Is Boris Johnson A Weberian Politician?

By Meg Byrom - HSPS Student @ Queens' College, Cambridge

The work of Max Weber, a German sociologist and political theorist, in the early 20th century remains significant across much discourse in the social sciences. His 1919 lecture ‘Politics as a vocation’ took place in the wake of Germany's defeat in world war one and in this searing critique of German leadership and bureaucracy, Weber campaigns for a US style of liberal democracy. He saw the way in which the UK and US governed as superior to the current German system. Elected leaders, checks and balances and powerful parliaments were amongst some of the factors that Weber admired in these democracies.


To modern audiences, such demands appear as a minimum that’s found in most democratic nations but in the ruins of imperial Germany, Weber's ideas were radical. In the lecture, Weber tries to find a path for Germany. He believed that a democratically elected leader was key, one that could unite the responsibility and conviction of leadership. It was these notions that he believed would lead Germany to future success, as he warned against the extremes of monarchy or of idealist communist revolutionaries across Europe.


Weber died later that year of the Spanish Flu, and now in 2021, over one hundred years later and in another global pandemic, Weber's ideas about leadership, conviction and responsibility have been called into question by the draconian lockdown measures and the large social and economic crisis left in its wake.


In the UK, a national lockdown was called in late March 2020. The lockdown, and the successive lockdowns after it, had huge social and economic costs. Whilst effective to control coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, mass unemployment, reduced incomes, business closures and a mental health crisis were amongst some of the dire impacts of such measures.


Weber saw effective leadership as able to unite these two facets of policy making. He believed that leaders had to be able to take responsibility for the impacts of government decisions, whether these were positive, negative or as with covid, possibly deadly. With these impacts in mind, leaders had to follow their conviction and deliver. With this in mind - can we consider Boris Johnson a Weberian politician?


The rise of medical advisors such as Chris Whitty or Dr Fauci in the US is perhaps in conflict with Weber's notions of effective leadership. In the UK, chief medical advisors and SAGE ( the scientfical advisory group for emergencies) were pushed to the forefront of the pandemic response.


Stood among elected public officials, the promotion of members of the bureaucracy to policy leaders and public figures themselves is contentious. Whilst following the science is key within a pandemic situation, arguably the delegation of responsibility and policy onto SAGE is what marks Johnson in contrast to Weber's vision of what a good political leader looks like.


To Weber, whilst we can acknowledge the importance of SAGE's expertise, policy and leadership cannot come from the unelected. In Imperial Germany, unelected military generals took over key decisions, but as Weber outlined, these figures cannot be held to account, and moreover, those who should be in charge, like in Weber's case, the Kaiser, flee real responsibility.


Not only does this have unfair impacts on these members of the bureaucracy, as they became hounded by violent radical groups, and their own science undermined as they began to be treated as political agents and not scientific experts, but Johnson's inability to take complete license over his own governments decisions and their impacts weakens his own leadership.


The blame game in Covid policy placed the bureaucratic sage and even the public, at the helm of this pandemic, and not the prime minister.


Whilst Max Weber did not survive to see what Germany would become, or how liberal democracy would spread across Europe and the world, Covid-19 and different governmental responses lead us to question who's really in charge in our democracies, and who should be.


Further reading:

  1. ‘Politics as a vocation’ by Max Weber

  2. ‘A State of Fear’ by Laura Dodsworth

  3. ‘Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus’ by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott