Partygate

Mike Minehan
7 February 2022

There are many adjectives that can  describe the current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Amongst them are boorish, arrogant, ignorant, and also thick skinned, with a hide to rival that of a rhinoceros.

These adjectives have become relevant since revelations that Boris Johnson took part in up to 16 gatherings with senior members of his government, many of these gatherings liberally supplied with alcohol, at a time when the rest of Britain was forced to endure strict Covid lockdown rules, and when gatherings were prohibited. Members of the public who broke these lockdown rules were pursued and fined.

These repeated breaches of lockdown rules by the Prime Minister and senior members of his government have been dubbed "Partygate" and are now the subject of a police investigation.

But perhaps it's too easy to simply blame Partygate only on Boris Johnson, and not upon those whom he and his Conservative Party represent. This Party traditionally represents the British middle classes and the establishment.

Britain is one of the founders of modern democracy, in which Parliament, not Royalty, functions as the true seat of power.

Yet one of the ironies of history is that, as a democracy, Britain still preserves a structure of aristocratic privilege that is unrivalled in the modern era.

For example, members of Britain's Upper House of Parliament, the House of Lords, are appointed by patronage and are wholly unaccountable to the UK public. Membership is by way of family titles (heredity), appointment, or official function. 92 members of the House of Lords are hereditary peers.

The majority of British aristocrats, including members of the Royal Family, are immensely wealthy. According to the book Who Owns England, the aristocracy and gentry still own around 30% of England. This may even be an underestimate, as the owners of 17% of England and Wales remain undeclared at the Land Registry.

"A few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of middle England put together."

In 2011, the British Government changed the rules of succession to allow, for the first time, first-born daughters to inherit the Crown. But peers at that time prevented the same reform from applying to them. The Lords were anxious to preserve titles and prevent estates and family fortunes from being dispersed across descendants other than first-born males, and therefore, perhaps even becoming liable to pay inheritance taxes.

The British Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (yes, that's his full name), also comes from a privileged background, and was educated at Eton, and Oxford University. About 45 per cent of Johnson's cabinet are also graduates of Oxford and Cambridge Universities (commonly referred to as Oxbridge).

Oxbridge graduates made up 71 per cent of senior judges, 57 per cent of former British prime minister Theresa May's cabinet, and 51 per cent of all diplomats.

In addition, twenty Prime Ministers, including Johnson, were also  educated at England's most exclusive school, Eton College. In 2021, Eton charged school fees of up to  £48,000 a year (US$64,819.20).

It's easy to speculate that such elite backgrounds might have led to a sense of entitlement, if not superiority. And perhaps, even, an inability to hear, or even understand, voices other than their own.

But criticism of the British upper classes is complicated by the hallowed status of the British royal family. Despite the sometimes scandalous activities of younger members of the royal family, the Queen herself has been a bastion of stability and service, and is even a money-earner for Britain in terms of tourism.

Even so, the British royal family is the epitome of privilege and patronage that has resulted in 'The Firm', as the family calls itself, becoming one of the wealthiest families in Great Britain.

And yet, all the deference and privileges afforded to Royalty are at odds with any country claiming to be a true democracy. A number of examples are illustrative.

For example, for forty years, up until 1993, the Queen didn't pay taxes. This was not simply a matter of creative accounting. This payment of no tax was with the full knowledge and approval of successive British governments who kept this matter away from public scrutiny.

According to legislation examined by The Guardian, the Queen was also given the right to view legislation, known as the Queen's Consent, that might reveal the extent of her wealth, before this legislation became law.

In 2017, the British government also passed a law that barred police from searching the Queen's private estates for stolen or looted artifacts. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which granted this special dispensation, has declined to explain.

Do members of the Royal Family live in another realm? Well, it's unlikely that they would ever ride a bicycle for local transport, as with Queen Maxima of the Netherlands.

The thought of Prince Charles and Camilla forsaking the chauffeured Rolls, or the Aston Martin or Range Rovers to head off from Buckingham Palace down the road on bicycles, is, well, hilarious. Very Monty Python indeed.

But back to Boris Johnson. Is he out of touch?

Yes. Johnson went too far. It's more than just unfair to enforce one set of restrictive rules on ordinary people, and then totally ignore such rules for yourself. This while presumably sipping a fine Chablis or Burgundy at the same time.

But can Boris rely on the deeply entrenched British respect for traditions of entitlement and privilege to retain his own exalted status of Prime Minister?

This remains to be seen. Boris's survival will also be a matter of politics, about whether or not the Conservative Party sees an advantage for itself in finding a suitable alternative Prime Minister.

Yet the deciding factor could be public opinion. This could turn further against Boris Johnson following the release of the Metropolitan Police inquiry into Partygate, and findings of culpability.

So. Traditional privilege for the powerful, or public accountability? This will be the issue.

It's not being overly dramatic to think that this choice could help change public perceptions about the entitlements of power and privilege in Britain.

This is especially the case when the Royal Family is currently beset by other problems (scandals?) such as Prince Andrew's out of court settlement to one of the girls he allegedly had contact with during his friendship with the now deceased pedophile, Jeffrey Epstein. The questions now being raised are about the size of Prince Andrew's settlement, and where this money will come from.

Also, the charity run by the heir apparent to the throne, Prince Charles, is currently the subject of a police investigation concerning cash for honours allegations involving a Saudi businessman. Put in more prosaic terms, this is about being given a gong in return for approriate donations to the right charity or political party.

The winds of change are blowing in Britain. It's unlikely these winds will blow the house down. But at a lower level, Boris Johnson's reign as Prime Minister seems more than a bit shaky at the moment.