What does Boris Johnson’s literary hero tell us about our new Prime Minister?

Incompetent, arrogant but always somehow on top, George MacDonald Fraser's anti-hero 'Flashman' is the fictional character Boris describes as 'the greatest'. Now he's finally made it into Downing Street, what clues do the books offer us? Alex Larman takes a closer look.

Boris Johnson's literary hero Flashman

There is a man Boris Johnson has described as ‘lascivious and fiendishly handsome’ as well as ‘the greatest’.

No, it wasn’t himself - nor Jeremy Hunt, his thwarted opponent in the interminable campaign to become our new PM. It was the fictional character Harry Flashman, anti-hero of a celebrated series of historical novels by George MacDonald Fraser which, as coincidence would have it, passes its 50th anniversary this year.

As Britain and the wider world braces itself for a Johnson premiership, what can we learn from looking at his literary hero? For a more conventional politician, this might seem a facetious question. Yet with Johnson, there is something about his swashbuckling, gung-ho persona that seems derived, intentionally or not, from Flashman.


Johnson, like his fictional forbear, has a colourful relationship with the truth

Both are notorious admirers of female company - despite being married men. And just as Flashman makes a big fuss about his public-school roots, so Johnson is inordinately proud of his own education at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. When the Prime Minister’s former housemaster decried him as exhibiting ‘a gross failure of responsibility’, and complained ‘I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else’ in a letter written to Johnson’s father in 1982, this could easily have come from the much-feared Dr Arnold, the Rugby headmaster who expels Flashman at the beginning of the first novel (his drunken pupil is simply relieved that he is not flogged as well). 

As for ‘the Europe question’, Flashman’s chief concern when negotiating with allies is usually whether there might be an opportunity to enrich himself at someone else’s expense - and ideally bed an aristocratic woman in the process. He is, however, a wholehearted and somewhat bombastic defender of Britain, claiming the Empire exemplifies ‘Presence of mind, if you like — and countless other things, such as greed and Christianity, decency and villainy, policy and lunacy, deep design and blind chance, pride and trade, blunder and curiosity, passion, ignorance, chivalry and expediency, honest pursuit of right, and determination to keep the bloody Frogs out.’

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Johnson, like his fictional forbear, has a colourful relationship with the truth that has seen exaggeration and occasional outright falsehood become part of his stock-in-trade – a parallel which extends to MacDonald Fraser and the origins of the Flashman books themselves, which were originally something of a hoax.

The character actually first appeared in Thomas Hughes’s 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days as a two-dimensional, vicious and drunken scoundrel. Just over a century later, Macdonald Fraser had the brilliant idea of resurrecting Flashman while claiming that he was actually a real historical figure who had been involved in most of the Victorian era’s most notorious episodes. 


In Flashman’s world, incompetence and arrogance always wins out. Sound familiar?

With tongue firmly in cheek, Macdonald Fraser wrote in an ‘explanatory note’ to the first edition of the first book, published in 1969, that ‘the great mass of manuscript known as the Flashman papers was discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashby, Leicestershire in 1965.’ The subterfuge succeeded: ten of the initial 34 reviews of Flashman treated it as a serious work of non-fiction, rather than a brilliant piece of counter-factual historical fiction, allowing Macdonald Fraser to give up his career in journalism and became a full-time novelist. It’s a triumph of fiction over fact that would no doubt delight Johnson, whose own early writing career, as an EU correspondent for the Telegraph in the 90s, was characterised by exaggeration and distortion, including convincing readers Italy wanted to reduce the regulation size of condoms and starting the now-infamous myth that Brussels wanted to ban bendy bananas. Flashman’s creator, meanwhile, was a fervent Eurosceptic who wrote ‘Europe is simply not fit to have any say in British affairs’. Chances are that he would be delighted at current developments. 

But what do the books have to tell us – and perhaps an impressionable young Boris Johnson - about politics, and how to succeed at it? The principal joy of the Flashman novels, from the first onwards, is the placing of its anti-hero in carefully detailed historical situations, complete with scrupulously detailed and tongue-in-cheek footnotes. By the end of the first book, he has served in the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42, and although he has done nothing heroic or decent, is lionised as ‘the Hector of Afghanistan’ by a grateful nation, beginning a pattern that, with occasional alterations, would last throughout subsequent instalments.

Although characters sometimes see through Flashman’s façade, as with his comrade Sgt Hudson in the original book, they invariably wind up dead, leaving his myth untarnished. Incompetence and arrogance, Macdonald Fraser wittily suggests, will always win out over genuine bravery or military achievement. Sound familiar?

Johnson may well remember that his Etonian predecessor David Cameron was likened to Flashman by Ed Miliband in 2011, and the nickname stuck. (Cameron was said to have been privately flattered by the comparison). It remains to be seen what Johnson will be like as Prime Minister, whether he will be a sober and serious statesman or a swashbuckling rogue. Yet perhaps his own foray into fiction, 2004’s Seventy-Two Virgins, offers another unexpected hint.

Johnson’s bicycling politician protagonist Roger Barlow, a venal chancer given to adulterous liaisons and unfounded optimism, is not a million miles away from Flashman, and like him, he finds himself out of his depth as he is accidentally drawn into a plot to assassinate the US president.

Johnson writes of Barlow: ‘the whole world just seemed to be a complicated joke… everything was always up for grabs, capable of dispute; and religion, laws, principle, custom – these were nothing but sticks from the wayside to support our faltering steps.’ This is a statement that could equally apply to the ever-cynical Flashman. Time will tell whether it becomes the epitaph for the latest occupant of 10 Downing Street as well. 



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