Boris Johnson recently told a private meeting of Tory MPs that the success of the UK’s vaccination program was due to capitalism and greed. By associating capitalism with greed, it can be inferred that Johnson’s understanding of capitalism is reductive, deceptively confusing enlightened self-interest, property rights, and individualism with the pursuit of greed, writes Pippa catterall.
On March 23, 2021, Boris Johnson reportedly told the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers that “the reason we have vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.” It was, the Prime Minister quickly admitted, a remark he regretted. His backbench opponents who leaked him no doubt saw it as something he should have regretted. Yet this episode is not all about the continuation of the secret feuds within the ruling party in Britain. This politician, who has made a career of obscurity, ambiguity, and cover-up, immediately – as so often and usually successfully – attempted to pass this blunder off as a joke. Yet it was a remarkable and rare moment of frankness. Because what this reveals about him and his government deserves further exploration.
Obviously, this reveals that Johnson can’t help but say something that is patently false if it serves to make what he sees as a politically useful point. Indeed, in his speech, Johnson contradicted his own claim by praising AstraZeneca for producing the vaccine at cost. It is not generally considered a sign of greed.
Johnson may be aware of this contradiction. Otherwise, his invocation of greed reveals a deep ignorance of how scientific progress tends to work. In response to the tendency of nationalist governments early on in the pandemic to wave flags over science, Adrian Hill – the head of the Jenner Institute in Oxford where much of the work on the AstraZeneca vaccine took place – pointed out laconically ‘this is not the way things are’. A quick search for reports, even in the mainstream media as well as the science media, will reveal that the collaborative trope is pervasive in accounts of the vaccine development process. Greed, until Johnson, was never mentioned.
Of course, the success of the vaccine Johnson bragged about to his MPs was not the international development of the vaccine, but its deployment in Britain. The big drug companies that Johnson went out of their way to congratulate certainly helped this by providing the doses in the first place. Yet AstraZeneca’s contracts with Britain that underpinned Johnson’s comments have little to do with free market capitalism. Profit motives also do not appear to be the deciding factor in distribution processes, let alone in the organization of the NHS vaccination program itself.
Mobilizing and nurturing greed nevertheless appears to have played a key role in the Johnson government’s approach to dealing with the pandemic. Much has already been written about the very dubious circumvention of normal procurement rules, with lucrative government contracts awarded to various rapacious organizations whose primary qualification to do the work too often seems to be their easy access to ministerial circles. However, until now, attention has tended to focus on accusations of nepotism. What Johnson’s remark suggests is that this approach actually reflects a fundamental tenet of his government. This deliberate encouragement of greed is so systematic that it suggests, reinforced by the revelation of Johnson’s recent remark, that he views greed as a fundamental driver of effective delivery. There have indeed been some attempts in economic theory to examine whether corruption and greed are effective, avoiding as they do all this time-consuming and costly compliance and accountability. However, they tend to lead to a misallocation of resources and to the encouragement of rent seeking, which is neither effective nor desirable. The work of Transparency International, for example, reveals the coincidence between high levels of corruption and high levels of national inequality and poverty. This suggests that Johnson’s belief in the value of greed is misplaced.
Interestingly, he rhetorically associated capitalism with greed. We can only assume that in his mind the two are indeed related. This implies that Johnson’s understanding of capitalism is reductive, essentially and deceptively confusing enlightened self-interest, property rights, and individualism with the pursuit of greed. Like many of his political generation, he also seems to assume that neoliberalism is about letting businesses run wild and the greed of those who run them. This reflects the ignorance of the emphasis that figures like Hayek place on the importance of accountability, albeit through mechanisms such as the market.
Johnson attempted to pass his comment off as a joking reference to the ‘greed is good’ invocation in the 1987 film. Wall Street. This begs the question of whether Johnson saw, let alone understood, Oliver Stone’s Faustian drama. The movie doesn’t present greed as well. Indeed, in the film, greed is only shown effective for the crooks who pursue it, whose gains are at the expense of society as a whole. It is not a suitable subject for lightness. Attempting to pass this off as a joke is, however, in keeping with Johnson’s common practice of turning anything badly said into something plausibly deniable. It’s a way of hiding what he really believes in plain sight under a carefully organized act.
The quick withdrawal of the remark reveals how conscious the PM is not to let the mask slip away, even in front of a supposedly friendly audience of Tory MPs. Several competing explanations, of varying plausibility, were offered to journalists to explain his point on greed. Johnson’s anxiety to distance himself from the unsavory connotations of greed was obvious and understandable. For Johnson is generally very careful to avoid any direct association with anything on the minds of the public other than his carefully projected personality. His political appeal has little to do with politics or ideology and is built around a larger than life personality, reinforced by a cleverly constructed joke. Clever and pithy slogans focused on delivery and playing on populist frustrations with supposed red tape are at the heart of his eligibility. The same is true of an ability to play on various aspects of the English imagination of themselves. His rhetorical amalgamation of national identity, capitalism and greed was therefore a rare misstep. Capitalism, even among conservatives, is not universally associated with English national identity. Few of these conservatives would feel comfortable associating national genius with greed as well.
It was also a misstep for Johnson to present a link between national identity and capitalism and greed as fundamental to his own beliefs. Notably, Johnson did not remove the comments touting capitalism. It was the association of capitalism and itself with greed by adding the words “greed, my friends” that he regretted. This observation, regardless of subsequent denials, was clearly not a mistake but an explanatory gloss of how Johnson thinks capitalism works. The fact that he assumed that his audience of Conservative MPs would all view an association in this way as well is implicit in his confidential inclusion of them in his remarks. Johnson presumably felt that he could admit that greed is a fundamental tenet of his government when he is among “his friends.” Now we all know.
About the Author
Pippa catterall is professor of history and politics at the University of Westminster and is currently writing a book on the art of government and the strategy of prime ministers.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.