The Adventures of Boris

The Ongoing Adventures of Boris Johnson have made their way around the world, and last Wednesday the blighter landed the UK’s top job. No sooner had he walked through the door at Number 10 he conducted a Bonfire of the Cabinet, purging not only Remainers but banishing his rival for the Conservative Party leadership — erstwhile Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt — to the backbenches.

He then selected the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in British history, among other appointments elevating liberal Muslim Sajid Javid to the Chancellery and Ugandan-Indian Priti Patel to the Home Office. There of course followed a national outbreak of Boris Derangement Syndrome, because while immensely popular with the electorate (he not only scored a thumping victory in the Conservative Party leadership ballot but produced an instant 10 per cent poll bounce for the Tories), Johnson infuriates many metropolitan liberals, especially feminists and professional Muslims.

A brilliant linguist and classicist known as much for reciting The Aeneid and The Iliad in the Commons and on telly as he is for his political career, he lives rather like the upper-class Roman men he studied at Oxford. It’s unclear how many children he has by how many women (Wikipedia suggests five or six), although like a Populares senator he is refreshingly un-hypocritical about it. I covered the final leadership hustings in London and there was an attempt from the audience to put him on the spot about his rather louche lifestyle. “I believe firmly in a woman’s right to choose,” he said simply, and moved on. Later, he waved a smoked kipper around his head while explaining how the UK’s cack-handed implementation of an EU Directive had made life difficult for people on the Isle of Man who wanted to send them to customers through the post. 

There is a sense in which only Johnson could do this (both kipper-waving and living like a Roman aristocrat) and get away with it; that he’s judged differently from other British politicians because he is charming and haystack-haired and shambolic. Brits, recall, love a sex scandal. Profumo was the most famous because it scooped up spies and Soviets and precipitated a lengthy trial, but my personal favourite is Lord Lambton’s. He was victim of a News of the World sting that saw the paper installing a tape recorder and camera in holes in his favoured brothel’s wall and inserting a second camera inside a teddy bear on the bed. The devices caught him indulging in BDSM with two naked women. All three were smoking cannabis. His political career in tatters, he wound up on BBC Panorama explaining how “the sheer tedium” of his ministerial role had driven him “to the twin hobbies of gardening and whores.”

There are Boris-stories like this in abundance, and it’s pointless trying to recount them all because you’ll finish up missing several (or many) and unless carefully chosen they generate more heat than light. One, however, really does give a sense of his ability to engage the electorate and annoy the moral-peacocking-classes. 

This time last year, Boris (almost never “Johnson”, and seldom “Boris Johnson”) used his column in the Telegraph (“Torygraph” over here) to write a paean to Denmark’s idiosyncrasy: its anarchist communes, helmetless cyclists on granny bikes, and skinny-dipping exercise enthusiasts. 

He also took a pop at its decision to ban full-face coverings in public — the burka, the niqab, and other religious face-concealing garments. 

Denmark’s ban is European, or rather, Roman. The Roman law that provides the European Union’s legal spine has always cared more about public performance of citizenship than its great jurisdictional rival, the English common law. This has been true since antiquity, and Johnson knows it — he once wrote a book about it. In the old days, Romans threw monotheists to the lions (Christians) and crushed their territorial ambitions (Jews). These days — while wearing a pretty blue and gold EU hat — they’re content to tell them what to wear. Denmark joined France, Germany, Austria, and Belgium in enacting a complete ban. Other EU countries enforce a partial ban, often with some rigour.

However, while chipping Denmark for, well, failing to be British, Boris compared wearers of full-face veils to letterboxes (do recall what a pillar box looks like, and how they can sometimes be painted black in addition to the usual red) and bank robbers. It’s an old British joke (Stephen Fry made a version of it in 1999 on Have I Got News For You). We have a thing about letterboxes. People go looking for them when they visit former British colonies. Suffragettes used to firebomb them.

Cue the raining of calumnies on his head. There were demands from then-PM Theresa May on down for him to apologise. Accusations of “Islamophobia” were hurled at Boris. An internal Conservative Party investigation bearing all the hallmarks of a stitch-up soon followed his comments. Also proffered was the now customary moan (offered without a shred of evidence) that Boris’s words amounted to violence and put Muslims at risk. Normally sensible Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson went so far as to compare wearing a full-face veil to “wearing a crucifix”. 

