Boris and the ‘politics of misbehaviour’

The London mayor’s anti-booze ban and the inebriated protest against it reveal a lot about killjoyism and radicalism today.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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It’s been a weird four weeks in London. First, the man obligatorily referred to as a ‘bumbling buffoon’ or ‘Tory twit’ – that’s Boris Johnson – was elected mayor, and no sooner had he taken up residence in City Hall than he was instituting the kind of authoritarian measures he once would have slated as the bossy ‘schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain’. Most notably – but for no notable reason – he banned the consumption of alcohol on public transport.

Then, a Facebook-generated swarm of young people, ranging from Hooray Henries and Henriettas to lads-who-like-lager, protested against the ban by holding an all-night, blurry-eyed party on the Circle Line on the London Underground. On the evening of Saturday 31 May, just hours before the booze ban came into effect on 1 June, a thousand or so revellers crammed themselves into carriages and got off their rockers to the rocking of the Tube.

Perhaps this is the widely predicted ‘Boris effect’, where London looks set to become a Carry On-style joke under the ridiculous rule of a clownish toff from Bullingdon? Not quite. In truth, the arrival of yet another authoritarian in City Hall, and the inebriated protest against his illiberal writ, provide a striking snapshot of contemporary authoritarianism, and contemporary radicalism.

The weirdness of the past four weeks shows that for all Boris’s pre-mayoral denunciations of our ‘paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness’, in fact the ‘politics of behaviour’ – of intervening in public space and in personal life – is increasingly the only game in town. And it shows that one of the few ways people feel able to challenge the new authoritarianism is by pursuing the politics of misbehaviour, by letting out a sort of juvenile screech of rage rather than forcing politicians to rethink and retreat.

Boris’s booze ban is an ominous, needless, kneejerk gesture. There is no ‘culture of boozing’ on London buses or Tube trains. London’s transport system is relatively safe: last year, there was one assault for every 449,690 commuters on the London Underground, compared with one for every 222,360 commuters on Perth Railways in Australia (where many Brits migrate when they’ve had enough of allegedly crime-ridden, grime-stained London). The ban will not prevent drunk people from getting on public transport: most people get pissed in pubs, clubs or at house parties and then board a bus or a train in order to stagger (or if they’ve had a good night, swagger) home.

The ban is unnecessary, since British Transport Police (BTP) already have the power to arrest someone who is drunk and disorderly, and it is unenforceable: both London Underground staff and the BTP have said they don’t mind the ban, but using it won’t be at the top of their To Do lists.

Boris’s pointless anti-booze measure captures the essence of the new authoritarianism: it is a way for disorientated and directionless politicians to look strong by shadowboxing with phantom threats to society. Unlike authoritarian clampdowns in the past, the behaviour-policing measures of both New Labour and the ‘new Conservatives’ are not attempts to impose a clear political will on a disobedient populace – they’re about creating the illusion of political will where none exists. At a time when Britain’s ruling parties are devoid of the vision thing, they compensate by endlessly legislating against things. Today’s unheroic, ideology-shy politicians leave their mark on society, not by making a profound political speech or by founding an eponymous ‘ism’, but by passing reams and reams of pernickety, petty and frequently bossy laws.

In its first 10 years in power, from 1997 to the end of 2006, New Labour legislated more than any other government in British history: it created more than 3,000 new crimes (almost one new crime a day!) and passed more than 32,000 statutory instruments; it brought in five Acts on immigration, seven on terrorism, 10 on education, 11 on health and social care, and 23 on criminal justice.

And now Boris – who once posed as Mr God-I-Hate-Tony-Blair – looks set to smother London in byelaws, rules and regulations. The inexorable turn towards legislation, legislation, legislation reflects the demise of Politics with a capital P. Something like Boris’s ban serves no practical purpose whatever – but it allows a new mayor who is bereft of vision or ideological daring to make some kind of mark on the city, even if it’s only through those garish blue posters on tubes and buses telling us that ‘drinking alcohol is prohibited’ in order to ‘make everyone’s journey more pleasant’. Those two p-words – ‘prohibited’ and ‘pleasant’ – let us know that Boris is both Strong and Caring.

