Wednesday, 25 March 2009

don't throw boris out with the bathwater

I know this post is going to earn me a hard slap on the wrist from most of my friends, but I'll take a red hand if it means I can come clean.

I love Boris. Or at least I like him an awful lot.

The complaints against him are seemingly never ending, but surely the man can't be so horrid.

So he's racist. Or at least he's perceived to be by pretty much everyone in liberal politics and in minority communities around the country. I remember the hysteria of the opposition during the Mayoral election, when they claimed that Boris would destroy London's unity - I'm pretty sure that hasn't happened yet. Or if it has, it's largely the fault of the financial sector, not the Mayor.

And anyway, we laugh at ethnic racism when it's on Fawlty Towers or when our friends do it in the pub, but somehow politicians must be judged on an entirely differnt moral level than the rest of us, even when making quips in private (I'm thinking of the Carol Thatcher off-camera quip which saw her reprimanded far more severely than the Ross/Brand act of moral depravity).

It's ridiculous and simple minded to claim that it's only members of the Tory party who are riddled with racial prejudice. Even free-loving, free travelling backpackers will exclaim in disgust of the living conditions they had to 'put up with' in the backwards third world nations they profess to adore travelling through so vehemently. And I'm sorry, but claiming that only public figures must maintain moral accountability is ridiculous and hypocritical. The bitching public cannot claim one moral standard for themselves and another for the government officials. This is the sort of behaviour that led to the Terror of the French Revolution. Supposedly, we're all much more civilised than this.

For the liberals in the house who absolutely can't stand the man, you at least have to respect the fact that in August 2008, he did what few other international politicians did when he openly endorsed Barack Obama for the US presidency.

Since I grew up in a political environment where 100 senators, regardless of party affiliation, are encouraged, even duty bound to question the traditional constraints of two party thinking in policy debates, this country has much more of a problem with politicians towing the party line.

Sure, I don't agree with everything Boris has to say, but I seriously respect the fact that he's an independently minded and very intelligent maverick who can make up his own mind, for which he often gets into trouble with his own party, about policy. Take his call for an amnesty for "illegal" immigrants in London - even if the policy is primarily motivated by the tax revenues the state is losing out on by undocumented workers and the silly small print which means that the amnesty is a sort of 'earned' one, it's still a far more liberal and forward thinking policy than the ridiculously draconian immigration laws put in place by the current Labour government. Funnily enough, the same Guardian reading liberals who bashed Boris' campaign for mayor of this 'great multi-cultural city' are ripping this amnesty to shreds. Here are two comments, largely representative of the rest, taken from the comments section in a Guardian article about the Mayor's call for an immigration amnesty:

"So we now have an 'International Migrants Day' do we?

How about a 'British People First Day' or a 'Sick of Looney Ideas Day' instead."

or this one:

"The last thing this already over-crowded island needs is more illegal mass immigration. 40 years of mass immigration, political correctness and multiculturalism have already brought this once great nation to its knees thanks to the traitorous complicity of the liberal political elite."

And while Boris hasn't actually done that much in London, he hasn't made anything drastically worse either. All the talk of scrapping the congestion charge has come to nought. And yes he has opted to scrap the western extension covering Kensington and Chelsea, but since when was Kensington and Chelsea part of Central London, but not, say Camden, where the CC does not apply? The fury of TfL at the loss of £70 million per year in income from the CC fees in the western extension is almost laughable. All of us who have attempted to get home after 1am or try to get anywhere in the Capital on the weekends wonder why, with an £8.2 billion budget, the entire Victoria line must be closed every other weekend for time immemorial. Yes, regulation of the traffic in central London is perhaps needed, but none of us want to live in a draconian city where we become taxed every time we step out of our doors. And with tube and bus fares rising all the time and nary a sign of improvement to services seen, you have to wonder where the money is going. So no, I don't mind that he's scrapped the rather arbitrary CC for Kensington and Chelsea - even if naysayers scream that it's a favour to the rich. Well, it was an unfair tax on those who lived in the Royal Borough in the first place, a nice chunk of change to throw in the TfL purse. The Mayor is looking into an 'intelligent' congestion charge system as modelled in Stockholm, where motorists pay more to enter the central zone during peak times and less during other time. Again, Green and Labour assembly members balk at this suggestion for an 'intelligent' fee paying system, claiming that we need to improve London's urban environment and that central London is congested all of the time. Yes, central London is congested all of the time, but I put it to you that this is not purely down to car congestion. How many streets in London have you walked down recently with major road works? Road works congest the traffic which then means the streets become more congested. Sometimes I wish people could just focus on the issues instead of getting tied down by petty party-led finger pointing, which becomes increasingly tedious for the public. No wonder so many people in this country are either apathetic or snidely, yet passively, bitter on news websites.

