The E-Word: Evidence for how a Johnson Government might impact on Archaeology and Heritage


Share post:

by Andy Brockman

At last Thursday’s General Election, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson won an unexpected and emphatic majority of eighty. As Mr Johnson embarks on what is almost certainly a period of radical change in the United Kingdom, not least change brought about by the imminent exit from the European Union on 31 January, thePipeLine asks what evidence exists to suggest what could be in store for Archaeology and Heritage.

- Advertisement -

Looking at the responses of the UK’s political commentariat to the question, what will a Boris Johnson government be like? is clear. It all depends on which Boris Johnson turns up.

It may be the self proclaimed one nation Conservative Boris Johnson who is described as socially liberal and who made an acceptance speech of notable humility thanking voters in the fallen Labour “Red Wall” for lending him their votes.

Or it could equally be the EU baiting, PC satirising journalist, who built a career on inventing stories of alleged EU absurdity, and was sacked twice for lying, including once for making up a quote from one of his own relatives. A man who thinks nothing of using racist, sexist or homophobic tropes in his writing, of plotting with a corrupt school friend to have a fellow journalist beaten up and of whom his former editor at the Daily Telegraph, Sir Max Hastings said,

“Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade. In a commonplace book the other day, I came across an observation made in 1750 by a contemporary savant, Bishop Berkeley: “It is impossible that a man who is false to his friends and neighbours should be true to the public.” Almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him.”

As Hastings suggests, the most important thing to remember about the newly minted Prime Minister, [in keeping with the Season let us call him the Spirit of Johnson Present], is that the tousle haired “Boris Johnson” who appears in public is a post modern construct; a piece of political performance art which the MP for Uxbridge has been honing for most of his adult life.

To demonstrate this to family friends and close acquaintances, Mr Johnson is “Alex” after his first name Alexander. Or “Alex the Great” as one of those close friends and acquaintances, American tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri named him on her Mobile phone speed dial, enabling her to keep in touch with the then Mayor of London in between his visits to her flat for private “technology lessons” and her receiving tens of thousands of pounds of public subsidy and places on trade missions for no apparent reasons, related to any actual achievements on the part of her company.

Here it is necessary to add that Mr Johnson told Sky News that,

“The crucial thing is that in terms of promoting London, everything was done with complete propriety.”

And perhaps the several investigations currently underway into the Prime Minister’s relationship with Ms Arcuri will shed some light on Mr Johnson’s definition of propriety.

However, it is also necessary to remember that old political joke:

Q: How can you tell a politician is lying?
A: Their lips move?

This is a cynical truism, but it is one which is more true of Mr Johnson than most who follow his profession; as the conservative leaning journalist and author Peter Oborne has catalogued in now extensive detail on a website Boris Johnson

But we are where we are. Unless he amends or repeals the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and goes for an early general election, Mr Johnson is Prime Minister for the next five years. So what might Boris Johnson do with that five years and what might a Johnson administration mean for the UK Archaeology and Heritage sector?

The first thing to observe is that Boris Johnson, either by accident or design, leads what is effectively an English [and bits of Wales] nationalist government. The Conservative Party’s tally of MP’s in Scotland was reduced by half while the Scottish Nationalist Party now holds forty eight of the fifty nine seats north of the border.

Add to this the narrow nationalist majority among MPs in Northern Ireland and it may even be that Boris Johnson is the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom as it is currently configured, with all that implies for our Universities and UK wide professional bodies.

While Britain already respects many historic political and cultural divisions, a modern political border between England and Scotland would have profound implications, not just in practical terms, but in terms of the sense of personal and national identity on both sides of that border.

However, faced with far reaching issues of such complexity Mr Johnson and his media minders, prefer short memorable slogans such as “Get Brexit Done” while bypassing any irritating interrogation of detail.

This plays to Mr Johnson’s strengths because among those who have worked with him he is notorious for not doing detail. According to Duncan Shrubsole of homelessness charity Crisis, who worked with the Prime Minister while he was London Mayor,

“Everybody who dealt with him at City Hall said he always worked through his lieutenants.

