MITCH BENN: Has Boris Johnson’s head been turned by a new idol?

PUBLISHED: 09:00 19 August 2018

Boris Johnson has reportedly been meeting with former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Boris Johnson has reportedly been meeting with former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

2018 Getty Images

MITCH BENN assesses whether Boris’ fixation has moved from Churchill to Bannon.

Two thoughts on the topic of freedom of speech:

1. Boris Johnson is perfectly within his rights to say whatever he wants about burqas.

2. The rest of us are perfectly within our rights to call Boris Johnson a reckless, shameless attention-craving, trouble-stirring, race-baiting jerk for saying what he said about burqas.

That’s how freedom of speech works. You get to say whatever you like, and everyone else gets to say whatever they like about whatever you said.

But...

Just because Boris had the right to say what he said, does that mean it was the right thing to say? No.

Just because we acknowledge his right to say it, should we let him get away with having said it? Hell no.

As I’ve said before, you have to remember what Boris Johnson is and what Boris Johnson isn’t. He isn’t an adorable buffoon called Boris Johnson, because he is neither adorable, a buffoon, nor indeed called Boris Johnson.

I’m reliably informed that his actual friends, as Paul Simon almost sang, call him Al, an abbreviation of his actual first name Alexander. His choice to go, for political purposes, by one of his middle names (we should be grateful he didn’t choose the other one, de Pfeffel), was just that, a political decision. It’s all part of the act.

What Boris Johnson is is a brazen opportunist and solipsistic narcissist with a galloping Winston Churchill fixation. His increasingly desperate efforts to get himself fired from the Foreign Office, culminating in his using the resignation of David Davis as a pretext to ostentatiously quit ‘on principle’, were all part of the plan to position himself as the Winston de nos jours (I’m not as handy with Latin tags as Boris, so your actual French will have to do).

To be Churchill, you need to endure the Wilderness Years. You need to be cruelly cast aside by the foolish old duffers of the Tory Party before returning to save a grateful nation in its hour of need. The trouble with Boris’s plan to Churchillify himself is that the crisis from which he plans to rescue the nation – Brexit – is a crisis largely of his own making.

For the Boris/Winston analogy to hold true, Churchill would not only have had to have been with Chamberlain at Munich, encouraging him to agree to Hitler’s terms, but would then have phoned Hitler the minute he got home to reassure the Führer that the PM was only kidding and that he should go ahead and help himself to Poland.

Boris’s plan is the equivalent of setting fire to the house in order to reap the praise for rescuing your family from the flames.

What makes Boris’s latest faux faux pas (not a typo; a FAUX faux pas is a deliberate statement carefully constructed to sound like an artless gaffe when it’s nothing of the sort) particularly toxic is the context and also the timing.

As a no-deal Brexit becomes ever more likely it will be incumbent upon the architects of the incoming europocalypse to create some diversionary controversies, to get us all looking the wrong way and talking about the wrong things. And if they can whip up a bit of populist brouhaha by flirting with racism, so much the better.

Oh and STOP RIGHT THERE with your ‘Islam isn’t a race so picking on Muslims isn’t racism’. No, it’s not a race, but it is a religion predominantly associated with, and, in this country at least, practised by, dark-skinned people with either a sub-continental or Middle Eastern ethnic background, and people who single out Muslims for criticism or ridicule on a supposedly theological basis know exactly what they’re doing, so naff off.

In many ways ‘Islamophobia’ is a misnomer; the term should be ‘Muslimphobia’. One can have ethical or philosophical misgivings about the teachings of Islam (I do) without hating, or even having a problem with, Muslims. Boris’s “letterbox” jibe wasn’t a religious or moral observation on Islam, it was a cheap shot at Muslims, in particular Muslim women. And it wasn’t a mistake; it was testing the waters to see if he could get away with it.

Which brings us to the other worrying aspect; the timing. Boris Johnson has reportedly been meeting with Steve Bannon, the man who managed to convince millions of white working class Americans that a man who had amassed a dubious fortune at least partly by ripping off white working class Americans, and who would not hesitate to set his minders on white working class Americans should they have the temerity to turn up at one of his $100,000-a-year golf resorts, was in fact the champion of downtrodden white working class Americans, largely by getting them to focus their ire on brown working class Americans (or at least aspiring Americans).

If Bannon could succeed in restyling a flamboyantly self-indulgent tycoon as a Man Of The People, what similar magic could be wrought upon a flamboyantly foppish blue-blooded Tory? Can it really be a coincidence that right after meeting the man who, at a Front National rally in France in March, exhorted the crowd to wear accusations of racism as a badge of honour, Boris has started passing sneering, belittling comment on those whom the hard right seek to dehumanise in our own country?

Winston Churchill’s own racial attitudes were no more enlightened than one would have expected from a man of his upbringing and of his time. But the deed for which he is eulogised, and that which Boris so desperately longs to emulate, was the deliverance of this country from exactly the sort of toxic ethno-nationalism which the likes of Steve Bannon personify. And for that reason, if nothing else, Boris Johnson should experience an emotion I imagine he isn’t used to feeling. Shame.

• Mitch Benn is in Edinburgh, with his Fringe show Doing It On Purpose; on Saturday he will be taking part in a People’s Vote rally, starting in Festival Square at 1pm

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