And finally, as an old school new guard classicist I love that Boris is clever and has a passion for classics. So much so that he's a patron of the Iris project, which promotes the teaching of ancient languages and literatures in inner city schools. If I didn't like him for anything else, I'd at least respect him for this.

But I do like him. I like him because he's not afraid to think and then to publicly express these thoughts, party policy lines be damned. If we weren't all so bloody obsessed with political correctness, maybe we wouldn't be so quick to take everything the man says out of context and judge him as a racist heretic to be burned at the stake. I know this won't convert anyone to the man's cause and that isn't the point. In a world where celebrity stylists and PR minders have become massively powerful as guardians of celebrity images (yes, politicians get lumped in with celebrities in the post-modern age of Barack Obama and Tony Blair), it's damned refreshing to have a politician speak his mind. Even if that mind is a little bit strange.


Will C said...

Hello CB

Normally I enjoy your posts very much; but this one, less so... You're right, Boris is not all bad, and in many ways expresses the best values of liberal conservatism (with an engaging style and excellent thatch to boot). But I can't let this go by:

"And anyway, we laugh at ethnic racism when it's on Fawlty Towers or when our friends do it in the pub"

No 'we' don't. Speak for yourself: finding this problematic is nothing to do with misplaced political correctness, but just indicates that things have moved on from the racist 70s. Boris calling people 'piccaninnies' is offensive and the stupid thing is, he knows it.

I also would take the comments published in the Guardian with a pinch of salt, as it is a well-known hangout for ultra-right trolls and remarks posted there are not really representative of the woolly, vaguely lefty, affluent middle-class readership. I'm amused by your use of 'liberal' as an insult - 'Guardian reading liberals' - which as you are perfectly aware is an American neocon trope that I'm not sure applies here...

As for the congestion charge, I don't think we're going to agree about this. However, I'd point out that the charge is not on 'residents' but on drivers; and you do agree yourself that the traffic does need regulating. Why should our movement around London be defined by a relationship to the car, anyway? Perhaps this is a different question; and in any case I'm not going to try and defend TfL as they are largely incompetent idiots.

Nothing intrinsically wrong with the Classics, you're right. I've had a few exchanges with the cultural strategy team at GLA as it happens, and while they're nice enough people the agenda is a bit limited: the focus is on outlying boroughs (a sop to the Boris electorate), music education (copying the instrument provision programmes in South America), the Olympics (yawn), events in Trafalgar Square (zzz) and continued support for existing activities (fine but hardly news); as well as this Englishness, heritage and indeed classics business which taken together adds up to fairly straightforward cultural conservatism. In any case, Boris has hardly any budget for such things and his impact is likely to be extremely limited.

Who has been bad-mouthing Boris to you to provoke such ire, anyway? The poetry world, for what its worth, has been kicking one of his most recent polemics around recently - follow the chat here:

Let's have a row IN PERSON soon! Oh do say you will!


Phoenicia said...

Ah dear Will,

I knew you'd disapprove...

Love the Telegraph piece, you shouldn't have sent it - only makes me love him more. Why shouldn't the English be proud of their language and their poetry?

Anyway, as you say, I fear this all demands a bit of pub table thumping and the suchlike. I hope you're well prepared.