Many people do not realise that Boris Johnson (Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson), as well as being a career politician, has dabbled in being a historian. He has published several books, most recently The Churchill Factor in 2014. His books, as has been frequently pointed out by critics, are rife with inaccuracies. Therefore, in calling him a ‘historian’, we are referring to the fact that he has published books on history, not that they are accurate or insightful.
There is also a bit of a running theme within his books. They have been conspicuously published at the right time and on the right topic. For instance, in the run up to the 2012 London mayoral election, he published Johnson’s Life of London. This was described as the “longest personal manifesto” in the city’s history. It is clear when reading any of Boris’ historical arguments that the truth matters little, if at all. His books on London and Churchill were written with a goal in mind.
This tendency towards manipulation and lying has unfortunately also been shown throughout his political career. Nonetheless, it is worth noting just how distorted his view of the world is. We can see this in his accounts of historical events. He has consistently distorted events to serve a political purpose. This disturbing insight into his worldview is unfortunately a very real issue. Boris was foreign secretary 2016-2018 and, soon, will almost certainly be Prime Minister.
The Churchill Factor was so full of inaccuracies that it quickly got a response from Richard J. Evans, a professor of history at the University of Cambridge. He listed many of the lies and distortions made throughout the book including, for instance, glossing over Churchill’s support for European unity. However, some of the unintended mistakes are arguably worse. For someone claiming to be a historian and who feels educated enough to write a book on Churchill, he makes some claims which are wildly inaccurate. Notably, he claims that the Germans captured Stalingrad, the city which they famously failed to conquer (losing about 800,000 Axis troops), and which turned the tide of the war against them. This is a mistake so glaring that it is remarkable the book was published as is.
Boris never bothers to weigh up opposing arguments. Rather than engage, he just insults people in strange ways, taking the attention off the actual debate and on to whatever he just said. A good example of this is “Stilton-eating surrender monkeys”. This would be one thing in an informal discussion, quite another when he claims this is a legitimate book on history. Instead, the attention is entirely focused around himself. At first glance, it is notable that every one of his books is published with his face on the front cover. His vanity is also displayed in the introduction to his book ostensibly about Churchill, where he refers to himself 30 times. Sonia Purnell, journalist and author of a biography on Johnson, argued this book “says perhaps less about Churchill than it does about the ambition and self-image of Boris”.
However, we should also question his desire to be associated with Churchill. Throughout, he portrays Churchill’s negative qualities as charming. He glosses over Churchill’s responsibility for the Bengal famine of 1943-1944, when he allowed Indians to starve to death by exporting their food to Europe during a famine. The death estimate is at least 3.5 million. with more recent estimates by Madhusree Mukerjee (Churchill’s Secret War) putting the figure closer to 5 million. Nor is it true that his views were normal for the time. Leo Amery, who was a Conservative war-hawk and passionate imperialist, was even shocked by Churchill’s racism towards Indians, who he described as a “foul race”. Amery even admitted that “I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s”. Of course, this is not discussed in Boris’ biography of him.
Unfortunately, Boris’ distorted views are not confined to academic issues. His twisted view of the world informs his political career. In 2002, shortly before Blair was due to visit Africa, he wrote an article titled ‘Africa is a mess, but we can’t blame colonialism’. Referring to the Scramble for Africa, when European empires (particularly Britain) conquered most of Africa in the years following 1876 and committed innumerable atrocities against the people living there, he had this to say: “The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty”. The ignorance in this statement is bewildering.
In his usual style, he dismisses the evidence completely offhand. Between 1690-1807, there was 3 million recorded African slaves transported in British ships alone. Emphasis on ‘recorded’, the real figure is undoubtedly higher. These slaves were branded, beaten, raped, tortured, tied together with dead bodies and sometimes even thrown overboard with their hands and feet bound, so that they would drown, and the slavers could claim their deaths on insurance. This is all before even reaching their destinations. How does Boris tackle this issue in his article? He dismisses, “Are we guilty of slavery? Pshaw”. He even condescendingly refers to Arab slavers, in some meagre attempt to shift the blame for slavery away from Europeans.
Slavery was formally abolished in the British Empire in 1834. Nonetheless, not much changed for most. It was only recently discovered that British officials had destroyed evidence of their atrocities throughout Africa. David French (The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945-1967) detailed extensive use of torture by the British military. For instance, Jane Mara and three other women held in a detention camp in Kenya. They were beaten and had heated bottles pushed up their vaginas by the boots of British soldiers. This was in the late 1950s, hardly ancient history. Boris’ response when confronted with the atrocities committed by the British is to claim: “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”.
The jingoistic view of the British Empire portrayed by Boris is utterly disturbing. There are two possibilities here. One: in all the research he did before publishing on the British Empire multiple times, he never came across any of these facts. In this case, he is incompetent. Or, two: he knew these facts but chose not to repeat them because they are insignificant or unpleasant. In this case, he is deeply dishonest. In either case, he is not fit to be Prime Minister.