It might sound like “cultural blasphemy” to compare Sally Rooney and Boris Johnson, says Matthew d’Ancona in Tortoise. But they share an “absolute yearning to win” forged on the debate circuit. Rooney, whose new book has just been published, was “the number one competitive debater in Europe” aged 22. And Johnson made an early mark “in the “braying carnival” of the Oxford Union. He winged it to the top of that organisation, just as he has gone on to do in so many others, “including Her Majesty’s Government”.
One is a self-described millennial “Marxist” author, the other Britain’s Tory PM. But that “rigorously” drilled rhetorical flair set both up for life. In an essay in The Dublin Review in 2015, published before she was a novelist, Rooney identified the “cold potential of debating” as a form of self-advancement and self-definition. “Competitive debating,” she wrote, “takes argument’s essential features and reimagines them as a game.” In this game, “the emotional or relational aspects of argument are superfluous, and at the end there are winners… I was number one.” Johnson, as a child, declared his ambition to be “world king”. Rooney, like the prime minister, continues to do what she set out to do in the first place, albeit in the bestseller lists. “Which is to win.”