- Advertisement -

He likes doing things with a bit of a flourish, but he doesn’t get involved in details.”

This has led some wags suggesting that the true prime minister is actually Mr Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings. A formidable and successful campaign strategist as befits a man much given to quoting military and game theory at great length on his blog and who was once described by former Prime Minister David Cameron as “…in the business of bilious briefing to the papers.” and “…dripping his poison into Michael’s [Gove’s] ear as well.”

Before he became Boris Johnson’s Eminence Gris Cummings fulfilled the same role with Michael Gove and worked with both on the Vote Leave campaign which saw multiple breaches of the Law over campaign expenses.

Cummings likes to win and is ruthlessly focused in going about it.

Thankfully in trying to come to some conclusion about what a Johnson Government might actually mean to archaeology and heritage there are a few more words than Johnson was allowed to utter during the Election campaign in the Conservative Manifesto, not least this paragraph.

“Alongside investing in science, we will maintain our support for the arts and culture, taking pride in the world beating strengths of the UK’s creative industries and its unparalleled cultural heritage. In addition to our new support for arts in schools, business rates relief for music venues and cinemas, and the largest cultural capital programme in a century – £250 million to support local libraries and museums – we will maintain support for creative sector tax reliefs and free entry to the UK’s national museums.”

Of course it does not take a mathematical prodigy to work out that £250 million spread across England’s twenty six county councils does not go very far.

In fact it is less than one million pounds each and that is before we move on to the three hundred and twenty six local authorities which have the authority to levy the council tax to help pay for local services, including museums and libraries.

In that light the heritage sector will not be holding its breath in expectation of any kind of largesse to replace 43% cuts in local authority cultural spending alone since 2010.

It follows that it is reasonable to expect there may be more fire sales of the stars of public museum and gallery collections like that of Sekhemka by Northampton Borough Council.

Of course another principle, and perhaps even more important, function of local government is in shaping the local environment through the planning process. Albeit with the ever present daemon of central government, sitting Dark Materials like on the shoulder of councillors arguing for Government’s priorities and ready to override local decision making.

The Conservative manifesto has this to say about planning, starting with housing,

“Since 2010 there has been a considerable increase in homebuilding. We have delivered a million homes in the last five years in England: last year, we delivered the highest number of homes for almost 30 years. But it still isn’t enough.

That is why we will continue our progress towards our target of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. This will see us build at least a million more homes, of all tenures, over the next Parliament – in the areas that really need them. And we will make the planning system simpler for the public and small builders, and support modern methods of construction.”

Of course, cynics will say that all recent governments have wanted to build more homes and most have promised to simplify the planning process. The Cameron coalition of 2010 actually did simplify the planning rules introducing the National Planning Policy Framework, which in many respects has actually worked rather well.

However, in terms of servicing these ambitions it is widely acknowledged that local authority planning departments have been hollowed out by repeated cuts.

The spend on planning has been cut by 55% since 2010 and that is where the real problems begin.

Cuts at that level, plus sheer workload, and a fear of generating work and legal costs by facing down developers with inappropriate proposals, means less scrutiny and questioning of planning applications, both in terms of detailed consideration and reporting, and in the time available for formal scrutiny in committee.

Anyone who has had any contact with a planning case knows that the brute volume of material generated by even a relatively simple development proposal is difficult for an individual councillor to take in within a reasonable time frame; while the tens of thousands of pages of reports, data and proposals which go towards a major project such as a Heathrow runway or a Stonehenge Tunnel is almost beyond human comprehension. At least for anyone who wants a life.

In such an environment mistakes are made and campaigning bodies, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the CPRE the Countryside Charity, not to mention local campaign groups, rely on the Judicial review of alleged errors to remedy them. However, notwithstanding the fact that Judicial Review is already circumscribed by complex rules and considerable costs, the Conservative manifesto promises that,

We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.

