The British politician and author Stanley Johnson is an expert on environmental and population issues. As a United Kingdom (UK) Member of the European Parliament (MEP) he was also a dedicated believer in the United Europe concept and he campaigned for the UK to Remain a member of the European Union (EU). His six children include the former Mayor of London, leading Brexit campaigner and current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for Universities and Science.
Stanley, in your just published political novel Kompromat you very amusingly satirise how the leaders of the world conspired to bring about Brexit. Is writing fiction the best way to express your political point of view?
I haven’t used my novels as a way of making a political point. My main objective in writing novels is to produce something readable and entertaining, and I am hoping that Kompromat will be precisely that. Those who read my novels may find in them political messages with which they can agree or disagree. In Kompromat I suggest that Russian involvement in the electoral process featured not only in the US Presidential election – as various Congressional Committees are now investigating – but also in the UK’s European Referendum. If that idea was seriously investigated in the UK, as opposed to being the subject of my kind of topical satirical fiction, and if it was established that the Russians did indeed interfere, including by colluding with highly-placed UK officials, then there would be direct political consequences for the current Brexit negotiations. There might even be calls for the Referendum to be rerun, with who knows what result!
In Kompromat today’s politicians play with the most serious world issues, reminding one of Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler in his movie The Great Dictator. Why do you make fun of today’s politics?
My overwhelming objective in writing Kompromat is to entertain. I want people to enjoy this book. It may be satirical as well, but it is not intended to be destructively cynical. It exposes some abuses of the political system in a light-hearted way, but I certainly am not arguing that we should dispense with political processes which have served us well.
How much are you a writer, how much a conservationist, and how much a politician?
My career followed all three paths simultaneously, sometimes the paths overlap. When I was in the European Parliament I saw politics as a tool to pursue, among other things, my environmental interests. In the period when I was a Member of the European Parliament, from 1979 to 1984, the Parliament sometimes pressed the Commission to come forward with nature protection legislation which it might not otherwise have proposed. Kompromat is my tenth novel, but I have also written 15 non-fiction works. Two of these are memoirs, the other 13 books all deal with environmental topics, including population. The issue of population growth, and what to do about it, has been central to my non-fiction writing. What a tragedy it is that population and family planning is no longer at the top of the political agenda.
As the father of six children, is a sense of humour the strongest bond in your family and the key to your own success?
Well, the sense of humour is certainly a strong bond! I think we all love each other too in our various ways. I don’t regard myself as a success except I have tried to make the most of the opportunities which have come my way. Looking back, it certainly helps to be able to see the brighter side of things. On the other hand, if you are addicted to jokes, as I am, people can sometimes forget that you can be serious too. I am responsible for such learned works as “The Environmental Policy of the European Communities” and “World Population and the United Nations”.
You have very different political views from your son Boris, who was a leader of the Vote Leave campaign that led to Brexit and is now the UK Secretary of State for Foreign affairs. Do you quarrel with him?
No, we absolutely don’t quarrel. I totally respect Boris’s position on Brexit. He took the view that in the long run Britain will be better off outside the EU and there is absolutely no way at this point in time of proving he is wrong, Anyway, more than 18 million people agreed with him! We are where we are. Chou En-lai was asked, sometime in the 1970s, what he thought about the French Revolution, and he replied: “It is too early to tell!” Fifty years from now, we may look back at the period 1973-2017 as Britain’s European Union (EU) period, and be able to see it in the context of this country’s 1000 year history. That said, the process of disengagement is certainly fraught and we all hope we can get it over with as soon as possible.
What influence do you have on Boris and on your other son Jo, the UK Minister for Universities and Science?
This is a question for Boris and Jo to answer, not me. I doubt whether I have had much influence on any of my six children. The most useful thing I did was to send them off at an early age to some of England’s finest schools (Eton the four boys, and St Paul’s the two girls) followed by England’s finest Universities, Oxford, Cambridge and University College, London.
Do you consider the Johnsons a bit of a political dynasty, like the Kennedys or the Ghandis?
I hope not! As I remember it, most of the Kennedys and the Gandhis came to unfortunate ends!
Are you still personally involved in politics?
Not in the sense of being an elected Member of Parliament or even a non-elected member of the House of Lords. In the run-up to the Referendum I founded and co-chaired Environmentalists for Europe (E4E), arguing that the UK’s environment would be better protected if we stayed in the EU, and I still have a great deal to do with environmental and animal welfare non-governmental organisations (NGOs). If you want to get something done, the political process is the best route in our kind of democracy. If you can’t own the political process by being Prime Minister or a Cabinet Member, then the next best is to work through media and other outlets to achieve the political atmosphere that allows the goals you aim at to be attained.
What role should politics play in this world?
As Churchill put it, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”
In your youth you travelled the world with your motorcycle and sidecar. If you repeated this trip today would you find a very different world?
It would not be easy nowadays to travel on a motorcycle through Asia as I did in 1961, but I suspect that in some parts of the world, e.g. Eastern Turkey, life would be much as it was over fifty years ago. What worries me is the sheer impact of population growth and economic development on the environment.
Are the leaders of the world rightly perceived as cartoon characters?
Today’s cartoonists are totally brilliant. Of course today’s political leaders are cartooned, but that doesn’t make them cartoon characters. Most of them try hard. Unfortunately they are often faced with impossible situations. Take the migration crisis in Italy today. From Italy’s point of view the situation is clearly intolerable. It cannot be sustained without help from other EU countries and that help is not forthcoming. In the not too distant future, Europe will have to close its borders and bring the ‘rescue’ operations to an end.
What do you think should be the most important quality for a leader today?
Vision. The ability to synthesize. A sense of history. An understanding of the fundamental realities of what sustainable development means, even if that implies radical changes in the way we live.
Do you think that people feel removed from the politicians of today because they are less meaningful and responsible than those of previous generations?
No, I think there are a lot of serious thoughtful people in politics. Some of them have written good books and added to the sum of knowledge. We are lucky in our leaders.
What kind of a future do you imagine for the United Kingdom?
It is too early to say whether Brexit will work. Before Brexit, you could argue that Britain was well placed with (a) the US-UK relationship (b) the Commonwealth and (c) Europe. We will still have (a) and (b). The US-UK relationship will still be central. It remains to be seen how we will organize the relationship with Europe.
The former Prime Minister David Cameron never thought he would lose the Brexit referendum. Do you think Boris never thought he could win, and was amazed and surprised by the result?
I watched Boris and Michael Gove on TV when the results were announced. They definitely seemed surprised! As for David Cameron, I don’t want to give the plot of Kompromat away, but maybe he wasn’t as surprised as he seemed to be!
You have had a lifelong concern for animal species, including gorillas, elephants and tigers. Do you think that they are in as much danger as we humans?
There is absolutely no danger of the human race becoming extinct in the foreseeable future. If the human race eventually disappeared, from the point of view of the rest of creation it would probably be a desirable outcome, given the mess we make of things. Human beings are but one of millions of species. Our little systems have their day. They have their day and cease to be. Of course, we must do our best while we are here and not try to screw things up too much.
You treat very serious matters with hilarity, but is there both laughter and disappointment in you?
Lots of laughter. No disappointment. It would be quite obscene if I claimed to be disappointed. Given the fact that real anguish or hardship has so far passed me by, I would be ashamed if I didn’t get up in the morning with a smile on my face.
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London, July 2017
Stanley Johnson, author of Kompromat, on BBC World News
Images of Stanley Johnson and guests at the Kompromat book launch in London by Mark Rusher.