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Fintan O’Toole: The English have two good Anglo-Saxon words for Boris Johnson

An Anglo-Irish ruler named Aldfrith warned that arrogance leads to oblivion

Protesters call for the resignation of British prime minister Boris Johnson in front of the Downing Street gates on Sunday. Photograph: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson is prime minister of the UK because he convinced enough English people that they are different from the others. As the Brexit drama unfolded, the most bothersome of the others were the damned Irish – the tail, as he put it in such exasperation, that was wagging the English dog.

But what is Englishness? Johnson would say that it is something ancient, immemorial, pulsing through the blood of the Anglo-Saxons.

He went so far as to say that English voters would not respond to words that have their origins in Latin and should be addressed solely in the old tongue of their ancestors: “What people listen to are short Anglo-Saxon words.”

Boris Johnson is not some dude with a big bong writing awful poetry at three a.m. It is, to use the word Johnson has so much trouble with, “actually” the voice of the sovereign government of Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

Most historians agree that the silicon valley from which English politics and culture emerged was the kingdom of Northumbria in the middle of the seventh century. It was in this place – roughly the north of England and the southern fringes of Scotland – that England quite suddenly developed the new technologies and ideas that would later make it possible to imagine a bunch of distinct tribes as a nation.


The man who made this possible was a king called Aldfrith. He was the first indigenous English ruler to be much more than a tribal warlord.

What Boris Johnson would not know is that this paragon of Anglo-Saxon governance had another name: Flann Fíana Mac Ossu. His mother, Fin, was an O'Neill

Aldfrith restored the wrecked kingdom of Northumbria and established a peaceful and well-governed realm. But he also moved the idea of government away from the primitive imperative of brute power. He understood that a ruler had to show good character and try to attain wisdom.

Famously, he traded a large grant of land for a single book on cosmology. He avidly read treatises on mathematics. It was under Aldfrith that the first great product of English manuscript art, the Lindisfarne Gospels, was made.

What Boris Johnson almost certainly would not know is that this paragon of Anglo-Saxon governance had another name: Flann Fíana Mac Ossu. His mother, Fin, was an O’Neill. He was sent to Ireland as a child and became a monk in one of the Irish monasteries that were, at the time, among the most important centres of European learning.

Old Irish

He spoke Anglo-Saxon and Latin but most probably his first tongue was Old Irish. His return to Northumbria was one of those peculiar accidents of history, but it was crucial to the emergence of an English national identity.

And by a stroke of luck, we have, from the records of Irish monks, a collection of the maxims that distil the wisdom of this great precursor of English government, Aldfrith/Flann. These sallies could have been pointed directly at Partygate.

Boris Johnson leaves the Conservative party headquarters after being announced as the new Conservative party leader at an event in central London on July 23rd. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Here are some of Aldfrith/Flann’s dictums about good governance, which he presented in such bite-sized sentences that even Johnson could ingest them. I have selected some of them from Colin Ireland’s scholarly translation from Old Irish. Imagine them directed to Aldfrith’s present successor as king of little England:

“Lechery results in abandonment. Foolishness results in crudity. Repression results in greater repression.”

The point of these maxims is that, if you want to govern a kingdom (or a country) you must first be able to govern yourself. That is what Johnson could never do

“An evil tongue begets treachery. A pugnacious person begets a beating.

Truth should be supported. Falsehood should be rebuked. Iniquity should be corrected.”

“Eyewitness evidence should be appealed to. The law of neighbourhood entails reciprocal dealings. Drink is a catalyst for rejection. Liquor begets talkativeness.”

“Boorishness is characteristic of bitterness. Ignorance is a mark of shamelessness. Control is better than chaos.”

“Better truth than its antithesis. Arrogance deserves oblivion.”

The point of these maxims is that, if you want to govern a kingdom (or a country) you must first be able to govern yourself. That, of course, is what Johnson’s enablers always knew he could never do.

Irish sage

Another Irish sage who made his way in Britain, Bernard Shaw, enjoyed turning around the question posed there about the Irish and asking "Are the English fit for self-government?" Well, not if they choose to be ruled by a man whose self-government is characterised by all the qualities that Aldfrith excoriated: lechery, crudity, falsity, boorishness, shamelessness, arrogance.

The great irony is that the magic word that opened the cave of power to Johnson is "control". Dominic Cummings plagiarised from Nigel Farage that perfect three-word slogan: Take Back Control. It is not an Anglo-Saxon word, but it touched a nerve in parts of England that had seemed politically inert.

Yet the appeal to “control” brought to power a Lord of Misrule. Johnson has always been out of control, unregulated by truth, decency or patriotism. He embodies the deep contradiction of Brexit – an anarchic project that promised to make government better and more attuned to the needs of the people. The only needs Johnson has ever been attuned to are the gratification of his own desires.

The political, as Aldfrith’s maxims suggested, is personal. Governance can never be entirely divorced from character. The Downing Street parties may seem relatively trivial in themselves, but they have dramatised the attitudes of a governing elite that refuses to be restrained even by its own laws. This is a boorishness that, as Aldfrith insisted, creates bitterness, a deep and irreversible sense of betrayal.

Arrogance deserves oblivion. Those just deserts are coming. The English people are speaking back to Johnson in the short Anglo-Saxon words he claimed they understand best.