Boris Johnson: London’s new PC crusader
The mayor’s sacking of a political adviser over a ‘race phrase row’ shows that he has more in common with bossy Blairites than people think.
It was probably inevitable that Boris Johnson’s London mayorship would lead to a protracted tug of war between leftists claiming that the burly Tory is a bigot and Boris’s camp painstakingly insisting that he isn’t. Where his opponents paint him as a posh, elitist xenophobe, Boris wants to demonstrate that he believes ‘racism is vile’ and that he values ‘ethnic and cultural diversity’ – and that he will get rid of any colleagues who go ‘off-message’ on the race issue.
Yesterday, Boris’s chief political adviser, Australian-born James McGrath, was forced to resign after he made an un-politically correct comment to the ‘citizen journalism’ website latest.com. McGrath was asked by the site’s editor, Marc Wadsworth, what he thought of Darcus Howe’s suggestion in the black newspaper The Voice that the election of ‘Boris Johnson, a right-wing Conservative, might just trigger off a mass exodus of older Caribbean migrants back to our homelands’. McGrath replied: ‘Well, let them go if they don’t like it here.’ He dismissed Howe’s argument as ‘shrill’ (1).
Yes, it was a clumsy response. Instead of being so defensive, McGrath might have reminded Wadsworth that there has not been a mass black exodus since Boris was elected mayor last month. And in fact, it was Darcus Howe himself, in suggesting that Caribbean people who have been living in the UK for years might choose to ‘go back’ to their ‘homelands’, who implied that Britain is not their real home.
Wadsworth, who founded the Anti-Racist Alliance in 1991, was ‘flabbergasted’ by McGrath’s comment. ‘Surely’, he said after the ‘race row’ erupted, McGrath should have responded: ‘Neither Boris Johnson nor I would want that. Black people are an important and valued part of London and we want them to stay.’ (2)
It seems that, with hindsight, that is precisely what McGrath and Johnson wish he had said, too. Johnson has insisted that McGrath’s comments were taken out of context, and that he is not a racist. Yet he decided, after seeking advice from Tory Party leader David Cameron, that McGrath, who has worked for the party for seven years, should be forced to stand down over his remark. According to Johnson, McGrath, too, ‘recognises the need for crystal clarity on a vital issue like this’ (3).
The incident certainly shows that Boris is keen to distance himself from the accusation that he is a racist; his opponents continually point out that in the past, when he was a newspaper columnist, Boris likened black children to ‘piccaninnies’ and said that Africans have ‘water melon smiles’. Yet what is even clearer in the McGrath ‘race row’ is that the Tories are dedicated to upholding the speech codes that have been solidified by the New Labour PC brigade over the past 10 years – and which Boris was once so keen to criticise.
Indeed, this is not so much a race row as a ‘phrase row’, a squabble over etiquette. It will do nothing to generate an enlightened, grown-up debate about race relations in London, but a great deal to entrench the New Labour government’s stifling culture of speech-policing in the name of protecting the public from anything that might be deemed offensive.
Johnson’s readiness to backtrack on his own past comments, and to sack close colleagues at the slightest whiff of controversy, will hardly help to foster a culture of open and honest debate. It will, however, reinforce the wider mood of restraint that now cuts across the mainstream political parties. Apparently, what politicians really believe should only be said behind closed doors, while in public or in discussions with the media they must maintain a well-practiced, pre-scripted façade. This makes politicians into glorified civil servants who read out press releases, and it treats the public as incapable of handling weird or dodgy ideas and debate.
McGrath’s response in the interview with latest.com may have been un-PC and unintelligent, but was it really racist or xenophobic? He did not even use the classic anti-immigrant slogans ‘go back’ or ‘go home’; he simply said ‘let them go’. Compared with the late Conservative MP Alan Clarke’s infamous suggestion in the 1980s that immigrants ought to be sent back to ‘Bongo-Bongo Land’, McGrath’s comment appears rather tame. The response shows that Johnson lacks the guts to stand up and say ‘this wasn’t a very serious incident’, or even to stand up for a trusted colleague.
Both Johnson’s call for ‘crystal clarity’ and Marc Wadsworth’s assertion that McGrath should have responded to his question with some trite cliché show that, for both sides, what matters is not intelligent, honest political discussion, but offence-avoidance. For Johnson, as for his leftist critics, what matters most is presenting a spotless image of oneself to the media; saying The Right Thing rather than nurturing grown-up discussion.
Yet, inevitably, defensiveness and being tough on verbal slips has not saved the day for Boris. The Labour group in the London Assembly accused him of ‘dithering’ over whether to sack McGrath. They asked why he only announced McGrath’s resignation on Sunday when his tape-recorded comments were aired on Friday (4). This shows that once you accept that offence-avoidance should be the main pursuit in politics, then you’re in a game that cannot be won. Just about anything can be deemed potentially offensive by someone, somewhere, and if no one is going to say ‘grow up and let it pass’, then people will be sacked for very little.
Those who feared that Johnson’s London regime would be a terrifying return to Thatcherite Britain have been proven wrong. In fact, Boris is going into overdrive to avoid letting anything that even slightly resembles old-school Tory politics anywhere near him. Those who thought Johnson would put an end to the ‘tyranny of Ken’ and to New Labour’s image-driven, PC, censorious politics got it wrong, too. If anything, Boris is continuing New Labour’s war on words and we should not be surprised if another of his colleagues kicks the bucket over a ‘phrase row’. It almost makes you want to take flight, and head for the Caribbean.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
Brendan O’Neill attacked London’s illiberal, intolerant new rulers. Prior to that, he asked the real Boris to stand up. Neil Davenport reckoned it was time to evict official anti-racism and explained why the elite still fears rivers of blood. Brendan O’Neill argued that British heretics get a metaphorical lashing. Frank Furedi called British racism the new original sin. Or read more at spiked issue Race.
(1) Blacks should ‘go back home if they don’t like Mayor’, Latest.com, 22 June 2008
(2) McGrath’s gaffe, Guardian, 23 June 2008
(3) Cameron defends Boris Johnson’s sacking of adviser in race row, Guardian, 23 June 2008