The books behind Boris Johnson and the UK's media bullsh*t obsession with symbols

A librarian rearranges some books but The Queen has a powerful brooch

The pen is not mightier the sword. The pen got good press from people who had access to ink but not to an armoury. Boiled down, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” is just one of those things that people say so there’s something to put on mugs and tea towels. Over the years, I’ve put myself in a few dangerous situations and realised quickly that while ‘the pen’, in reality a cursor on a computer screen, has let me describe what is happening in the world and sometimes contribute to pressure for change in certain areas, someone with an AK-47 can change more in five minutes than I have in 15 years as a professional writer.

Journalists and writers are high on the drug of creation. More specifically, journalists are high on other drugs like access, acclaim and analysis — the last one causing them to mistake the ability to comment publicly and to significant audiences with something that, in and of itself, can shift government policy or dismantle injustice. Of course, campaigning journalism makes a difference, but to do that it has to be a spark that ignites a fire. Without pushing for concrete action, journalism tends to be ignored, something that sinks into the archives, pushed down by the sheer weight of subsquent days stories on other things.

The “pen is mightier…” fallacy is the close cousin of another problem that besets the British media and a certain sort of news consumer: An addiction to symbolism.

The latest story that has delighted journalists and people on Twitter is that of Boris Johnson and the books.

Despite feckless fireplace salesman and Frank Spencer stand-in, Gavin Williamson, and the Department for Education insisting that schools should make the environment for return as normal as possible for children, the Prime Minister slumped into Castle Rock school in Coalville, Leicestershire — a town that sounds like an allegorically named location in a kid’s book — to freak them out.

Boris Johnson’s rambling, shambling speech — seven minutes of not-even-remotely heaven — veered from an apology for the exams fiasco, to telling the children that Harry Potter is not sexist and that singing Rule Britannia! (the latest culture war confection being toyed with by the government) is "politically acceptable”. But despite the dead cat tossing being undertaken by the Prime Minister, it was the books behind him that got the most extensive coverage.

People began to post speculation on Twitter that the titles in the background had been carefully chosen by the Castle Rock librarian to make a point. It seems likely given the sheer pointedness of the collection. It included Betrayed, The Resistance, The Subtle Knife, Fahrenheit 451, The Toll and The Twits as well as Oliver Twist and Terry Pratchett’s genius Guards! Guards! Asked for a response by journalists, Castle Rock school wisely chosen to issue a ‘no comment’ comment, stating that it couldn’t really say whether the librarian deliberately chose the books on display to comment on the Prime Minister and his government’s policies.

It’s likely that a quick-thinking librarian did line up those titles to take a subtle punch. The Conservative Party have been engaged in the destruction of libraries across the country, by strangling funding to local government, as well as causing a huge increase in food bank use. All the books chosen can be seen as a comment on those policies and the personal failings of the Prime Minister and his cabinet of horrors. But all they are is a smart joke, a piece of unusual and punchy satire. It won’t hurt Johnson’s poll ratings or his feelings, which are protected by the armour of his ego and entitlement.

Since the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony in London and ramping up following the Brexit referendum, obsessing over symbols has become a regular feature of British political discourse. It ranges from believing that the billboard buffoonery of the ad-men behind Led By Donkeys, the anti-Brexit pressure group that is so Lib Dem that its symbol could be a set of crossed dungarees, changes anything to really, really picking apart the Queen’s choice of hats and broches.

The Brooch Kremlinology is one of the most galling aspects of the symbol addiction, because it projects onto a nonagenarian establishment figure — one married to a man who is at best a hardline conservative and more likely a far-right figure with a history of making racist comments publicly — is actually a rebellious fighter for whatever cause the speaker wants her to support. Usually that’s Brexit but it’s also been shifted to cover the issue of proroging Parliament and the overall competence of the Boris Johnson government.

The Daily Express in particular, a paper which was previously obsessed with snow, and Princess Diana (to the point of talking to mediums about what she might have thought about news stories), is one of the biggest Brooch Kremlinology offenders. It publishes stories about The Queen and her brooches at least once a month. While its certainly true that The Queen does like to choose brooches pointedly, the notion that she is somehow secretly left-wing or likely to make political statements publicly, however obliquely, is for the birds.

In my opinion, The Queen is like a mafia boss. Her primary focus is ensuring that ‘The Firm’, her family, is protected and ascendent. Events like the Brexit referendum win for The Leave campaign don’t actually matter all that much to The Queen so long as her family’s grip on unelected power and unimaginable wealth is not loosened by any great degree. She’s not going to jeopardise that by picking a bench merely to excite the retweet-hungry blue tick kings and queens of Twitter.

The Queen has met with, drank with, eaten with, and had small talk with some of modern history’s greatest monsters. The only truly identifiable time that she made a ‘protest’ was when she insisted on driving King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a flaming hell toilet of a nation because of its despotic rulers, because he denied women in his country the right to drive. The ‘burn’ did not change King Abdullah’s mind and while his successor MBS has nominally changed the law, the reality is it’s still next-to-impossible for most Saudi women to actually get behind the wheel.

You might dismiss the symbolism addiction as a silly side issue, but I think it matters because British political discourse is so often sidetrack by these trivialities and turning attentions towards them has been a very good tactic for the dead cat merchants in the Boris Johnson administration. It’s there in the fantasy football politics of the anti-Brexit FBPE brigade who endlessly went on about the idea that Ken Clarke — a former chairman of British American Tobacco during a period when it lobbied to make it easier for it to flog cigarettes to children in Africa — might become a caretaker MP to ‘save’ Britain. It’s also there in the saga of ‘whether Ed Miliband can eat a bacon sandwich’ — which was a coded antisemitic smear — and the many, many confected stories about images during the Corbyn-era.

It’s also there in the elaborate conspiracy theories about Russia and its role in UK politics. The truth there is not that there is The Lone Gunmen-style conspiracy with multiple Russian tentacles rapped around the British state in a complex arrangement, but a more simple situation: Russian money — along with Chinese money and, especially, Saudi money — has brought Britain to a thoroughly corrupt state. In fact, while Twitter tin-foil hatters (many of them Blue Tick celebrities) are obssessed with Putin putting the moves on Brexit, it’s Saudi money that should really worry you.

The arms deals made by Margaret Thatcher with the Saudi regime in the 1980s still have a fudamental role in how we decide to run our military and also what weapons reach the Saudi-backed groups in places like Syria and Yemen. British-made weapons have killed hundreds and possibly thousands of people in those countries.

While Blue Tickers go wild for symbols, the real symbol of our effect on the world is the endless stream of refugees from these conflicts, refugees that politicians, who understand how to skew the symbol obession, want to make into your next enemy. The media helps them with that. Just look at the symbols — in this case photographs — that are chosen by newspapers to represent the refugee crisis.

Refugees, as well as immigrants in general, are constantly presented as a dangerous other by our media. Maybe the symbol heads could focus their energy on that — a brutal and horrific injustice that doesn’t need a cork board and red string to unpick.

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