Apologies for the Boris-centered nature of this blog at the moment – but the man keeps on delivering the goods, so to speak, and it would be rude to ignore him.
The news following the mayoral election that Mr Johnson would be keeping on writing his column for the Daily Telegraph, at a rate of a cool quarter of a million per anum, was met with a mixture of surprise and outrage. Now the outrage is reasonably understandable, but the surprise really shouldn’t be. The problem is that many of the Mayor’s critics fall into the trap of dismissing him as a bumbling fool: but the truth of the matter is that he is a highly skilled political operator, and the retention of the column is a crucial part of his operations.
Johnson is clever enough to work out that the day-to-day routines of running London are not, in themselves, going to be enough to keep the Mayor in the national media eye. In fact, it won’t even necessarily keep you in the Evening Standard. This problem becomes all the more acute when your conception of the job of Mayor seems to boil down to running bus design competitions for 11 year olds and passing off your predecessor’s achievements as your own. So what’s a Mayor with greater political ambitions to do? The answer is quite simply: keep on with your previous career as a professional controversalist – especially when past experience shows that you can shrug off any ensuing criticism through your ‘loveable’ bumbling persona. So over the short life of the Johnson mayoralty, through the pages of the Telegraph we have seen Johnson call for an end to ‘neo-socialist’ whinging about bankers and house prices, slam Skegness and Eastbourne, suggest that the world’s population needs slimming down and, now for the second time, support Barack Obama for the presidency.
Johnson’s most recent article has raised two issues in my mind. The more substantive issues about race relations I will deal with in a moment, but let me get my slightly flippant whinge out of the way first. In the column, the Mayor says that Obama deserves to win because
he seems talented, compassionate, and because he offers the hope of rejuvenating the greatest country on earth in the eyes of the rest of us.
The greatest nation on earth? I’m fascinated as to how it is that a senior British politician can get away with such a statement about a country that isn’t their own (alright – Boris was born in New York, but left aged – I think – 2 and is a British citizen and politician). Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t think Britain is the greatest country on earth – but then I don’t think there is such a thing. I find the American requirement for its politicians to constantly describe their nation as the greatest on earth mildly sickening. But what worries me here is the double standards. Firstly, that it is only the right that can get away with such a statement – because unlike those dodgy lefties their patriotism is not in question; and secondly that such a statement would probably only be acceptable from a British politician if they were referring to the US. Let us, for example, imagine that last year Livingstone, whilst Mayor, had written a column saying:
Royal deserves to win because she seems talented, compassionate, and because she offers the hope of rejuvenating the greatest country on earth in the eyes of the rest of us.
Now, I happen to know that Livingstone would have much preferred to see Bertrand Delanoë run as PS candidate for the French presidency, but leaving that aside let us imagine for a moment the utter outrage that this statement would have caused on the right. I have absolutely no doubt that at least one Tory Assembly Member (yes, you, Mr Coleman), would have called for the Mayor’s resignation for having described those goddam Bonapartists across the Channel as ‘the greatest country on earth’. Or if a senior Labour cabinet minister were to endorse Frank-Walter Steinmeier for German Chancellor by saying he was the best qualified candidate to lead ‘the greatest country on earth’. Heads would, quite simply, roll. Yet not a soul has picked Boris up on this and I confidently predict that they will not.
Now, to more important matters – and why Boris’ column is a lot more sinister than the blatant bit of bandwagon jumping that it appears on first sight to be. The final paragraphs of the article read:
If Obama wins, then black people the world over will be able to see how a gifted man has been able to smash through the ultimate glass ceiling. If Obama wins, then it will be simply fatuous to claim that there are no black role models in politics or government, because there is no higher role model than the President of the United States.
If Barack Hussein Obama is successful next month, then we could even see the beginning of the end of race-based politics, with all the grievance-culture and special interest groups and political correctness that come with it. If Obama wins, he will have established that being black is as relevant to your ability to do a hard job as being left-handed or ginger-haired, and he will have re-established America’s claim to be the last, best hope of Earth.
So there you have it – Boris’ pay-off for Telegraph readers. If Obama wins, then we’ll be able to tell all those uppity ethnic minorities to shut up, go home and take their ‘grievances’ with them. Don’t they realise that one of theirs is now the most powerful man in the world? Don’t they realise that this removes any need for further efforts to promote equality, fair treatment or to tackle racism, bigotry or hatred (that’s ‘political correctness’ in Telegraph-speak, by the way)?
