Boris Johnson dreams of being Winston Churchill, or Pericles, the Athenian orator-statesman, still so beautifully taught in England’s elite private schools. But the truth is, he is neither a war hero nor a man admired for his wit by his equals. If he is anything, and a politician is always the echo of something, he is the new Henry VIII — the English king who for his own ends broke with Rome and the European system of the Catholic Church.
Neither Brexit nor the break with Rome was likely, even possible, without these two men. With Britain finally leaving the European Union’s single market and customs union on New Year’s Eve, it is easy to forget there would never have been Brexit without Johnson. It is impossible to imagine the Leave campaign winning had he not suddenly declared his opposition to E.U. membership. (It was the quickest way to become prime minister.) And it is easy to imagine Brexit never happening at all — delayed and buried in transitions and compromises — until it would have been killed off in a second referendum had Johnson not stormed the Conservative leadership and won an election in 2019 to “Get Brexit Done.”
It is all uncannily like Britain’s last break with Europe, where one man’s desires led England to split from the continental system. Because it was not just Henry VIII’s passion for Anne Boleyn, but his desperate need for a male heir to guarantee his dynasty, that pushed him to divorce Catherine of Aragon without papal assent, breaking with Catholicism. The decision radicalized him until, like Johnson, he became a true believer in his project of pulling England’s religious order out of the legal authority of Rome.
Johnson, like Henry VIII, was a man who began far from where he ended. This is the same Boris Johnson who once passionately made the case for Turkey to join the European Union so the two halves of the Roman Empire “are at last reunited in an expanded European Union.” Just like it was the same Henry VIII who, early in his reign, supplied Cornish tin for roofing for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and boastedthat “I am the pope’s good son, and will always be with his holiness and with the Church, from which I mean never to depart.” But when the politics changed, Henry, too, changed his mind.
The similarities do not stop there. Neither ruler’s foreign policy was much of a success. Henry debased the currency and poured vast treasure into wars that yielded only three French towns and dispiriting isolation. His closure of the monasteries saw him called a “pillager of the commonwealth” and “a great tyrant rather than a king.” And Johnson similarly has hit the value of the pound, thrown up unwanted barriers to British trade and been accused of “cultural vandalism” by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
There is a certain pathos to Johnson, the man who, according to his biographer, only wanted to be loved; who wanted to be a respected “world king” but is now viewed with disdain by European leaders. It was the same for Henry VIII. The man who dreamed of being crowned in Paris and of becoming the arbiter of universal peace, who was motivated, according to the historian John Guy, by a quest for fame that more than eluded him. By the end of his life, Henry, who lost almost all the wars he ever fought in Europe, was an isolated, almost irrelevant figure to the peers who obsessed him most: King Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
This might have given the survivors of Thomas More or Cardinal Wolsey some satisfaction, the way it intensely thrills British Remainers today. But, in the long run, both Johnson and Henry have defeated them twice. In 200 years, nobody will remember that brief nonentities lsuch as Theresa May or David Cameron were ever prime minister. The economic reforms of Margaret Thatcher and the wars of Tony Blair will seem irrelevant, too, as hard for schoolchildren to remember as the efforts of Edward IV and Henry VII. But they will remember Boris Johnson, because without him, without his desires, there would never have been Brexit. The same way it is impossible to tell the story of England without the corpulent, at times disgusting and also often incompetent figure of Henry VIII.
Johnson, in the words of one political source, cares nothing for what his contemporaries think of him and only for the court of history. This is why now the real fear at night should be creeping into his sleep. He has won his place in history with Brexit, but will it be blotted out by the intense, visceral, loathing of him north of the border triggering Scottish independence? Will Brexit not be the beginning of the golden age he dreams of unleashing but the reduction of England to the size it was when Henry was king, holding nothing but Wales and a shaky outpost in Ireland, with Scotland, the sovereign ally of France?
Ben Judah is the author of “This Is London.”