by Mary Jackson (May 2008)
I like to make a virtue of necessity. My May article is, of necessity, late, but has the virtue of incorporating the result of the recent election for Mayor of London. The winner, as all British and most American readers will know, was one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Supporters and detractors alike know him simply as Boris. Like his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, he needs no surname. There is only one Boris:
I have made no secret of my unequivocal support for Boris. Readers of my posts on The Iconoclast, our Community Blog, may have inferred that I have a “soft spot” for him. This is true, and I know it, so I must make a conscious effort to be hard-headed in my judgement, both now, and as he settles into the role.
Boris has faults. He is not the “buffoon” that his opponents think he is – the fool to Ken’s knave – but he is, as Hugh Fitzgerald observed, “hardly ideal”:
Johnson is hardly ideal. He's flighty. But he'll have to do. Ignorant armies all over the Western world are clashing by day and night. The hapless citizens must choose the slightly less ignorant, the slightly more hopeful, the ones who "show potential." It's all we can do.
[W]ith Mr Johnson, more than most, the gap between talk and action remains unbridged. No one doubts the quality of his intellect. A respectable majority of Londoners have shelved what doubts they had about his seriousness. Yet few pretend that he has much genuine appetite for detail or first-hand expertise in tackling crime, public transport or economic development.
And, The Times argues, he is inexperienced:
He must confound those in the capital and its assembly who remain deeply worried because, until this morning, he had not been directly responsible for anything bigger than a conservative magazine or the Henley constituency.
These criticisms are undoubtedly true, and yet I feel hopeful. Set against his faults, Boris has many good qualities. Here are some of the most important:
- He is not Ken Livingstone.
- He is humble.
- He is intelligent and well-educated.
- He is fun.
- He has some understanding of Islam.
To praise a man for not being someone else is usually to damn with faint praise. Not so when his opponent is Ken Livingstone. Ousting Red Ken was an act of giant-killing, as the Spectator’s Matthew d’Ancona pointed out:
Be in no doubt: this is a sensational achievement. Ken Livingstone has dominated London politics for a quarter century and presided over a coalition of formidable strength. In 2000, he ran rings around the New Labour machine at its mightiest. To dislodge him is a historic act of giant-killing and a remarkable moment in the capital's political history.
It is not good for anyone to have so much power for so long, but Ken’s reign has been particularly malevolent. He has squandered Londoners’ money, packed his office with cronies, turned London into his personal fiefdom and ridden roughshod over Londoners’ wishes. He has embraced – sometimes literally – IRA terrorist leaders, Communist dictators, and most recently Sheikh “kill-the-Jews-beat-the-wives-and-stone-the-gays” Qaradawi. Moreover, he is borderline anti-Semitic. His comparison of a Jewish newspaper reporter to a concentration camp guard and his refusal to apologise show him to be, if not actually anti-Semitic, indifferent to the sensitivities of this, and only this, ethnic minority. His remark about the Jewish Reuben brothers who were obstructing land acquisition for the 2012 Olympics, “Perhaps if they're not happy here they can go back to Iran,” was boorish and arrogant, not to say ignorant – the businessmen were from India and of Iraqi extraction. It is difficult to imagine Ken, who has made his career opposing real and imagined racism, saying this about blacks or Asians, particularly those “Asians” who follow Mohammed.
Confirmation of Ken’s anti-Semitism may be found in his remarks about Israel. It is often said that you can oppose Israel without being anti-Semitic. But if you only oppose Israel, and make much of its “crimes” while ignoring the real crimes of other nations, then you are anti-Semitic. Ken is all but silent on human rights abuses in Arab and Muslim countries, and in Cuba and China. Stopping short of comparing Israeli policies to those of the Nazis, he shows a shameless bias against that beleagered country, and implies that support for Israel justifies Muslim terrorism:
For 20 years Israeli governments have attempted to portray anyone who forcefully criticises the policies of Israel as anti-semitic. The truth is the opposite: the same universal human values that recognise the Holocaust as the greatest racist crime of the 20th century require condemnation of the policies of successive Israeli governments — not on the absurd grounds that they are Nazi or equivalent to the Holocaust, but because ethnic cleansing, discrimination and terror are immoral.
They are also fuelling anger and violence across the world. For a mayor of London not to speak out against such injustice would not only be wrong — but would also ignore the threat it poses to the security of all Londoners.
