When confronted about his infamous choice of language to describe black people – “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” – Boris Johnson’s responses ranged from claims of being misinterpreted to apologies for the offence caused. And when, a few days ago, Nick Ferrari questioned him on his no less distasteful statements on Islam, the Conservative candidate for the London mayoralty denied ever making them. He insisted that Ken Livingstone, the mayoral incumbent and his fellow guest on the breakfast show, was seeking to smear him. Islam, he emphatically declared, was “a religion of peace”.
What a difference a mayoral race can make. Only two years ago, Johnson’s writings – readily available in the online archives of the Spectator and Daily Telegraph – were peppered with talk of the “paranoia of the Muslim mind”, of Islam’s “medievalism”, “heartlessness” and “disgusting arrogance”. Islamophobia was, he maintained, “a natural reaction” to “any non-Muslim reader of the Qur’an”. We must, therefore, dispose of the “first taboo”, he counselled, and accept “that the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem.”
Johnson’s inflammatory comments may be turning into a load too heavy to be borne by one aspiring to lead Britain’s most ethnically and religiously diverse city. So, in his desperation to ward off the charge of Islamophobia, the Tory candidate has suddenly discovered a distant Muslim family root, in which, he assures us, he takes much pride. It is as if the invocation of a Muslim lineage magically absolves one of moral and political responsibility for airing bigotry and prejudice.
Given Johnson’s record on minorities, his endorsement by the far right as a second-preference candidate seems understandable, shocking though it may be. This signifies a worrying precedent in the history of the BNP – notwithstanding Johnson’s claim that he has no wish “to receive a single second-preference vote from a BNP supporter”. Never before has the BNP felt sufficiently fond of a mainstream mayoral candidate to lend him or her its support.
The BNP’s campaign literature describes the mayoral poll on May 1 as a “referendum” on Islam. One of its leaflets asks: “Are you concerned about the growth of Islam in Britain?” Another seeks to encapsulate the country’s perceived decline in the shape of a photograph of a group of veiled women juxtaposed with a shot of an idyllic all-white 1950s Britain.
The BNP’s Islamophobic campaign is not simply designed to capture a few votes. Since 9/11 the party, like other far-right groups, has been able to remobilise and redirect its terrifying energy of exclusionism towards Muslims. Its endemic racism and antisemitism have been repackaged as Islamophobia, the last remaining legitimate species of hatred of “aliens” and “foreigners”.
The BNP’s decision to align itself with Johnson is no accident. It shares with the Tory hopeful an obsession with national identity, or with “flying the flag for Britishness again”, as the former Spectator editor would put it. It perceives in Johnson a familiar kind of racial and cultural superiority, an attitude given succour by Johnson’s repeated caricatures of Africans, Chinese and Muslims. His exhortation in the Telegraph that “we must begin … the re-Britannification of Britain” would hardly look out of place on a BNP poster.
After two successive electoral defeats under rightwing leaders, the Tories have been striving to remarket themselves as an open, tolerant party, with a young modern leader and a sprinkling of minority faces at the top. But their selection of Johnson as mayoral candidate, followed by Cameron’s patronage of his campaign, reveals that the change has only been skin deep. Johnson is the bridge that links both sides of the rightwing spectrum. He has brought the extreme into the mainstream.
That someone with Johnson’s record could have been considered for the leadership of a city like London (almost one-third of whose residents are of ethnic minority backgrounds, and 10% Muslim), let alone stand a chance of winning, is truly astonishing. Those who reduce this race to arguments over bendy buses miss the point. The choice before Londoners could not be more serious. What is at stake on May 1 is the spirit of this vibrant cosmopolitan city with its unique mix of races and cultures and its vision of itself – nothing less.
First Published in The Guardian, Wednesday 16 April 2008