Given that infrastructure is necessarily political, dependant as it is on political decisions about where and what to build and how it is funded, this looks very much like a promise to remove the irritation to Government of pesky experts having the temerity to suggest that they might have got it wrong and finding that a Judge agrees with the experts.

However, while such an outcome would clearly be of concern, and would likely see a backlash and vociferous campaign to defeat or mitigate the worst effects of such a curb, today’s party manifesto is, in the end, only tomorrows broken promise.

During the 2019 General Election the Conservatives did not even wait until after the election day to break their manifesto promises.

The headline claims of the Conservative Manisfesto were shown to be manifestly misleading or untrue by independent fact checkers before the campaign had even ended. The additional Police officers would not even replace all those lost since austerity programme began in 2010, 19,000 of the 50,000 promised nurses are current employees who would be persuaded not to retire or resign and are not fully funded in any case, and the forty new hospital builds are actually six.

Meanwhile, the prime minister’s unprecedented success in the post industrial constituencies of the North East and West Midlands, means that he has to commit substantial funding to generate visible, “feel good” change in time for a late 2024 General Election, or risk a backlash at the ballot box on the part of voters who might feel betrayed, yet again, by the metropolitan political class which Mr Johnson represents.

Perhaps these new imponderables, the decisions about how to distribute the largess which is in the hands of a prime minister, and never more so than when they have just won an election, mean that any attempt to predict what he will do, in anything but the most general terms, are for the time being futile.

While of course we may have more clarity about what the Spirit of Johnson Yet to Come means in reality after Thursday’s [latest] Queens Speech.

That said we do have some hard evidence about what at least one version of the Spirit of Prime Minister Johnson Yet to Come might look like in the shape of the Spirit of Johnson Past. The evidence of the two four year terms he served as Mayor of London between 2008 and 2016.

“In London Boris Johnson Ran not so much a modern city administration as a Borgia Court”

To be fair Mr Johnson’s achievement in getting elected to the Mayoralty of Britain’s capital city in the first place was considerable in itself. London is widely regarded as a “Labour” city and he defeated the two term Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone to win the office. But it was once in office that the problems started.

The first thing to be said is that having first won and then renewed his mandate as mayor, nothing much happened. The development of the high rise dominated Manhattan on Thames in London upstream of Canary Wharf, and its attendant threats to historic views and surviving elements of pre 20th century London began under Johnson’s predecessor, Labour Mayor Ken Livingstone. Livingstone also produced the scheme for a network of bicycles available for short term hire which are now known generically as “Boris Bikes”.

Cynics say that this is because Boris Johnson does not actually believe in very much except Boris Johnson.

The is no Johnsonism except a standard broadly right wing Conservatism, with a regrettable, but far from unusual, level of casual racism, homophobia, Islamaphobia, English exceptionalism and even after the crash of 2008, a willingness to defend bankers. However, what did soon become apparent was that while the new Mayor’s had little discernable ideology, he did have a penchant for legacy infrastructure projects.

The first signature project was the so called New Routemaster [aka the “Boris Bus“], procured by Transport for London as a sentimentally named, retro replacement for the European style bendy buses ordered by Mayor Livingstone. The new buses, ordered from Wright Bus of Northern Ireland, were styled by designer Thomas Heatherwick of whom more in a moment. for now suffice to say the buses themselves suffered numerous teething problems, not least dud batteries, and boiling passengers in hot weather because of poor ventilation.

Production was eventually ended after one thousand vehicles had been built. Nobody else purchased any of the vehicles- an experiment running two in Glasgow showed they were not capable of running the route concerned and in the Autumn of 2019 Wrightbus went into administration.

Then came the grandiose plan for a “Boris Island” airport in one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the Thames Estuary, and two projects designed to give Mr Johnson a legacy from the 2012 Olympics, most of the planning for which had been done under Livingstone’s regime at City Hall, working closely with Labour Olympics Minister, the late Tessa Jowell.

