to detail by rejecting new specifications for condom dimensions”) to the premiership.

This is less a real though dead American president than another great and imaginary British archetype, but with a twist: Boris Johnson is John Bull with his trousers down.  Or should that be Winston Churchill?

Johnson, after all, has written a light but vivid book about the great Conservative and Liberal.  Perhaps it is impertinent or, worse, simply wrong to seek comparisons between the psychology of the two.

But we think there’s something in it, and the temptation is irresitible.  In his essay on Churchill and his “Black Dog” – i.e: his depression – Anthony Storr zeroes in on the former Prime Minister’s paintings.

“I must say, I like bright colours.  When I get to heaven…I shall require a still gayer palette than I get here below…there will be a whole range of wonderful new colours that will delight the celestial eye,” Churchill himself wrote.

Storr goes on to write that “in psycho-analytical jargon, this is manic defence.  The counterpart to the gloomy, subfusc world of the depressive is a realm of perpetual excitement and action, in which colours are richer and brighter…

…gallant deeds are accomplished by heroes, and ideas expressed in language replete with simile, ornamented with epithet, and sparkling with mellifluous turns of phrase.”

We can’t help but find parallels in the life of Churchill’s successor, who could himself produce striking doodles during Telegraph editorial conferences, and is the child of two artists.

One, in words (Stanley Johnson won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry at Oxford); the other, on canvas.  Charlotte Johnson Wahl‘s struggle with depression and OCD is well known enough not to need repetition.

“That’s the trouble with Anthony—half mad baronet, half beautiful woman”, Rab Butler said of Eden, whose mother was a beautiful woman and whose father was, well, you get it.

There is a lot more to the Prime Minister, or to anyone else, than being half each of both parents, but we think that there is something in it – and that, whether so or not, many people want nothing more than being cheered up.  Which Johnson does in spades.

All this is a long way from Italian condoms, let alone levelling up and Johnson’s speech today, but it may offer a surer guide to his success.  At any rate, his connection to the unpoliticised – his being a Fact and a Given – leaves the next election his to lose.

The Conservatives are on their fourth term in government, but neither David Cameron nor Theresa May won a solid Tory majority.  That Johnson did so two years ago made the Manchester Conference feel like that of a governing party for the first time since 2010.

In other words, Brexit has given him a first term, rather than a Conservative fourth one, and he still leads in the polls despite Covid, shortages, Chesham & Amersham, the Northern Ireland Protocol, the endless redefinings of levelling up – much, really.

Yet what would embarrass another leader somehow washes over him.  Take the absurd spectacle of the most important woman in his private life, Carrie Johnson, speaking at a conference reception co-hosted by Stonewall…

…Which the most important woman in his public one, Liz Truss, has slated – urging government to pull out of its employment scheme.  And, yes, the Foreign Secretary was actually there at the event.

“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman wrote.  “Very well then I contract myself…I am large, I contain multitudes.”  He might have been summing the Prime Minister up in a couple of sentences.

The time may come when the show stops going on because the audience has had enough.  Most governments are felled by the question: “where’s the delivery?”  Somewhere in their second term, they usually run out of steam, and luck too.

Johnson’s great-grandfather, a liberal Turkish politician and journalist, was strung up by a group of paramilitary officers – in legend, a mob.  We’ve sometimes wondered if the Prime Minister will meet an end less bloody but no less dramatic.

The more those failed Remainers rage at him, the more he laughs, as he winds them up like a watch.  His hold on his party is brutal.  But one day, the worm – sorry those backbenchers – may turn.

And the British people will have had enough of this Given and Fact, whose authority comes partly from being a known quantity.  As this site has written for two days running and now writes for a third, the state is too big, taxes too high and levelling up too inchoate.

But for the moment, he is in pole position and poll position – shortages, price rises, queues and all.  “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial,” Churchill wrote as he entered Downing Street in 1940.  Where he walked with destiny, Johnson winks at it.

This hatchet man in a hurry casts no new light on Johnson, except to show him as a vulnerable child

17 Oct

Boris Johnson: The Gambler by Tom Bower

In his Acknowledgements, buried on page 527 of his book, Tom Bower remarks, in the manner of an author broaching a humorous topic: “Readers should be aware that Boris Johnson is not a stranger in my home.”

He adds that “Veronica Wadley, my wife, has known him as a journalist since he joined The Daily Telegraph in 1988.”

Readers are not, however, made aware that during Johnson’s second term as Mayor of London, from 2012-16, Wadley worked for him as a well-paid adviser at City Hall, and now that Johnson is Prime Minister, he has made her a Conservative peer.

These interests really ought to be declared, if only in order for Bower to declare that he has not allowed himself to be swayed by so much as a syllable from what he would have written anyhow.

The peerage is recent news, but not so recent that it could not have been mentioned here. A few pages earlier, Bower has referred to “the government’s mismanagement of the A level and GCSE examinations in mid-August”. His wife’s elevation was announced on 31st July.

Bower is billed on the cover of this book as “Britain’s top investigative author”, yet says of Wadley: “She played no part in researching or writing this book.”

For a top investigative author, that seems a strange omission. Only a third-rate investigative author would have failed to ask the woman he lives with for help in explaining Johnson, whom she has known for 32 years.