If Ken was as bad as all that, you may be thinking, unseating him must have been easy. Not so. Ironically Ken himself said in 1998:
"It gets progressively more difficult to defeat a well dug-in incumbent who has been able to establish extensive systems of patronage... Corruption tends to flourish the longer an incumbent is able to hang on to power".
Boris’ achievement is considerable. He fought against all odds. He was believed to be the "joke candidate", the outsider and the clown. Londoners might have liked him for this, but they would not have elected him.
For a cavalier, sometimes considered to be a dilettante, he worked hard too, and made sacrifices. His father Stanley, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, said that he knew Boris was serious and determined, first because he gave up drinking for the three-month duration of the campaign, and secondly because he resisted the temptation to make jokes that were crying out to be made. I fully understand this. I would need to want something very badly indeed to go without a drink for three months, but I know that I could do this if I had to. But passing up a joke opportunity is something I could not do, not for all the tea in China. Boris is a better man than I am.
For getting rid of Ken, Boris deserves our hearty congratulations.
Humility is not the first quality one associates with Boris. Like many politicians, he is ruthlessly ambitious and has a large ego. He is bumptious, and rushes in where wise men fear to tread. He doesn’t have humble hair. So why do I say he is humble?
Humility takes different forms. A man may bow and scrape and be a tyrant. Boris does the opposite. He listens and takes advice. During his campaign, he listened to his Australian strategist Lynton Crosby, and targeted London’s outer boroughs. Ken thought this beneath him. Once there, he listened to the people. There are signs that, once in power, he will continue to listen. Today’s Telegraph reports that he plans to take advice from Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York:
As the new mayor promised to work “night and day” for Londoners, sources said his meeting with Mr Bloomberg on Friday would play a key role in defining the Johnson administration.
Mr Johnson is understood to be keen to learn from his New York counterpart, who has successfully put himself above partisan party politics and has twice been elected as a Republican in what is generally a Democrat-leaning city.
In his acceptance speech on Friday night, Mr Johnson promised to work to earn the trust of the millions of Londoners who did not vote for him, and accepted that even some of those who did may have had reservations.
Mr Johnson is also said to be keen to explore some of Mr Bloomberg’s policies, especially on education. The New Yorker has abolished his city’s board of education and taken personal responsibility for its schools, a move some Tories believe the party should emulate in Britain.
If you lack the knowledge and experience for a job, it is surely admirable and wise to acknowledge this and to learn from those who have it. Likewise, a good leader should acknowledge his limitations and delegate. Boris is no organiser, and even his supporters have expressed doubts at his ability to manage a large budget and tackle crime and public transport. However, if Boris cannot do it himself, the next best thing is for him to put in place good people to delegate to. Ken’s subordinates were “yes men”. Boris, I am confident, will not make the same mistake. And, having delegated the fine detail, for which he has limited aptitude, Boris will free up his time, talent and charisma for the bigger picture, and changing perceptions of a London that for so long was mired in corruption and folly.
So yes, Boris is humble. The right kind of humble.
Intelligent and well-educated
Oxford Classics graduate Boris will learn, not only from Bloomberg, but also from Pericles:
[T]his classicist takes us back to the first flowering of democratic politics in Athens: his hero is Pericles, leader of that city state in its golden age in the fifth century BC.
As far as I can see, none of the politicians and pundits who wonder whether Boris is "serious" has troubled to glance at Pericles.
Like the ancient Athenians, Boris is uncensorious about what people get up to in private, but determined that the law must be respected.
His plan to stamp out rowdy behaviour by hooligan children on the top deck of buses is not just some shoot-from-the-hip wheeze, but an expression of his deep understanding that liberty and civilisation depend on the rule of law.
Ken Livingstone probably thinks Pericles rhymes with clericals.
Editor of The Spectator at just thirty-fve, Boris writes clear, witty prose. He is the author of Seventy-Two Virgins, a humorous novel, and of The Dream of Rome, which discusses how the Roman Empire achieved political and cultural unity and contrasts the failure of the European Union to do the same. Sometime President of the Association of Classical Teachers, he successfully campaigned for the retention of Ancient History A-Level:
“The birth of Athenian democracy, the transition of Rome from republic to empire: these were critical events in the shaping of our civilisation. "How can we understand ourselves if we cut ourselves off from our past? You can't just subsume the study of ancient history into the study of classical civilisation.
"You might as well say that you can learn English history through the study of English language and literature.”
Of the philistine Labour Government that tried to abolish it, he wrote:
If you inquire whimperingly how they can do it, how the ‘department for education and science’ could have allowed this mutilation even to be proposed, the answer is not just that they are barbarians, though that is certainly part of the problem.