These were the Emirates Airline cable car across the Thames from Greenwich Peninsula to Silvertown [aka the dangleway] and the Arcelor Mittal Orbit installation by Anish Kapoor which was sited in the Olympic Park itself.

Neither project has been a resounding success. The Emirates Airline has given rise to a new game which anyone can play in the Rush Hour as the cars glide overhead. The game is called “Spot the passenger.” Although to be fair the route does do relatively well as a tourist attraction at weekends. Nonetheless, in March 2018 Transport for London was forced to deny a suggestion from London transport commissioner Mike Brown that the cable line might be sold off. However, the sponsorship deal subsidising the cable cars runs out in 2021 and if it is not renewed that could change matters.

Meanwhile, the Orbit, effectively a corporate trophy planted next to the Olympic Stadium ,was put into context by the then art critic of the London Standard, the late Brian Sewall,

“Our country is littered with public art of absolutely no merit. We are entering a new period of fascist gigantism. These are monuments to egos and you couldn’t find a more monumental ego than Boris.”

In September 2019 the Orbit was revealed as running into debt to the tune of £13 million.

Then, in a populist Law’n’Order response to the London riots of 2011, which he was so concerned about he did not interrupt his holiday to respond to them for several days, Mr Johnson also put two fingers up to then Home Secretary Theresa May, ordering three, large, second hand water cannon, which were totally illegal on the streets of London. They were eventually sold for scrap at a loss of more than £300k to the London council tax payer.

However, even this herd of white elephants strolling majestically along the Thames footpath are eclipsed completely by the black comedy of the Garden Bridge.

Books, [or perhaps more appropriately a musical comedy] will be written about the Garden Bridge debacle and there is already a fine body of work exposing the scandalous waste of £48 million of public money by Will Hurst of the Architects Journal and gadfly on the body of the Garden Bridge, artist Will Jennings as well as a number of articles here on thePipeLine.

What can be said is that, while Labour Peer Lord Adonis’s brainchild HS2 is under review, the Prime Minister’s team are already briefing about major infrastructure projects in the North and he has floated the idea of a new bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. A plan described in the Guardian by Chris Wise, engineering designer of the Olympic velodrome as, “…socially admirable but technically clueless,”adding, “If Boris wants to stay prime minister he needs to stop promising figures before he can deliver them.”
[Although the plan could be a non starter anyway if the North of Ireland and Scotland cease to be part of Great Britain.]

It is also worth mentioning that one of the City Hall staffers who was intimately involved in the fake competition and rigged procurement and mismanagement of the Garden Bridge, Sir Edward Lister, has accompanied the Prime Minister into Downing Street as his Chief of Staff.

Among other issues, in February 2013 Lister was involved in a £9000 visit to the HQ of Apple in California, along with Johnson and his deputy mayor for Transport Isabel Dedring.

Also at the meeting was bus stylist Thomas Heatherwick who had worked up the design for the Garden Bridge with actress, national treasure [and by pure coincidence Boris Johnson’s former babysitter], Joanna Lumley. Heatehrwick just happened to be in San Francisco at the same time as the mayoral party and was invited to join the meeting.

Yeah….sure he was.

Taken together, the headline of Boris Johnson’s tenure as Mayor of London is not a claimed cut in knife crime [fact checked and misleading ], but a succession of alleged vanity projects the most egregious of which, the Garden Bridge, resulted from Boris Johnson running what was not so much a modern city administration as a Borgia court, with the Mayor as the priapic Prince and Thomas Heatherwick as a pound shop Leonardo producing secular baubles.

the really chastening thought is that unmoderated by Parliament or investigations by the media, the powers of patronage of a Prime Minister are even greater than those Johnson enjoyed as Mayor.

Consider that a Ramses II, or perhaps a future Ozymandias, may now be sitting in Downing Street.

Can archaeology even punch at its weight let alone above it?

What then does all this mean for Archaeology and heritage as a sector?

While it is important not to denigrate the commitment shown by individual archaeologists and campaigners, and even a few organisations, if the cumulative losses to the sector from the advent of the Cameron coalition government in 2010 onward are anything to go by, divisions and the lack of a powerful voice for archaeology means the sector does not so much punch above its weight as barely punch at its weight, or even sometimes get into the ring.

