Will the real Boris please stand up?

Contrary to what you might have read, the blonde buffoon and new mayor of London is neither a friend of liberty nor an evil Thatcherite.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

So, has Boris Johnson, the new mayor, come to liberate London or destroy it? Is he, as a hastily constructed Facebook group claims, a ‘new dawn’ for the capital, who will release the city from the ‘tyranny of Ken’ and allow us once more to ‘drive our cars where we want, or even have a fag over a pint in the pub’? Or is he the ‘son of Thatcher’ in a bouncy blonde wig, a sinister, posh Tory who has hoodwinked the London electorate into believing he is a loveable oaf with a speech impediment?

He’s neither. Boris is not the anti-Ken lover of liberty that his supporters claim – nor is he the living embodiment of old-school Toryism depicted by his opponents. In fact, he’s a very modern politician, one who, in the absence of core convictions, trades on his personality and celebrity instead. Boris is business as usual in British politics… but the responses to his election are telling indeed.

Supporters of Boris claim he is a post-Ken breath of fresh air who will pump a bit of spirit back into London. One columnist gushes that he’s ‘a libertarian and a hedonist – he is in favour of everyone having a good time, especially himself’ (1). It is true that, during his days as editor of the Spectator and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, Boris said some half-sensible things about the New Labour government’s stifling culture of restraint, mollycoddling and speech-policing. Yet if his comments ever generated a whiff of controversy, he would backtrack quicker than you could say ‘Recant, recant!’

He once attacked the government’s patronising advice about what kind of food we should eat and how many times a day we should eat it, telling reporters: ‘I say let people eat what they like.’ On the controversy over the mums who bought fast food for their kids and passed it through the school gates he said, ‘Why shouldn’t they push pies through the railings?’ ‘If I was in charge, I would get rid of Jamie Oliver’, he declared, daring to diss the celebrity chef who became a national hero for teaching ‘white trash’ (Jamie’s words) about the health benefits and moral pay-offs of ‘good eating’.

Yet when he received a battering from the media – outraged that he had attacked ‘decent’ Jamie and ‘his heroic battle against an uncaring, bureaucratic system’ – Boris relented. In a half tongue-in-cheek, half saving-his-ass apology, he denied ever having criticised Jamie Oliver, and said he now realised that Jamie is a ‘national saint, if not the Messiah’ (2).

Apologising for and publicly disavowing his ‘beliefs’ has become Boris’s most recognisable character trait. One of his most controversial attacks was on the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of black London teenager Stephen Lawrence. In a stinging critique published in the Daily Telegraph in 1999 he laid into Macpherson’s undeniably authoritarian recommendations, including its proposal that the law should be changed so that people could be prosecuted for using racist language somewhere ‘other than in a public place’. That is, at home. ‘Not even under the law of Ceausescu’s Romania could you be prosecuted for what you said in your own kitchen’, he wrote (3). Yet when, last year, journalists and Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Doreen, cited Boris’s attacks on the Macpherson Inquiry as evidence that he is ‘not fit to be mayor of London’ (apparently Londoners are forbidden from publicly criticising any aspect of Macpherson), Boris said he was sorry if his seven-year-old comments caused any offence (4).

Following his public apology to the people of Liverpool in 2004 (after his then magazine the Spectator criticised the city’s ‘victim culture’), and his apology to the people of Papua New Guinea in 2006 (after he wrote about the Tory Party being consumed by ‘Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing’), Boris has said he needs to organise a ‘global itinerary of apology’. Some call it gaffe-making; it also smells a lot like political cowardice. Boris clearly has no firm, long-standing connection with the words or ideas that fly from his gob.

The myth that Boris is a man of conviction or a ‘liberator of London’ should have been exploded by his first day in the job of mayor. He once compared the smug, penny-pinching, anti-masses campaign against climate change to a ‘new religion’, arguing that some people ‘want the sweet moralistic feeling of telling someone to stop doing something… the moralising mumbo-jumbo becomes more important than the scientific reality’ (5). Yet now he has declared his opposition to expanding Heathrow airport, banned London officials from flying around the UK, and announced his intention to plant 10,000 trees to ‘tackle global warming’ – which will do precisely nothing to change the Earth’s atmosphere but might do something to convince London that Boris, like Ken, is green to the core.

Boris once slated Britpop bands for being super-dull and educating young people to be overly responsible rather than refreshingly riotous (in a 2006 Telegraph column which, as Private Eye pointed out, bore more than a passing resemblance to an article I wrote for Boris’s magazine the Spectator a couple of months earlier) (6). Yet now he says he will confiscate the travel passes of young people who misbehave on public transport and only give them back once the kids have done some community service. And he’s going to ban the consumption of booze on the London Underground to tackle ‘aggressive behaviour by drunken yobs’ (7). So I’ll no longer be able to sip from a bottle of Becks as I make my way from work to a party. This from a man who got so steamed up over New Labour’s smoking ban in pubs.