The real trouble is that our rulers are Puritans — especially Gordon Brown, the man who has set the tone of government for the last ten years; and what I mean by Puritans is that they cannot see the beauty and point of an academic discipline unless it adds, in some crashingly obvious way, to the Gross Domestic Product of UK PLC. They are Puritans in the sense that they exalt WORK with all the mania of 1930s Soviet agitprop extolling the virtues of TRUD, with meaty-forearmed hammer-wielding women rolling up their sleeves and preparing to join the men at the lathe.
We do what we do because we hope to achieve happiness. Every skill and every pursuit and every practical effort or undertaking seems to aim at some good, says old Aristotle, my all-time hero, and that goal is happiness — not Gordon’s wretched TRUD. In his worship of work, and his Marxist obsession with money, Gordon Brown continually mistakes the means for the end. He does not understand that an educational system can be a eudaemonic triumph even if it encourages disciplines that add not a penny to national output....
In the words of Hesiod, who will be rarely off the lips of the coming Conservative government, they are fools who know not how much the half is greater than the whole, nor what blessedness there is in mallow-grass and asphodel. In fact, I doubt these Puritans would even know what an asphodel was, and the real scandal is that they are not giving the rest of us the time and the chance to find out.
At one time more leaders thought as Boris does. Now it is a refreshing change to find even one.
Boris’ favourite word is “carminative”. This has to be a good sign. Dot Wordsworth elaborates:
This does not, as the BBC reported, mean ‘the effects of relieving flatulence’, but ‘promoting the expression of flatulence’. Jonathan Swift wrote the memorable couplet ‘Carminative and diuretic / Will damp all passion sympathetic.’
A character in Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow explains why he had used it in error in a line of poetry that he had written: ‘And passion carminative as wine’. In carminative, he explains, ‘was the idea of singing and the idea of flesh, rose-coloured and warm, with a suggestion of the jollities of mi-Carême and the masked holidays of Venice. Carminative — the warmth, the glow, the interior ripeness were all in the word.’ Then it occurred to him to look it up in a dictionary.
He coined a word of his own: “bemerded”. Ben Macintyre:
"ALMOST EVERY DAY I GO FOR A RUN down the bemerded pavements of North London,” Boris Johnson declared, announcing his candidature for London Mayor. Bemerded? We knew that he must mean fouled by dogs, but the word brought the reader up short for a moment, just as Johnson intended.
The word “bemerded” does not appear in the OED. Run it through Google and you get just 264 hits, most of them related to Boris himself,
But mostly “bemerded” is a word that Boris has made his own. He has used it to describe the streets of Brussels, the streets of England, the streets of Islington and the Oxford cell floor where he spent the night after an evening boozing with the Bullingdon Club. And he was going to get it into his first official statement as mayoral candidate by hook or by crook. Rightly, for bemerded is his signature word, being at once slightly risqué in an antique way, gently self-mocking, and also rather clever.
Not all his humour is clever. Sometimes it is refreshingly childlike. From The Times:
“You won’t catch me doing deals with left-wing dictators,” cried Boris, “which means that Venezuelan slum children are effectively subsidising Transport for London. I say that is completely Caracas!”
Is humour important in a leader? I think so. It is not enough on its own, but, as a measure of humility and intelligence, it is important. A sense of humour is a sense of proportion. Dictators – Stalin, Hitler, Mohammed – had none. The Spectator, which, unsurprisingly, backed Boris to the hilt, had this to say:
In Boris’s case, humour reflects a rich capacity to communicate, to stretch out a hand to voters. Most politicians confuse being ‘in touch’ with slavishly following the instructions of their private pollsters. In the eyes of the public, most of them seem to be a caste apart, aloof and ineffective. Wit is one of the most powerful means of combating this impression and of communicating ideas without preaching, hectoring or signalling the assumption of moral superiority.
Not all Boris’ humour is intentional. His propensity to gaffes is legendary. Some of these “gaffes” consist simply in telling the truth. Hugo Rifkind in The Times:
Cripes! With his customary tact and sensitivity, Boris Johnson is now courting the gay vote in his attempt to be London’s first Tory mayor. Tricky, for somebody who once equated civil partnerships with union between “three men and a dog”.
“I don’t understand homophobia myself,” he tells attitude, the gay magazine. “Mathematically, in the great race of life, homosexual people have ruled themselves out of women, so what’s not to like?”