For all his careerist Blair-bashing in the past, Boris’s ban fits perfectly with the Blairite ‘politics of behaviour’, the Orwellian name given by one New Labour minister to the government’s crusade against wicked, unhealthy, immoral living, such as drinking more than three units of wine in an evening or enjoying the odd fag 1.5 metres away from the entrance to a pub. Officialdom’s project of behaviour management is an attempt to alleviate their own profound crisis of legitimacy. In the absence of any social vision – or of any concept of ‘the social’ at all – they try to re-label the problems of society as springing from personal or psychological defects on the part of weak-minded, fickle citizens. Just as they have moved from proper politics to petty legislation, so they have shifted from improving the social to correcting the individual. So Boris becomes mayor of one of the greatest cities on Earth, and what does he do? He bans individuals from sipping a bottle of Bud on the Tube.

Yet if Boris’s ban was mad, then the protest against it was mad, too – or at least a little strange. The ‘Last Round on the Underground’, the rather raucous, drunken party on the Circle Line to say ‘Buck Foris’ (geddit?), revealed something quite sobering about the state of anti-authoritarian protest today.

The authorities’ ‘politics of behaviour’ seems to have nurtured its opposite: the politics of misbehaviour. Increasingly, those who are agitated by petty bans, PC censorship or emotional correctness react against these things, not by challenging the patronising ideas that underpin them, but by rudely breaking the rules. In the absence of a true radical vision today – or even a clear political language in which to express their opposition – protesters tend to play up in order to register their outrage. So recently, those concerned about multicultural censoriousness reacted against it by ‘daringly’ publishing silly cartoons of Mohammad with a bomb in his turban; and on Saturday, people pissed off with Boris’s enforced sobriety challenged it by getting sloshed. It seems that the more the authorities treat us as children, the more some people start to behave like children. Naughty ones.

There was also something fatalistic about the anti-Boris party. It was not an attempt to overturn the ban, and protect public space from the prying eyes of City Hall curmudgeons, but rather to commemorate its introduction. This was the ‘Last Round on the Underground’; it was a ‘last hurrah’. The party was about ‘marking the occasion’, according to many revellers, and having a bit of craic before the next morning’s crackdown. The protesters seemed not to believe that they could strike the new ban off the local statutes; instead they wanted to express their drunken disgruntlement with it before the clock struck midnight.

This absence of a feeling of agency, of being able to turn events around, is widespread in public protest today. Anti-war protesters in Hyde Park in 2003 felt they couldn’t prevent the invasion of Iraq, but just wanted to say that it was ‘not in my name’. Now anti-Boris protesters simply have one more knees-up before ‘the inevitable’ occurs. The party-on-the-Tube captured both the unformed, somewhat kidult and individuated nature of anti-authoritarian agitation, and its political acquiescence.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx marked the cards of snobby, petty authoritarians – the Boris Johnsons of his day. In the mid-1850s the British government sought to restrict Sunday trading and limit the opening hours of pubs on Sunday evenings. Marx recognised these as attacks on the working class, which ‘receives its wages late on Saturdays; Sunday trading, therefore, exists solely for them’. He derided meddling officials as a new kind of hectoring religionist: ‘The classical saints of Christianity mortified their bodies to save the souls of the masses; the modern, educated saints mortify the bodies of the masses to save their own souls.’ That is an almost perfect description of New Labour and Boris, too, who similarly obsess over the personal antics of the masses in order to ‘save their own souls’ – or at least cover their own arses.

Yet in 1855, people did not react against trading bills and temperance measures by smashing up shops or getting hammered – they organised a mass demonstration in Hyde Park, moving Marx to write: ‘[W]e can state without exaggeration that yesterday in Hyde Park the English revolution began.’ We could do with a revolution in ideas today, to challenge the reorientation of politics around petty personal behaviour and killjoyism. But to have a revolution, you need to sober up.

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

Previously on spiked

Suzy Dean raised a glass to freedom of choice. Brendan O’Neill attacked London’s illiberal, intolerant new rulers. Prior to that, he asked the real Boris to stand up. Elsewhere, he thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Neil Davenport noted how Britain is undergoing prohibition by stealth and wondered if the government knows its limits. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

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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