Was Boris Johnson Changed by a Brush with Death?

Hopes of the prime minister being changed seem to be fading.

Posted May 20, 2020

Wikimedia commons, text added.
Has Boris changed for the better?
Source: Wikimedia commons, text added.

Proximity to death seems not to have changed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for the better after all. In my previous post, I wrote, hopefully, about research showing that coming close to death often changes people in the direction of greater compassion and caring. ‘Hopefully’ because we need compassionate and caring leaders at the moment more than ever. But it seems my hopes were misplaced.

A recent Guardian article concludes: ‘Speculation that the PM had altered since contracting coronavirus turned out to be tragically – for the rest of us – mistaken.’ Catherine Bennett quoted my post, mentioned others who were equally hopeful, and noted a video in which Johnson said that the NHS was ‘powered by love’. Surely good signs?

Another hopeful is Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In a recent Edge symposium on ‘Life in the Time of COVID’ he lists the outcome predictors for dealing with crises: acknowledging you are in a crisis, accepting responsibility for doing something about it yourself, not blaming others, and getting help. Applying this to the pandemic, he shows how poorly the world has shaped up. As for honest appraisal, he says it’s “severely in deficit in some places, notably our president, and initially Boris Johnson, until illness shaped him up.” But has it?

Others have been wondering. Jill Rutter, from the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, wondered which Boris we might see now – the Boris who owed his life to the NHS and talked about love, or ‘Boris the hero’. He was soon back to calling the virus a ‘mugger’ and our situation a war or a battle to be fought. So perhaps we know the answer.

On the pessimistic side, Miriam Margoyles concluded that when he recovered 'he didn’t get better as a human being.' She got in big trouble for apparently saying that she wanted him to die, though in fact she had said she ‘had difficulty not wanting Boris Johnson to die’ which is rather different – admitting a desire that you know you really should not, or do not deep down, mean.

In the end, I guess we should not be surprised at the brief, or non-existent, change, because the Prime Minister has had at least one previous brush with death. In 2009, he was cycling in London when a large lorry overtook him and other cyclists. Its back door flew open, dragged a parked car into the street and damaged another, just a few feet from him. This was, to use the NDE jargon, a ‘fear death experience’ not a ‘near death experience’ but these can also leave people changed for the better. That one, apparently, didn’t have that effect. So, alas, I fear I was wrong, and Johnson has not been transformed by either of his brushes with death.