Nice going, Bozza. That’ll clinch it.
Perhaps it will. After a decade of bland, slick New Labour spin, a politician who puts his foot in it is rather endearing.
Boris is fun. He will add to the gaiety of this, and perhaps other, nations.
Some understanding of Islam
To say that Boris has “some understanding of Islam” is damning with faint praise. Unfortunately, faint praise is all I can muster. Boris’ record on Islam is mixed.
On the plus side, he has shown some awareness of Islam’s territorial ambitions – that it is not just a religion like any other. When Shabina Begum’s unsuccessful attempt to wear a jilbab to school was making headlines, Boris Johnson commented in The Telegraph that the girl, her brothers and Hizb ut Tahrir backers were pursuing the case not because they cared about her “modesty” but to take another yard of territory in the kulturkampf of modern Britain.
He knows enough about the Koran to go beyond vapid generalisations. During the debate on the religious hatred bill Johnson is recorded as saying "if this bill makes any sense at all it must mean banning the reading in public or in private of a great many passages of the Quran itself". He also wrote in one of his articles "the Koran is full of stuff that plainly falls into that category (religious hatred)".
His comments on “Islamophobia”, written shortly after the 7/7 bombings, are informed and incisive. Boris wrote in a Spectator article:
We - non-Muslims - cannot solve the problem; we cannot brainwash them
out of their fundamentalist beliefs. The Islamicists last week
horribly and irrefutably asserted the supreme importance of that
faith, overriding all worldly considerations, and it will take a huge
effort of courage and skill to win round the many thousands of British
Muslims who are in a similar state of alienation, and to make them see
that their faith must be compatible with British values and with
loyalty to Britain. That means disposing of the first taboo, and
accepting that the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem.
To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia - fear of Islam -
seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is
intended to provoke. Judged purely on its scripture - to say nothing
of what is preached in the mosques - it is the most viciously
sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers.
As the killer of Theo Van Gogh told his victim' mother this week in a
Dutch courtroom, he could not care for her, could not sympathise,
because she was not a Muslim.
The trouble with this disgusting arrogance and condescension is that
it is widely supported in Koranic texts, and we look in vain for the
enlightened Islamic teachers and preachers who will begin the process
of reform. What is going on in these mosques and madrasas? When is
someone going to get 18th century on Islam's mediaeval ass?
Sadly, on a BBC 1 debate between the three mayoral candidates shortly before the election, Boris backtracked. From Chronicle Live:
Tory London mayoral candidate Boris Johnson was forced to defend his stance on Islam, insisting he believed it was a "religion of peace".
Mr Johnson has been criticised for an article he wrote in the wake of the 7/7 London terror attacks in 2005 claiming "Islam is the problem".
But Mr Johnson said the problem was extremists taking the words of the Koran out of context.
Had he really changed his mind? I doubt it. If someone has got the measure of Islam, as Boris had three years ago, he cannot unlearn what he knows. He may, of course, dissemble for political purposes, and I believe that this is what happened. Boris just wanted to get elected, and Red Ken was assiduously courting the Muslim vote. His strategy was unwise, however, and sets a bad example to those whom he should be leading.
Boris also has a rose-tinted view of Turkey, partly, one suspects, because of his Turkish ancestry. Above all, his lack of focus – of systematic, concentrated study of Islam, its tenets and its history – prevents Boris from being steadfast in confronting the greatest danger facing London, Great Britain, and the whole of the non-Muslim world.
On Islam, then, Boris is damned with faint praise. Like a ramshackle old house in an estate agent’s window, he has “potential”. He has “some understanding of Islam” – not a lot, just “some”. And yet “some understanding of Islam” is considerably more than most politicians have. Tony Blair, who claimed to have read the Koran, has none. Gordon Brown has none. Jacqui Smith, and her predecessor Jack Straw have none. George Bush has none. Condoleezza Rice has none. Boris is better than most, but this reflects poorly on the rest rather than well on him.
If, having got the measure of Islam, Boris fails to use those insights, then he is more culpable than one who never understood it. His public will be watching and judging.
Boris has considerable talent, energy and humour. Above all, he has potential. Let’s give him a name, other than the commonplace Johnson. Not Boris the Great, nor Boris the Bold. He has yet to earn those names. As Hugh Fitzgerald said, “he’ll have to do”. Let’s call him Boris Goodunov.
To comment on this article, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish topical articles such as this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to read other articles by Mary Jackson, click here.
Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.