Boris, being Boris, refused to apologise or comment further, instead plying reporters camped outside his house with tea in an odd assortment of mugs. Both then and during the leadership campaign he made the fairly basic point that if a politician has a particular schtick he is entitled to use it. Boris’s stock-in-trade is mockery and being a wind-up merchant. Politician engages in politics. News at 6. 

He also received support from unexpected quarters. Comedian Rowan Atkinson — while taking care not to show his political views — wrote a letter to The Times saying he thought “Boris Johnson’s joke … a pretty good one. An almost perfect visual simile.” He went on to note “all jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them.”

Atkinson’s intervention outraged Twitter’s offendotrons, who — chagrined that their target isn’t on the platform so can’t be abused — whipped themselves into paroxysms of hate, fuelled in many cases by burning copies of Blackadder and Mr Bean. If nothing else, this discloses how many lefties simply do not understand capitalism. Atkinson, of course, already has their money. 

Of course, this was a proxy-war over Brexit. Boris was and is the face of the wider Leave movement. Theresa May has always been at serious risk from his barely-concealed leadership ambitions: as an enormously clever scholarship boy at Eton he wrote an essay where he said he aspired “to be world-king”. He has been on manoeuvres for at least a decade and knows wit is his best weapon, and not only against the leaden-footed May.

Independently of the on-going Brexit shemozzle, however, Boris was not only correct but knew intuitively he had the electorate with him. 

If you wear silly clothes you will be laughed at, and this includes religious clothes of every stripe. Even moderate versions of female Islamic dress (and the male dishdasha in Saudi Arabia) often look like the wearer has raided a drapery and mistaken curtain material for apparel. Rasta dreadlocks and Jewish payot — especially if badly maintained — resemble a mare’s nest. Much Catholic clerical attire is flamboyant and properly belongs on a Mardi Gras float. And there is a reason Margaret Atwood used a nun’s wimple as the basis for her mandated “modest” dress in The Handmaid’s Tale: it’s at once hilarious and terrifying. 

I mean, if I don’t load my hair with product I look like I’m wearing a small poodle and anyone fool enough to get his neck or face tattooed is aware of the impact it has on his employment prospects. There’s a reason Yakuza full body tattoos can be obscured beneath a long sleeved business shirt and trousers. 

Liberal Muslim Maajid Nawaz has made a related point a number of times. He describes full-face veils like the burka and niqab as “the uniform of medieval patriarchal tyranny,” arguing that “it victim-blames women for their beauty. Where this is enforced it symbolises violent misogyny. I’m not advocating banning this monstrosity but I refuse to defend it. It deserves to be ridiculed.”

In saying this, Maajid Nawaz, the LibDem Remainer, made the same argument as Boris, the Conservative Brexiteer: and a very similar argument to Remainer Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. “When I was younger you didn’t see people in hijabs and niqabs, not even in Pakistan when I visited my family,” Khan pointed out. “What you see now are people born and raised here who are choosing to wear the jilbab or niqab. There is a question to be asked about what is going on in those homes.”

The niqab in particular is native to the Gulf region and foreign to most other Muslim countries; Malays refer to those who wear it as “ninjas”. Saudi money is helping it overrun beautiful local variations on Islamic dress — needlepoint in Pakistan, brilliant colours in Sudan and Somalia, jewel decorations in Indonesia. Nawaz also argues “women defending this have Stockholm syndrome. Liberals defending this are akin to conservatives defending the Confederate flag.” The peculiar alliance between woke feminism and conservative Islam is one of the oddities of our age. Thanks to feminist excuse-factories, there is some corner of an English village that is forever Saudi.

Female modesty norms are socially corrosive. They relieve men of the duty to exercise sexual self-control, emboldening them and shifting the burden of responsibility for male sexual conduct onto the women around them. The UK and US are not perfect in this regard, but if one travels to many Muslim-majority countries it is much worse.

The difference, of course, is that Boris made a joke good enough to satisfy Rowan Atkinson while Khan and Nawaz made sober, serious observations. Despite being just as correct as Boris, they didn’t cut through. Boris did.

