The Conservative Party’s immense election victory means it must bind up the wounds the referendum and subsequent polarisation opened in the body politic.
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.