As he took one of his last opportunities to perform as Britain’s prime minister yesterday, Boris Johnson presented himself as the victim of powerful forces who were already trying to undo his political legacy:
Some people will say as I leave office that this is the end of Brexit, oh yes, and the leader of the opposition and the deep state will prevail in its plot to haul us back into alignment with the EU as a prelude to our eventual return . . . we on this side of the House will prove them wrong, won’t we?
The immediate reaction of British reporters was to accuse Johnson of borrowing “a term often used by conspiracy theorists to describe shadowy government officials who carry out secret acts unbeknown to the wider public.” From this perspective, any talk of a deep state operating in British politics is paranoid, irresponsible, and “Trumpian.”
But the real problem with Johnson’s outburst was the characteristic narcissism and self-pity. Britain does have a deep state — and Johnson is the very last person you’d expect its functionaries to target.
This wasn’t the first time Johnson has deployed such rhetoric. In January 2019, he addressed the following message to MPs who he accused of trying to stop Brexit:
If we think that by coming up with all kinds of complicated amendments and delaying tactics, we are going to fool the British public, we will manage to frustrate Brexit, I think we will reap the whirlwind . . . people will feel betrayed. And I think they will feel that there has been a great conspiracy by the deep state of the UK, the people who really run the country, to overturn the verdict of the people.
Then as now, Johnson was clearly borrowing the term “deep state” from the lexicon of his transatlantic ally Donald Trump. For their part, Trump and his supporters stole it from countries like Greece and Turkey, where its meaning was quite distinct from the one they have imposed on it.
In its original usage, “deep state” referred to overlapping networks that connected the state security forces, organized crime, and far-right paramilitary groups. Those networks have been a very real and tangible presence in the political cultures of southern Europe. In Spain, for example, the GAL death squad operated in the 1980s with support from high-level figures in the government of Felipe González. Some of those later convicted of GAL murders were serving members of the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national police force.
Journalist Paddy Woodworth described the courtroom revelations arising from the trial of those charged with the assassination of Basque politician Santiago Brouard in 1984:
The evidence presented at this trial had many of the sadly familiar characteristics of the previous GAL cases: the “scandalous” (according to the judges) failure of the police to investigate the murder; conspiracy theories to suit every taste; unreliable witnesses; vanishing witnesses; bizarre decisions by investigating magistrates; feuds among the usual suspects from the grotesque Interior Ministry and counter-terrorist top brass of the period . . . a former policeman, Michel Domínguez, casually told the court that he had put out a communique in the name of the GAL (denying responsibility for the murder) from the Bilbao police headquarters, on the instructions of his commanding officers.
Unlike Spain, Greece, or Turkey, Britain doesn’t have the experience of being ruled by a military dictatorship within living memory. Yet it has its own version of the GAL scandal, on a grander scale. There is voluminous evidence of pervasive, systematic collusion between the state security agencies and loyalist paramilitaries responsible for hundreds of killings in the North of Ireland. The vast majority of those killed by the loyalists were Catholic civilians with no connections to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or even its political wing, Sinn Féin.
The Permanent Government
This is what the “deep state” really amounts to. It’s what happens when the repressive state apparatus, as Marxists have traditionally dubbed it, sets aside any pretense of following the rule of law and engages in unbridled criminality. We had a more recent example of what that can entail when the BBC uncovered evidence of fifty-four unlawful killings by a single Special Air Service (SAS) unit in Afghanistan during a six-month tour. The Ministry of Defence responded to the report with belligerent denial.
When Trump or Johnson talk about the deep state, on the other hand, what they really have in mind is the permanent government: a much wider administrative cohort, consisting of senior civil servants, judges, bank governors, and other state officials who possess a great deal of leeway in the implementation of government policy. In theory, they are meant to be neutral and nonpartisan. In practice, they have their own ideas about the way things should be done, and the ability to make life difficult for any government minister who won’t come round to their way of thinking.
The permanent government is real, just like the deep state, and its political role would certainly have become much more visible if Labour had won the last general election and set about implementing its manifesto. In contrast, Johnson has been able to push through his Brexit deal since becoming prime minister without facing any visible obstruction from within the state.
Perhaps there was more going on behind the scenes, although we shouldn’t underestimate Johnson’s ability to feel sorry for himself after a life in which he has never faced a challenge worthy of the name. After going through your whole career with the wind at your back, the slightest breeze in the opposite direction must feel like a raging tornado.
There’s one thing we know for sure: Britain’s actual deep state did nothing to stop Johnson from becoming prime minister, because they had his main opponent in their sights — quite literally, in the case of the paratroopers who used an image of Jeremy Corbyn for target practice, and were allowed to continue serving in the army afterward. More senior figures in the armed forces expressed the same sentiment in slightly more diplomatic terms, while the former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove kept up a steady stream of lurid accusations against Corbyn and his allies.
So far as Brexit was concerned, there was certainly no united front against it within the upper ranks of the deep state. Richard Dearlove was as vocal on the subject of leaving the EU as he was about Corbyn. He and Charles Guthrie, former chief of the defence staff, urged Tory MPs to vote down Theresa May’s Brexit deal in the winter of 2018–19.
This was not because they were opposed to Brexit, but rather because they believed it didn’t put enough distance between Britain and the EU. According to leaked emails — which Dearlove says were obtained by Russian hackers, although he hasn’t denied their authenticity — the MI6 veteran was also involved in a private effort to oust May and replace her with Johnson.
This well-established background makes it all the more absurd for Johnson to posture now as a victim of the deep state. There was a telling moment in yesterday’s debate when Jeremy Corbyn told Johnson he would leave a legacy of “poverty, inequality, and insecurity” behind him. Johnson tried to smirk his way out of it by saying that he was “thrilled” to be debating with Corbyn again.
What Johnson really means is that he feels nostalgic for the 2019 general election, when every powerful interest in British politics and society, from News International to the country’s leading tycoons, lined up foursquare behind him. At the time, they saw Johnson as the only man who could safeguard an economic model that is designed to reproduce “poverty, inequality, and insecurity” and thus keep British workers in a subordinate position.
He was also facing an opposition party whose leaders could not be relied upon to cover up the crimes of Britain’s security machine, whether committed in Afghanistan or on domestic soil. That bought Johnson some more priceless support.
Now the Labour Party has a leader who vies with any Conservative in his willingness to apply whitewash. Johnson is no longer needed to hold the line against politicians who might shine a light into dark corners of the British state (or allow others to do so). That’s one reason why we’ve heard so much lately about the character flaws that he always possessed.
When historians have to account for Johnson’s rise and fall, it should be the British media, rather than the deep state or the permanent government, that lies at the heart of their analysis. Despite operating in full public view, journalists and editors can be as resistant to scrutiny as any spook: the old Fleet Street cliché “dog does not eat dog” performs the same function as the D-notices that the British government issues when questions of national security are meant to be at stake. But that’s another story, and not the one that Johnson wants to tell.