The people who engaged in confected outrage over this were thus playing to a very particular “London metropolitan” anti-Boris gallery. They did so because having the Brexit argument they really wanted against someone so popular is formidably difficult. In the midst of the most significant political rupture for a generation, nothing better revealed the trivial character of public life and the pettiness of Britain’s political class than this.

Had Boris apologised, not only would his chances for the top job have been shot, no one in these Islands would even be able to contemplate writing a musical called Springtime for Mullahs, which would be a pity. Of course, that may still never happen, especially given the extent to which Leave v. Remain has polarised the UK electorate and drained away much of the natural good humour and reasonableness that once enlivened British political debate. 

Meanwhile — in the words of the Institute of Economic Affairs (famously, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite think-tank) — “newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed possibly the most liberal, free-market oriented Cabinet since the days of Margaret Thatcher”. According to the IEA, “no less than 14 cabinet members and cabinet attendees are alumni of IEA initiatives, the ‘Free Enterprise Group’ and ‘FREER’, both designed to champion ideas of free enterprise and social freedom.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Cabinet have the potential to produce British classical liberalism’s finest hour, but he and they face a formidably difficult task on top of a deadlocked House of Commons. They could fail, and fail spectacularly. 

That reality will form the subject of my next piece for Law & Liberty

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on July 30, 2019 at 11:01:03 am

So the critics of Boris Johnson represent the "moral peacocking" classes -- not, perhaps, people who fear that his "No Deal" Brexit will reintroduce deep barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, give new life to Scottish secession, and produce deeply harmful consequences to every economic sector engaged in trade between Britain and EU members? I did not find this an especially illuminating analysis, either of Johnson's policies or the perspective of his critics.

read full comment
Image of James Read
James Read
on July 30, 2019 at 11:35:11 am

Johnson is a clever man. He speaks very effectively, and can do so on his feet (although there are reports about his improvised style sometimes being an artefact). It is striking, however, that as happened on a recent TV interview, he tried to bluster and to speak with authority, even when he had to go on to admit that he was not familiar with the topic that he was being asked about. He is also very witty, although his well-known limerick about the Turkish premier Erdogan was something odd for someone to produce at his age, and when they were pursuing a serious political career of a kind that might well bring him into diplomatic contact with the subject of his poem.

He was on the side of the angels in his overall argument in his piece about the niqab. But again, his vivid imagery is something that was likely to drown out the thrust of his argument. Those women wearing this clothing, while they may sometimes be savvy people who take it up as a self-conscious form of religious identification, are more likely to be from traditional and highly patriarchal backgrounds and may find being taunted about their dress difficult to take. We need, surely, not only to take the liberty of everyone seriously, but also to behave in a civil manner towards one another.

Johnson himself is difficult to pin down politically. His new cabinet does include people who are economic liberals. But there has been a tendency within the Conservative Party since the mid-1980s, for this to amount to little more than slogans, rather than being the basis for well-though-out ideas in public policy. We shall see. It should also be noted that other aspects of some of these people’s views are a good way removed from any kind of liberalism.

What seems to me more worrying is your enthusiasm for the support that Johnson received from Conservative Party members. A major concern of the Party was to try to head off the support that Nigel Farage was drawing from them. The problem is that Johnson looks as if he has boxed himself into a corner, here. Brexit itself (on which I was not in a position to vote one way or the other as I was living in Australia at the time) poses a problem. What people voted for underdetermined what should happen. The key problems seemed to be that one either got something – as in Mrs May’s deal – which preserved the open Irish border and big trading advantages with the EU (not least, in terms of participation in just-in-time EU-wide industries), but which was not too different from, but clearly less advantageous than, EU membership. Or one got a radical break with the EU, which by all accounts (bar that favoured by those who would have the UK drop all tariffs, which it is difficult to see being politically attainable) look as if it will massively disadvantage the British economy, and hurt, particularly, a lot of the people who voted for Brexit.