Where was the protest at the ending without consultation of the Aggregates levy which funded much maritime archaeology; where is the high profile joint campaign to protect and promote archaeology in education; and where is the campaign across the sector to promote safety and safe spaces in the archaeological workplace [and at awards ceremonies]?

As to what comes next under Prime Minister Johnson it is possible to throw out a few pointers.

Contracting Archaeological Units

If the Prime Minister does put forward a major infrastructure programme in the Midlands and North of England that could mean a shift towards the north in terms of the focus of contracting units and at a practical level the jobs they can offer. It remains to be seen if any such move would be alongside, or at the expense of, existing projects and proposed projects such as HS2, the A303 upgrade and Heathrow runway three.

However, there is an even more fundamental question and that is whether the polluter pays principle, which is the entire basis of contract archaeology, survives Mr Johnson’s negotiations with the European Union.

Mr Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying Political Declaration means that, while the current regulations based on EU Law remain in force at least until the end of 2020, and would continue throughout any extension of the so called transition period, they may not survive into any agreement.

Neither would there be the ability to refer alleged transgressions of the rules to the European Court of Justice. The government has proposed an indigenous replacement body with enforcement powers, but as with so much of the Johnson programme there are currently no published details of precisely what form this body might take.

Certainly alignment with EU environmental rules, the so called level playing field, was down graded in Mr Johnson’s version of the Political Declaration and some at least of the Conservative Party, including a number in cabinet posts such as Dominic Raab and Priti Patel look forward to a wholesale deregulation post Brexit.

Another issue in this limbo is that of employment rights. Again an area where close alignment with the EU was downgraded in the Johnson version of the Political Declaration.

Speaking at today’s [Monday’s] Downing Street media briefing a spokesperson for Mr Johnson has refused to say whether guarantees Mr Johnson gave to MP’s before the General Election that environmental and employment rules would be kept in alignment with those of the EU, will be reflected in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, put before MP’s later this week.

However, while we await clarity on the post Brexit situation, the current dispute between Museum of London Archaeology and members of the trade union Prospect over alleged low pay and poor conditions shows how sensitive the issue is even before Brexit.

The dispute may be a straw in the wind that the relationship between senior managers on similar levels of pay to others in the construction industry and rank and file archaeologists in the trenches, who, while often highly qualified, most definitely are not on the same level of pay as a brickie, plumber or sparks, working on the same site, could become yet more fractious.

Given the historical baggage carried by the sector, principally the sense that archaeology was always happy to accept the crumbs of excavation from the developers table, has led to the basket case economics of commercial archaeology, it is hard to see a solution to this dilemma in the short term and just calling someone chartered doesn’t fix it [see below for suggestions about the impact of all this on CIfA].

This is primarily because the current business models in commercial archaeology, particularly competitive tendering, are predicated on pushing down costs to a developer and this pressure could even increase if employers play hardball with their work force and exploit anti-union legislation and any dilution of workers rights which a Johnson government might introduce post Brexit.

There are already anecdotal reports of contracting units saving money by terminating staff on short term contracts ahead of the Christmas and New Year holiday, in expectation of new contracts being issued in January. All perfectly legal under current legislation, if morally despicable.

That said, as long as archaeology remains a statutory part of the the development cycle a shortage of archaeologists brought about by shortfalls in numbers and lead times in the training of UK archaeologists and a falling away of EU archaeologists wishing to work in Britain once freedom of movement is ended as the Government has promised it will be, could give individual archaeologists and archaeological unions more leverage over pay, in the way that the peasantry of England was supposedly able to leverage higher wages after the Black Death.

