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UK politics

The charm and the danger of British humour

Johnson bantering his way to the top

British democracy just “giggled its way into crisis”, says Janan Ganesh in the FT. Boris Johnson, a man who once agreed to assist the potential assault of a journalist, was able to “banter his way to the top” via newspapers and panel shows. Raising any ethical qualms about him got you labelled a prig. This “nihilistic unseriousness” – a way of dealing with post-imperial decline, according to Martin Amis – isn’t all bad. “No electorate with a sense of the absurd would obey a moustache-twirling goon in epaulettes.” But humour can lead to national ruin of a different kind. Britain’s “plausible future” may well be “Mediterranean per capita income with northern European weather”. Laughing cavaliers like Johnson and Nigel Farage, who “waved aside the economics of Brexit as a nerd’s concern”, are partly to blame.

It is perhaps appropriate that those who led the putsch against the PM, Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak, come from immigrant backgrounds. I’m familiar with that kind of world view: “The unironic reverence for the new country. The equation of Britain with respectability.” And, above all, the “confusion and disappointment” about the flippancy of the natives. Britain’s “dread of seriousness” is charming, but dangerous. After all, “the beauty of humour is that it allows one to avoid difficult subjects. The tragedy of humour is that it allows one to avoid difficult subjects.”