And she has in fact given some rather unrevealing help with the question of why Johnson ran for mayor: “At a summer party in Carlton Gardens, she cornered Boris and suggested that he run for mayor. Although surprised, he agreed to consider it.”

Wadley was at this point editor of The Evening Standard, which threw its full support behind Johnson in his closely contested battle with the incumbent mayor, Ken Livingstone.

The chief power possessed by any Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she has hundreds of jobs and honours with which to reward his or her followers. Johnson understands this as well as any previous holder of the post.

The chief power possessed by a writer is the power to tell the truth, or at least to try to tell it. But in order for readers to trust a writer, they have to feel he or she is taking them into his or her confidence.

James Boswell possessed that quality in superabundance. He really wanted to tell us what he thought about Samuel Johnson, and about those round Johnson.

Bower doesn’t have that quality. He doesn’t want to take us into his confidence, and gives us no real sense of what the people round his Johnson are like. For most of the time, he doesn’t sound in the slightest bit interested in them himself.

Anyone can make mistakes, but Bower’s mistakes have the curious effect of rendering vivid material less vivid, funny stories less funny.

So he has James Landale, then of The Times, saying of Johnson as a correspondent in Brussels: “Boris told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp.”

No mention that Landale was adapting “Matilda”, by Hilaire Belloc, for use at a farewell party.

Sonia Purnell, who wrote a generally unfavourable biography of Johnson, has taken to Twitter to dismiss what Bower says about her as “so inaccurate it’s risible”.

My own regret is that while Bower has paid me the compliment of borrowing extensively from my own life of Johnson, the comic element is almost always lost, and with it an essential part of the explanation for Johnson’s ability to reach the wider public.

One can, of course, say that Johnson is beyond a joke. Over the years, many eminent commentators have come round to that view. Bower quotes Max Hastings in The Daily Mail in October 2012:

“If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

So far as one knows, Hastings still lives near Hungerford.

Bower’s book serves as a reminder that more journalists have said Johnson could not, and should not, become Prime Minister than has been written of any other figure in recent times.

These denunciations now read like so many predictions of future success. For one does not bother to contend that someone with no hope of getting to the top will not do so.

Johnson’s critics were trying to suppress the awful realisation that he might actually make it. Matthew Parris has been trying to persuade himself.

Bower casts no light on this curious phenomenon. He made his name writing hatchet jobs about various well-known figures: his last book was an account of Jeremy Corbyn which was so unrelievedly hostile – so disinclined to give credit even where credit might be due – that it rendered Corbyn’s ability to win the support of large numbers of voters incomprehensible.

In this new book, Bower still swings his hatchet, every so often settling scores with various extraneous figures without indicating how in the first place they incurred his displeasure.

He has no understanding of the history, workings and mentality of the Conservative Party, which Johnson saved last year from destruction at the hands of Nigel Farage.

About Johnson himself, Bower is quite often positive, not by appreciating his good qualities, but by sinking the hatchet into others. For example, after relating the unhappy tale of Johnson’s evidence, as Foreign Secretary, about Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, Bower declares:

“The real culprit was the Foreign Office, a failing department.”

Why does he say this? Through his clotted prose, it is impossible to discern his real motives. We are not taken into his confidence. It sounds like pure Johnsonian propaganda.

One wishes Bower would tell us what he is trying to achieve, but the answer may be that even he, a hatchet man in a hurry, does not really know what he is doing, apart from getting the book finished. At the end, he deviates into a appallingly prolonged account of the pandemic which tells us virtually nothing about Johnson.

The one person who speaks truth in this book is Johnson’s mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who says of his father, Stanley Johnson:

“He was always hitting me, and Boris saw it.”

According to Bower, Stanley “feigned ignorance” about the causes of Charlotte’s nervous breakdown in 1974, for which she was treated for eight months at the Maudsley Hospital in south London:

“Charlotte corrects Stanley’s recollection: ‘The doctors at the Maudsley spoke to Stanley about his abuse of me. He had hit me. He hit me many times, over many years.’ On one occasion, Stanley had hit Charlotte especially hard. ‘He beat me up and broke my nose,’ she recalls. After that attack, Charlotte was treated in the St John & St Elizabeth Hospital in north-west London. The children were told that a car door had hit their mother’s face. Boris, however, knew the truth.”

This old, unhappy and not very far-off story is related in the first chapter of the book. Here we see a loving mother’s defence of her son against his enemies. Bower, it may be said, has served her purpose.

An excellent book about Johnson has just been published. Unfortunately it is in German. One hopes it will appear in an English translation, but meanwhile anyone who can read the language of Goethe is urged to get hold of Boris Johnson: Porträt eines Störenfrieds by Jan Ross of Die Zeit.

Ross in his Portrait of a Contentious Man – more literally of a disturber of the peace – recognises that Johnson’s fallibility awakens sympathy and a feeling of togetherness, and that by refraining from idealism, Johnson protects himself against the charge of hypocrisy.

Some of Johnson’s own writings sound better in German. The jokes distract one less from the seriousness, and the debt to classical antiquity is more apparent.

Johnson is serious! A provocative thesis, with which few members of the German political establishment will agree, but argued here with perfect lucidity.