The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists

If the Johnson Government does pursue a race to the bottom on workplace and environmental regulations in ways which impact negatively on the historic environment and the pay and conditions of archaeologists the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists [CIfA] is going to have to make up its mind whether it is going to pivot from being a largely passive body writing, [and occasionally enforcing] codes of conduct, to become a more activist body along the lines of the British Medical Association, whose junior doctors fought a long and bitter rearguard action against then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s attempts to impose contracts [some of the time against the advice and wishes of their own leadership].

If such threats do materialise and CIfA does not take a strong position in favour of more appropriate pay and conditions for its members and a defence of its standards, [or fails to take any position at all arguing that its role is purely to regulate professional standards from the moral high ground], then it will surely face questions from members and the wider archaeological community along the lines of “What is CIfA actually for?”

The Council for British Archaeology

In its seventy fifth anniversary year and with the decision of current director Dr Mike Heyworth to step down after ten years in post, the Council for British Archaeology was already facing some searching and important questions about its own future.

Under Dr Heyworth the CBA has survived a major loss of funding following the 2010 General Election, and pivoted from being a slightly more popular version of the expert bodies in the sector, publishing research reports, to becoming a more activist membership based body, for example taking on case work in the area of planning, while also maintaining links at Westminster through the provision of secretarial services to the All Party Archaeological Group made up of members of the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Looking forward to a Johnson premiership, maintaining a powerful grass roots voice for archaeology and heritage in the community will be crucial as most pressure on the government in all areas will of necessity come from outside Parliament.

As a broad based organisation, the CBA is also best placed to forge alliances across archaeology and heritage and more widely with the broader environmentalist community in civic society.

However, in December 2019, beyond all other aspects of the CBA’s work there is one critical issue which has jumped to the top of the agenda, bringing together all who have an interest in archaeology; that of bullying and abuse in the sector.

In the wake of the dismissive treatment of researcher into bullying and sexual harassment in academic fieldwork Danielle Bradford by a section of the audience described as “older men” at the recent Marsh Awards ceremony hosted by the CBA, there is certainly a strong case that the CBA should take a lead in investigating these issues.

There is perhaps an even stronger case that the CBA should appoint a woman director to take that lead.

Historic England

Like another arms length body where the Government controls the brief and the purse strings, the BBC, Historic England, is likely to come under even more pressure not to rock the Government boat when the historic environment is threatened by development, “or else.” The “else” being further cuts to its funding and the weakening of legal protections for heritage and the environment by a government with strong neo-liberal, deregulating tendencies.

As we have seen the omens from Mr Johnson’s time as mayor of London are not good. Particularly in a context where to its critics the organisation has over interpreted the requirement placed on it by Mr Johnson’s university contemporary George Osborne to “support sustainable development”.

To its critics, while individual officers have done what they can, at a corporate level it has done this by interpreting “sustainable” as more or less anything a developer wants, to the extent that, since 2010 Historic England has been seen often as the enabler of controversial development projects from the Garden Bridge and Bosworth Battlefield test track, to the proposed transformation of the world famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel with an equally boutique bell making business.

With the possibility floated of a further neutering of Judicial review and the likelihood of further weakening of constraints on planning, particularly in order to push through flagship infrastructure projects, independent archaeologists and the communities they live in would normally look to Historic England as the statutory bulwark against excessive damage to the historic environment.

However, current evidence suggests the chances are they will be disappointed as the bulwark is built on foundations of sand.

thePipeLine has worked on a succession of cases where not just local community groups, but senior academic experts have been shocked at the unwillingness of Historic England to ever reach a sticking point.

A combination of developers seeking Certificates of Immunity to Listing on the one hand and an unwillingness to use statutory powers to list, schedule and designate in some contentious cases, such as the dredging of the southern Goodwin Sands, show the defences which concerned communities expect to rely on are instead easily breached. While, like local planning authorities, Historic England’s troops are reduced in number, too often demoralised, and too often led by senior officers who are content to remain safe in the corporate chateau behind the lines, or who are part of a revolving door between the regulator and the regulated.

thePipeLine knows of at least one case where a Historic England Officer recommended a building for listing and then argued for the same building’s demolition after joining the private sector as a consultant and acting for the building’s owner.