There can be few more insulting bits of terminology that ‘grievance-culture’. It is, quite simply a convenient way of dismissing and belittling anyone who might consider that ethnic minorities, women, the LGBT community or disabled people have had and continue to have a less than fair deal in modern society. And if you can dismiss deep-seated discrimination in such a cavalier fashion, then you can quite easily see how you can arrive at the viewpoint whereby a figurehead from a particular group negates the day-to-day experiences of that group. If we take Boris’ position on Obama and apply it to some of his actions since becoming Mayor, it produces some worrying conclusions: presumably when he sacked the Mayor’s Womens’ Advisor and then abolished the post he was thinking “well, we’ve had a female prime minister, so what are they whinging about? They practically run the country, yet they still sit there complaining about low pay, glass ceilings and domestic violence.”
So, in Boris-world, the election of a president from a pretty privileged background, who happens to be black, will put an end to the concerns and political activism amongst black communities in the US over the disproportionate levels of poverty, low educational standards, lack of access to healthcare, unemployment, limited promotion opportunities and political representation. But Boris is wrong, for any number of reasons. Firstly, because evidently the simple fact of the election of President Obama will do nothing concrete to change the day-to-day experiences of black Americans. I have no doubt that President McCain would make a bad situation still worse (especially on healthcare), but I am equally convinced that Obama has neither the ability or the political will to engage in the wholesale tearing up of the basic tenets of American capitalism that would be required to eradicate the discrimination inherent in the system. So, Boris, so long as the causes of the anger remain in place, what you call the ‘politics of grievance’ and I would call ‘the fight for fair and equal treatment’ (but we won’t quibble over semantics) is likely to remain in place, even if the rich, white men who make up the establishments of the western world have deigned to allow someone who doesn’t share one of those attributes to rise to power. If having representatives of minorities occasionally allowed near the levers of influence wiped out the need for ‘grievance’ politics, by Boris’ reckoning surely that point arrived when Colin Powell became Secretary of State?
And the second reason why Johnson is wrong has been demonstrated all too clearly in the US over the past few weeks – that for a significant portion of the population (and this applies to the UK just as much), out-and-out racism remains perfectly acceptable in the public forum. Or that, for example, until his death in 2003, a supporter of segregation sat on the Republican benches in the Senate. Still worse has been the fact that portions of the Republican ticket, notably the V-P nominee, have been clearly happy to go along with the race-baiting and Islamophobic rumour-spreading. We don’t even have to look that far for examples of this – members of Johnson’s own party who are openly supporting McCain on the internet make great play of describing the Democratic nominee as Barack Hussein Obama, yet in articles about his Republican rival never seem to have the courtesy to call him John Sidney McCain.
And if Boris wants to claim that there is no further need for the fight for ‘political correctness’ in the UK, he need only glance across the chamber at the next Mayor’s Question Time to catch a glimpse of an elected London Assembly member whose basic political belief is that black people have no place in Britain. It will take a lot more than the election of a black US president before anti-racism campaigns in Britain can disband and stand down.
In a way though, Johnson is right – the election of Obama, if it happens, will indeed be a breakthrough for race relations. But he is wrong to suggest that it will mark some sort of end-point. It is probably not even, and I’m sure Boris will approve of some Churchillian prose, the beginning of the end of the fight against discrimination and racism. The end point is likely to arrive somewhere around the point where a black person can be elected President of the US without anyone batting an eyelid about their race. And yes, in Britain we have come some way in the field of representation. Black people can rise some distance politically without their race being an issue – for example, the Chair of the London Assembly is a black woman, a fact which has attracted no adverse comment: no one asked ‘Is London ready for a black Assembly Chair?’. But that is a job of very limited influence and power. Does Johnson really believe that a black person could rise to be Mayor of London, a senior cabinet minister or Prime Minister without the spectre of racism rearing its head? After all, having a white male Mayor who openly sought to tackle racism and discrimination seemed to be a bit too much for some voters.
I opened this post by saying that Boris is clever – and the way he has used Obama in this article only goes to prove that. When I look across the Atlantic I am of course pleased to see a black presidential nominee with an excellent chance of winning. But I also know that when he is the first member of an ethnic minority to get on a major party ticket in the 220-year history of the presidency that this is little more than a tiny step forward in the fight against bigotry and discrimination. And when I see a Tory trying to use that tiny step forward as an excuse to shut down the debate over equality and fairness in my own country, I’m afraid my hackles rise.
Boris, your support for Obama may be genuine, but your motives, alas, seem far from pure.