Johnson’s problem, to which I alluded, is that those who are enthusiastic about him want a quick and uncomplicated exit from the EU, and which Johnson has promised to give them. This they are tending to identify with coming out without a deal. Johnson claims that he wishes to re-negotiate leaving arrangements with the EU. It is not clear that this could happen, given that the EU have indicated that Mrs May’s deal is the best that could be attained, given her demands (which it is not clear that Johnson would give up). While the demand that they drop the (temporary) Irish backstop makes little sense, given the commitment to an open land border between what would then be an EU and a non-EU regime, compounded by the particular historical character of this border. It is not clear how leaving the EU without a deal could produce anything but a mess, and all the specialist commentary that I have seen suggests that the British economy will take a hit both immediately and for many years to come. (If it is said: well, think about all the new trade deals which will come along, it is worth noting: (i) that even Canada would not roll over its existing EU agreement to the UK, because they see that they have the UK over a barrel; (ii) if you think that Trump or Morrison will give the UK a generous deal, may I interest you in the purchase of a very reasonably priced bridge in Sydney Harbour?)

I would also note, as someone resident in Scotland, that it seems to me likely that the Scottish National Party will get a major electoral boost, if, in the face of all this, they offer people the combination of getting away from the toxic English mix of Conservatives and Corbyn’s Labour Party, and the possibility of re-joining the EU.

read full comment
Image of Jeremy Shearmur
Jeremy Shearmur
on July 30, 2019 at 19:43:16 pm

I find the niqab to be more akin to a walking body bag than to a letterbox, though letterbox is certainly the more tart and catchy description.

read full comment
Image of DesertFlower
on July 30, 2019 at 21:49:39 pm

Ah, what delicious prose.

read full comment
Image of Gilbert Brahms
Gilbert Brahms
on July 31, 2019 at 01:52:28 am

James, the fact that you did not find this piece illuminating may explain your apparent lack of a sense of humour, something that most remainders seem to suffer from.

read full comment
Image of Pete Kelbrick
Pete Kelbrick
on July 31, 2019 at 13:21:38 pm

Veering off topic--

Female modesty norms are socially corrosive. They relieve men of the duty to exercise sexual self-control, emboldening them and shifting the burden of responsibility for male sexual conduct onto the women around them.

As are male sexual-control norms. Women bear some responsibility for the production of sexual tension. The niqab anchors one end of the spectrum and is clearly absurd. I would like to know the writer's view on the point along the spectrum at which women begin to share responsibility for creating the very sexual tension whose eruptions so endanger them.

I am not arguing that there is any point along any acceptable spectrum of social order at which men may be allowed to assault or force themselves on women, no matter their dress. There is no such point, not even at the end opposite the niqab. Yet I have great difficulty believing that the writer's response to every type of compulsion--the compulsion to eat, to drink, to gamble, to do drugs--is just to remind the subject of his duty of self-control.

She is a bit of a moral peacock herself here. Sexuality is not a matter of perfect free will for men (or women, I assume). For a society to require some degree of public female modesty in dress--well south of the niqab but somewhat north of Spring Break Florida--is hardly Handmaid's Tale territory. (I recognize that there are cultures/societies in which sparse female dress does not seem to cause bad behavior in men, but choose any tenet of your preferred social order and you will always be able to find one or more cultures who disregard it with no ill effects).

Would the writer refrain from advising her own teenage daughter (if she has one) of the possible risks of going out regularly in highly provocative attire, or would she consider even that to be "victim-blaming"? Would she denounce a public figure who dared suggest that women wanting to avoid becoming victims, as opposed to women whose highest ideal is righteous victimhood, modulate their public appearance to at least some degree? Or is that, like five, right out?

For all that I admired the late Christopher Hitchens, he was a severe moralist who superciliously urged the practice of fiat justitia. Dale's statement suggests that she, too, may be equally severe, and severity is equally behind the niqab.

read full comment
Image of QET
on August 01, 2019 at 08:02:23 am

Remainders may suffer from this but it's only a fractional problem.

read full comment
Image of Jon Woolven
Jon Woolven
on December 30, 2019 at 06:02:20 am

[…] its own anti-Semitism problem — to accuse Boris and Co of “Islamophobia”. Now, of course, this concept doesn’t really exist. As liberal Muslim radio DJ Maajid Nawaz points out, the term “conflates blasphemy with […]

read full comment
Image of One Nation or Bust!
One Nation or Bust!

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.