Some claim that Boris’s transformation from big-mouthed columnist to small-minded politician is the usual old principle-shedding that takes place when writers become Tory politicians. No doubt there’s some truth in that. But Boris’s journey also reveals something far more important about the shallow, kneejerk nature of the contemporary right-wing critique of New Labour’s ‘nanny statism’. The reason why Boris and a coterie of like-minded Tories could pose as the ‘defenders of freedom’ in recent years is not because they are truly devoted to free thought, speech and to more choice in our daily lives, but because the left turned freedom into a dirty word, leaving it open to being co-opted by elements on the right.

Under Labour and its left-liberal supporters, freedom of speech has come to be viewed as the harbinger of hate and violence; freedom of choice is seen as deeply unhealthy (people will smoke, eat fatty foods, and have sex without condoms); and freedom of association – especially between adults and children – is a positive minefield of potential abuse and mayhem. Indeed, the left’s degraded view of freedom is personified in ousted mayor Ken Livingstone, who is insanely hailed as ‘the most progressive politician’ in Britain on the basis that he is serious, sour-faced, austere, illiberal and willing to force changes in people’s behaviour in order to ‘save the planet’ (8). In short, to be left-wing is to be No Fun.

It was the British left’s wholesale abandonment of the ideals of freedom and choice, in favour of championing state control of people’s habits and dangerous desires, which allowed the Tory right cynically to claim the banner of freedom as their own. This is why Boris and Co. could only partially, and deeply unconvincingly, defend freedom – because they were freedom-lovers by default and for the narrow political purpose of bashing the Blairites and Brownites. So they got worked up about New Labour’s bans on foxhunting and smoking but raised not a peep about its criminalisation of ‘hate preaching’ that is critical of ‘Western values’ (9). Boris’s emergence, after only a couple of days, as a killjoy, authoritarian mayor shows how flimsy is the Tory right’s love of liberty, and how reactionary – in the true meaning of that word – is their anti-‘nanny statism’.

Yet if Boris is not the liberator of London, nor is he its Tory destroyer. In the Guardian and elsewhere there has been an hysterical effort to paint Boris as a mini-Thatcher, a ruthless old Tory who will smash the poor and the workers and make London a city for the rich and powerful. In reality, Boris looks like he will follow in ‘Red’ Ken’s footsteps: he’ll be green, obsessed with crime, and he won’t think twice about instituting new bans on boozing, debauchery or anything else that might damage ‘London’s reputation’ (10).

Labour supporters and liberal commentators are turning Boris into a cartoon villain, a wicked Tory against whom they can define themselves and their political mission. They endlessly talk up the fact that he is ‘posh’ and went to ‘public school’, and is the ‘Wodehousian embodiment’ of an old Tory (11). Indeed, having argued that Boris would be the worst thing that could happen to London, some are now claiming that his election as mayor is a boon for Labour, as it will show the people of London what the Tories are really like and thus potentially boost Labour’s fortunes in time for the next General Election (12). On Saturday, disgruntled Labour supporters are planning to gather at City Hall with t-shirts saying ‘Fuck off Boris’ or ‘I didn’t vote Boris, so don’t blame me’. This irrational, screeching anti-Boris campaign is driven by a bizarre new victim mentality amongst Labour supporters, and by a desperate hope that Boris will fuck up enough to allow the beleaguered Gordon Brown to crawl back into No.10 in a couple of years time. Politics doesn’t get more desperate than this.

Far from freeing or smashing London, Boris looks set to take it down a similar managerial, uninspiring path as Ken. And that’s a good enough reason to kickstart a serious Boris critique, rather than indulging the mad fantasies that he is a white knight of liberty or a new black night of Thatcherite Toryism descending over the capital.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume explained Brown’s and New Labour’s collapse. Elsewhere he argued that the contest to be London mayor showed we are living in an age of second-preference politics. Tim Black found local election posters patronising. Neil Davenport characterised the London Mayoral contest as a squabble over a polluted fiefdom. Because of his support for the MMR vaccine, Boris Johnson received Michael Fitzpatrick‘s backing. Emily Hill said the politics of Boris and Ken highlighted the cult of personality. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Boris Johnson is a libertarian, but he is not a Tory, Independent, 5 May 2008

(2) Boris in row over Jamie remarks, BBC News, 3 October 2006

(3) Johnson ‘would destroy London’s unity’ as mayor, Guardian, 4 August 2007

(4) Johnson ‘would destroy London’s unity’ as mayor, Guardian, 4 August 2007

(5) Chavs, losers, addicts and frankfurter buses, Guardian, 17 July 2007

(6) When chavs attack!, Dr Feelgood, 12 January 2006

(7) Boris: I’d ban booze on Tube, MayorWatch, 3 April 2008

(8) Enter the jester, Comment Is Free, 2 May 2008

(9) See spiked issue: Free speech

(10) Boris: I’d ban booze on Tube, MayorWatch, 3 April 2008

(11) Enter the jester, Comment Is Free, 2 May 2008

(12) We are really in trouble, Comment Is Free, 2 May 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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