Over the last week the British press has been reacting to comments the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, made in an article he wrote examining whether banning Muslim women from wearing the burqa is appropriate. In the article he joked that women in the burqa look like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes.” This predictably led to a huge debate in the UK about whether this is Johnson exercising his free speech, or whether he was fuelling Islamophobia and attacks on Muslim women.
The article in fact argued against a ban on the burqa, but the use of language led the Muslim Conservative Peer, Lord Sheikh to make a complaint about Boris Johnson, after which he received over 50 Islamophobic, racist, and threatening emails. This supports the criticism that when a leading politician uses language like this, it directly leads to a rise in actual racist violence. All of this comes at a time that the Conservative party is struggling with accusations of endemic Islamophobia from its own politicians, and the Labour party is equally dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism.
But I think there is a bigger picture here and we need to look beyond the outrage.
If the last 2 years has taught us anything it is that outrage is generally a smokescreen. That is the case with Boris Johnson’s comments about burqas. He is provoking outrage from both sides, those who think he is being offensive and provoking Islamophobic violence, especially against women, and those who think he is exercising free speech and protecting liberal values. I would argue that the debate he has provoked is an intentional distraction from what is actually going on. The timeline tells the story.
First, he resigned as Foreign Secretary, claiming this was in opposition to Theresa May’s compromise on Brexit. This was in fact a week before he knew that Vote Leave would be found guilty of breaching electoral law, fined, and referred to the police. I think it is very unlikely he could have remained as Foreign Secretary — one of the three most senior positions in British politics — when a campaign he was leading was shown to have broken the laws that protect our democracy. So I think he used Theresa May’s Brexit compromise as a way of resigning with dignity a week before he knew he would have been fired, or forced to resign in disgrace.
Then Steve Bannon came to Europe, met Johnson, and announced he was going to coordinate the populist right wing political parties of Europe. This included Bannon suggesting Boris Johnson should become the next British Prime Minister. After this, the Spectator, a right wing Conservative magazine, wrote an article coming out in favour of Boris Johnson as the next leader, and in effect supporting a leadership challenge to Theresa May after the summer.
Then Boris Johnson writes an article about a complex topic, and uses careless, populist language about Muslim women. Nothing is an accident. Johnson may not be wise, or intellectual, but he is an experienced journalist, clever, and utterly driven, so do not think he wrote this by mistake. It is already observed that he used this article to align himself with the Right of his party, and I think more so with the populist wing of the Conservatives, and with UKIP.
This is the beginning of his bid to take on Theresa May, and to become Prime Minister on the same message as Trump — isolationist, divisionist, anti-immigrant, and racist. Brexit is to Johnson what The Wall is to Trump. Muslims are to Johnson what Mexicans are to Trump. This shift to the right happened after Boris met with Bannon, so assume that it is on the advice of Bannon: do like Trump did.
Neither Trump nor Johnson really have any beliefs. Both have supported whatever cause they think will better their chances of winning power. Boris has shifted from pro-Remain (read the article he never published supporting Remain) to pro-Leave, and from a fairly liberal pro-immigration Mayor of London (which is necessary to be Mayor of London) to the populist nationalist he is now unveiling in the media, because he believes that will win him the leadership of the Conservative party. Now, one by one, Rees-Mogg, Duncan Smith, and the hard right of the party are supporting him, whilst others in the party accuse him of ‘moral emptiness and ‘casual racism.’ This is the beginning of a plan to engineer a split within the party that will define a leadership race.
To get outraged by what Boris Johnson wrote is to miss the point. The outrage should be that Johnson is aping Trump and drawing the British political discourse hard to the right in order to satisfy his personal ambition to become Prime Minister.
It seems there is no end to the damage he is willing to inflict on the country to become Prime Minister. Almost by default, anyone that ambitious should be barred from political office for the sake of everyone else. The debate the papers have been drawn into having is keeping Boris in the news whilst May is on holiday. It is also testing the water to see quite how far right he can push his politics before he crosses a line.
Consider this burqa article a trial run in populism, a strategic play to see quite what the country and media can stomach. If he finds he went too far, he can apologise. If however his comments prove useful, he will stand by them and continue down that path, drawing in the right of his party, and perhaps UKIP. Consider this in the same vein as the interpretation of Trump’s migrant child separations, which was explained by Finan o’Toole as “a trial run for fascism”
It is not an exercise in freedom of speech as various pundits and politicians have suggested. Of course we should be free to make jokes about each other, offend each other, and in particular take satirical aim at religion. The criticism of what Boris Johnson said should not be that he was offensive. That distracts from the point. It is also not about the burqa. It is of course appropriate to have a sensible and balanced discussion about how religions manifest themselves in what is now predominantly a non-religious country.
Combining the two is where the problem starts. A sensible debate does not include offensive jokes, and political leaders should not incite hatred and racial violence, especially not to win political points. Once we become a society in which leadership or general elections are fought by targeting scapegoats, or implying some people are less valid or less English than others, we have turned the corner onto a road that ultimately does lead to some form of Fascism. Fascism is an approach, not a state. Fascism uses hatred of minorities or scapegoats to unite populist voters behind a leader who no-longer rules for everyone.
There is a long tradition of ‘one nation’ Conservatism, in which the Conservative party may only consist of a small section of the upper echelons of society, but felt it had a duty to run the country for the whole of society. That is already over, much to the shame of the Conservatives who destroyed it, but Johnson’s comments show a man willing to run a populist campaign to create a government that no longer runs the country for everyone, but only for Brexiteering, isolationist, xenophobic voters who back him. This is what Trump has done in America. He runs the country only for the Billionaires who support him, and his base who vote for him. Everyone else is an enemy.
Discussing burqas is fine. Doing so in language that will clearly incite racism isn’t. Politicians need to show leadership and thought. This isn’t about liberal values or free speech, it’s about a dangerously ambitious politician choosing to use right wing populism to achieve his goals, and damaging the country and harming people as a result. Do not be distracted by the burqa comments, they are misdirection. See this for what it is.