Janet Haney

Boris Johnson delivered a speech last week in the heart of Brexit country,[1]at the Midlands headquarters of JCB, the company owned by Lord Bamford, a major donor to the Conservatives.[2]
Boris, the blond bombshell of British politics, was standing in front of what he called “custard colossi”[3]– the huge yellow JCB diggers that are known as the “backhoe loader”. Johnson is well known for displaying his classical education, but he always adds something banal and ridiculous to the mix. In this case, custard.[4]It is a self-deprecating reference to himself. He is a blond colossus, and boarding-school custard could easily be part of the reason. Custard is also a signifier of cowardice in the UK (“Cowardy, cowardy custard”) which many accuse him of – moral cowardice, the refusal to actually take up a position. We all remember the speed with which he fled the scene when the possibility of having to take up that challenge was so very, very close: the day of the referendum result, 24 June 2016. We all also remember the two articles he drafted for the Daily Telegraph, one in favour of remaining in the EU, the other in favour of leaving.
But the JCB colossus is not a coward. It’s a machine. It is the British construction industry’s very own battle tank. This “British built backhoe loader”, said Johnson enjoying the sound and feel of the words, and bouncing up and down on his toes, “can roar onto building sites across the world … it can’t be stopped.” Suddenly one has the image of a tank rolling into a foreign bomb-blitzed city, shoving aside the debris, knocking over anyone and anything that happens to get in its way; part of the essential equipment for establishing a new order, a machine to make money, to create anew. War is part of the picture.
The JCB production line has been temporarily halted to make way for this speech. Boris steps up to the podium. The hard machinery of the capitalist discourse is paused. It is time for a human being to speak. When the discourse changes, says Lacan, love emerges.[5]
And Boris can stir up love. But he is also a renowned coward in love. He is notorious for philandering, and his wife (the mother of most of his children) finally left him last year. Like a typical obsessional, he seeks one woman after another to sustain his enjoyment. But can he really speak? Does he have anything to say? Or is it just the drive and his aggression?
When, in his speech, he talked of his experience in the driving seat of the JCB, he reported that he had promptly selected the wrong gear and – pow! – “you’ve got a huge hole in your house”. He then advanced the notion that a metaphorical JCB needs to be manoeuvred so that “we stop battling ourselves”. Is he talking about the Conservative Party? Himself? The country? Or all of these at the same time? The speech is being delivered, remember, at the end of the week when Theresa May’s Brexit deal was voted down by the “largest majority ever”: 432 to 202. He said, instead, that the JCB “must be turned [on] our friends and partners in Brussels.” The little others, the rivals – it’s all in the mirror and the man is at war with himself, consumed by his hainamoration.[6]
He continues to riff on his theme: he explained that Joe Cyril Bamford, Lord Bamford’s father, was the father of the machine, it was his “wacky idea”. Papa JCB had his idea in 1953. He gave it life, nurtured it, and now “the world is populated with descendants of that glorified tractor.” It is Boris’s “blood and soil” fantasy. Blood and soil plus evolution – the survival, so it goes, of the fittest. The JCBs, he said, have “mutated into the much more beautiful, stunning machines that they are today.”
Another riff: their genes, the genes of these machines, he continued, “are spreading across … the world. You are seeing JCBs in all their incarnations. And nothing, and no one, will stop their spread. Absolutely nothing. No bureaucratic prejudice or impediment will stop a British-made backhoe from roaring onto building sites around the world.” These machines have become a kind of animal, which become a kind of insect, a kind of virus, a British plague that can’t be stopped by others … the colonizer.
“Normally,” he says, “if JCB comes up with a brilliant idea … you want to protect yourself from people in Brussels, our friends and partners … who want to throttle that idea, to strangle it at birth…” What a mash-up of contradictory thoughts, hatreds, rivalries.[7]
For someone who does very little else but write and deliver speeches, Boris is surprisingly inarticulate. The language is all over the place. The subject slips and shifts with each breath. He tries to say it all, to have it all. But does he really want any of it? Can he escape from the love-hate relation he has with the Father, the women, and the little others? Can we escape from its consequences?
In Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, Why We Fight(2005), at one point we see a woman worker in a bomb factory admitting that she would rather be one of Santa’s elves, but, hey, this is the only job in town. At least she can laugh, she can speak the truth, she can let herself be seen in a movie that has been shown around the globe. She accepts her castration with some humour. Here, at the Q&A at the JCB factory, all the questions came from journalists – not one of the factory workers piped up. Free speech? Dead already. In contrast, Boris’s speech is all too free, free of any responsibility. If the subject who speaks is absent, death is in the driving seat, and we can expect more holes in our houses, and in those of our friends and neighbours.


[1]Which you can watch online, Channel 4 News, “Boris Johnson reveals his Brexit plan – full speech”
published 18 January 2019.
[2]Bamford was the sixth biggest donor to the Vote Leave campaign, with £673,000 – the number one donor was Arron Banks, who donated £8,106,375, and is currently under criminal investigation. See Peter Walker and Jim Waterson, “Arron Banks faces criminal inquiry over Brexit campaign”, The Guardian, 1 Nov 2018.
[3]Boris likes to show off his classical education, but he also always adds a reference to something incredibly mundane, here in the form of custard.
[4]A gooey British accompaniment to pudding, made with milk, sugar, and (instead of egg) cornflour. It’s yellow.
[5]Jacques Lacan, Seminar 20, Encore, [1972-3], London/NY, Norton, 1998, chapter 2.
[6]Jacques Lacan, ibid., chapter 8, p. 98.
[7]Jacques Lacan, “Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis”, Écrits, London/NY, Norton, 2006, p. 93.