The damage such apparent cynicism does to trust in the system for heritage protection in the wider community is incalculable.

However, it is likely that ministers will still like to pose for photographs with the “citizen archaeologists” of the metal detecting community. Especially as many of them live and detect in what are Conservative held seats.

This means that one of the first big tests will be reaction to the review of the Treasure Act which was launched in the last Parliament.

English Heritage

The problem faced by English Heritage is simple. Under the business plan cobbled together hastily by then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and current Chancellor Sajid Javid when he was Secretary of State for Culture, to get the English historic buildings estate off the government books, English Heritage is supposed to be self supporting financially by the financial year 2022/2023. That is roughly half way through Mr Johnson’s first full term as Prime Minister.

The big question will continue to be is that target achievable?

And, if it is achievable, at what cost will it be achieved in terms of care and maintenance of the estate postponed or not carried out at all, of pay cut and of posts lost?

While if the target is not achievable the question is then what would a Johnson Government do about it?

Academic Archaeology

Here the issues a Boris Johnson government presents are complex. However the imminent issue is that barring a remarkable turn of events, Brexit will become a fact on 31 January.

All the polling evidence is that the academic sector was and remains vehemently opposed to Brexit for multiple reasons, not least the impact on the health and well being of staff and students brought about by the end of freedom of movement and potential for reduced access to international research programmes.

As a further measure of potential impact, Universities UK listed the nuts and bolts administrative issues for which there was no clarity over what a Brexit, particularly a No Deal Brexit which is still possible in December 2020, would actually mean to Higher Education,

  • procurement, supply chains, commercial contracts
  • funding, cash flow, tax/VAT
  • banking relationships, access to EU payment systems
  • travel arrangements between the UK and EU
  • travel and health insurance for students and staff
  • data protection and transfers of data
  • intellectual property
  • recruitment
  • energy/participation in Euratom and other programmes
  • regulation
  • recognised professional qualifications held by staff 

Add this uncertainty to the fact that archaeology is not either a STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or a SIVS (Strategically Important Vulnerable Subject), and it is likely there will be further pressure on Archaeology departments with the potential for further cuts. Departments in universities which find it harder to attract foreign students will be particularly vulnerable. 

However, there is the potential for a deeper impact still and it lies in the area of, at best, the political tone of the relationship between academia, government and the wider population, and at worst a full blown, Trumpian style, culture war.

Boris Johnson makes much of his education in the classics at Eton and Balliol college Oxford. However, his in his public life his relationship with modern education and academic standards of evidence and argument is passing at best, consisting mostly of long word salad and quips in Latinglish.

In November 2014, while Boris Johnson was still on manoeuvres for the Conservative Party leadership, the then Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, Sir Richard Evans reviewed “The Churchill Factor” Mr Johnson’s biography of Sir Winston Churchill for the New Statesman. He was not impressed, writing,

” The book reads as if it was dictated, not written. All the way through we hear Boris’s voice; it’s like being cornered in the Drones Club and harangued for hours by Bertie Wooster. The gung-ho style inhibits thought instead of stimulating it. There’s huge condescension here. The Churchill Factor advertises itself as an attempt to educate “young people” who think that Churchill is a bulldog in a television advertisement rather than Britain’s greatest statesman but talking down to them is no way to achieve this aim.” 

Of course that is not a bad position for the kind of populist nativist who refuses to apologise for using racist and sexist tropes and who runs the text of a crucial speech past President Trump’s former chief strategist and Alt-Right would be puppet master Steve Bannon.

Boris Johnson’s perceived English nativist populism is out of kilter with all but a few academics, and those are mostly seen as mavericks. Although the presence of such an outlook at the top of Government may embolden such views at an academic level. Particularly in the context of a self styled “People’s Government.”

It has not escaped notice that, by definition, anyone who opposes that Government also opposes the will of the people. A situation which is seriously challenging and potentially dangerous.

Asked about his links with Mr Bannon, Boris Johnson replied,

“As for the so-called association with Steve Bannon, I’m afraid this is a lefty delusion whose spores continue to breed in the Twittersphere.”

The kind of language which suggests Mr Johnson is not about to engage in a reasoned discussion of the decolonising of museums.

I deeply regret that Boris Johnson…”

In her report into the Garden Bridge debacle Dame Margaret Hodge noted that,

” I deeply regret that Boris Johnson, the London Mayor ultimately responsible for all the decisions and actions taken on the Garden Bridge refused to co-operate with this review, either in person or in writing and despite several requests.”

Since then we have seen that this was less a one off attempt to avoid scrutiny for a major and egregious procurement failure, than what is for the Prime Minister and his closest confidants, Standard Operating Procedure.

During the General Election Mr Johnson was hidden from effective scrutiny by the media’s most effective interlocutors, culminating in a coruscating piece to camera by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, and the conclusion is inescapable. Mr Johnson will seek to continue to exercise power without scrutiny, either in the media or the courts.

With a majority of eighty he already faces no effective scrutiny in Parliament. the House of Commons is his and the House of Lords is bound by convention to accept ultimately the legislation which the Government can pass in the Commons.

It is a sobering, even depressing prospect.

Discussion of how a divided sector with poor morale and disparate interests can deal with this new political landscape will have to wait for another day. Although policy positions adopted jointly across the sector in partnership with the wider representatives of civic society and put smartly and bravely in public, rather than behind closed doors for fear of rocking the boat, might be a good place to start.

But one final thought…

The Ghost of Parties Past

Boris Johnson’s Christmas Present exists in what is already a cold climate for archaeology and heritage and the signs are that Boris Johnson’s populist, Spirit of English Nationalist, Christmas Yet to Come may be a place which is even more chilly.

However, there is another factor in play which is currently not receiving much traction in the media commentary analysing what happened last Thursday.

Just before Mr Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative Party in the Summer of 2019 Sir Max Hastings, who knows him better than most, predicted,

“I have a hunch that Johnson will come to regret securing the prize for which he has struggled so long, because the experience of the premiership will lay bare his absolute unfitness for it. “

This prediction was mirrored the day after the election on Sky News by the biographer of every modern Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Seldon, who suggested Mr Johnson might last not more than two years in the post.

He would not say why he drew that conclusion, although on the basis of extensive well sourced reporting by the likes of Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer and the reputable investigative websites such as ByLine Media, it is reasonable to speculate that aat least part of the answer may lie on various encrypted hard drives around what used to be called Fleet Street and perhaps in a safe in a large neo Baroque building on Lubyanka Square in Moscow. The same safe which might contain the first hand account of the relationship between senior Conservatives including Boris Johnson and prominent Russians such as Alexander Temerko and the party in Italy thrown by the billionaire son of a former KGB officer and owner of the Standard newspaper Evgeny Lebedev, which was attended solo by then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson after reportedly abandoning his personal security detail.

In other words like many prime minister’s before him Mr Johnson may ultimately fall victim to what an earlier Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, called “events dear boy, events.” and the suspicion is that there are plenty of “events” in the Spirit of Boris Johnson’s past.

The trouble facing not just the archaeology and heritage sector but the entire country, is that for now, and for as long as he can remain is office, one of these Boris Johnson’s, perhaps several at once, and maybe even all of them, is Prime Minister and all of us, including archaeologists and heritage people, will have to work with the cards he deals us, even if the pack is marked and the player who faces the sector on the other side of the table is a notoriously unreliable, narcissist, liar and cheat; or is Dominic Cummings.

- Advertisement -

Share post:

thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

Related articles


The UK General Election Matters for Archaeology and Heritage because the politicians are elected who will shape and...


Why did journalist and pseudo archaeologist Graham Hancock ever agree to appear on the Joe Rogan Experience to...


In February a row broke out within the UK's principle membership body for archaeologists, the Chartered Institute for...


The Conservative MP for the Black Country constituency of Dudley North, Marco Longhi has introduced his Heritage Public...