Boris Johnson raises the spectre of Islamophobia

I was going to observe a dignified silence over British MP Boris Johnson’s latest stunt. His aim was to gain attention and notoriety, and I didn’t think he deserved any help from me. But with a week gone and the story still being run prominently by BBC Radio 4, my silence must be broken.

The stunt was Mr Johnson’s regular column in the Daily Telegraph, published last Monday. I haven’t read it, and I don’t intend to. Nobody disputes three salient facts. First that its subject was the banning of face-covering garments in public places, recently enacted by other European countries, such as Denmark. Second that Mr Johnson said that such bans should not be enacted here, based on good liberal logic. And third Mr Johnson expressed his dislike of such garments as worn by some Muslim women (the niqab, the face covering with a slit for the yes, and the burqa, a total body covering) by making two derogatory comparisons. Unlike the BBC, who do so at every possible opportunity, I will not repeat these here.

Deliberately or not, this was a very clever piece of work. The first fact allows Mr Johnson to claim that the article is part of an ongoing and legitimate political debate, and the second that his views on the subject are liberal. But the third picks up on public hostility to women who wear the burqa or niqab. It was what attracted all the attention, drawing condemnation from Muslim members of the Conservative Party, and admiration from those with less liberal views, and those who think Muslims have no place in this country. The timing was impeccable. The BBC had just given wall-to-wall coverage to the Labour Party’s troubles with antisemitism, so they could hardly downplay coverage of the story without being accused of bias. And, comfortably into August, there has not been much competing news; even the drought was abated by some welcome rain. Also Mr Johnson was on holiday, so he could evade interviews. As a politician that loves attention, things could hardly have gone better.

Could it damage him politically? That’s hard to see. His liberal comments allow him to maintain injured innocence; the people who are condemning him were by and large hostile to him anyway. Brexit supporters have stuck with him. And large parts of the white British middle and working classes are hostile to Islam, and his derogatory comments resonated well. This is especially true of Conservative grassroots members, who most suspect are the main audience he had in mind. Mr Johnson surely wants to take over from Theresa May as party leader and Prime Minister. That ultimately depends on a vote by party members, should Mrs May step down or be forced out (not to be taken for granted). He is maintaining his already high standing with the grassroots. His main difficulty is his weak standing with MPs, who must pick the top two candidates for the membership vote. But his charisma far outshines potential rivals (except Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose standing among MPs must surely be even weaker) and he may yet be able to pick a path through that minefield.

The context is very depressing. Islamophobia is rife in Britain, as it is in most of Europe. Even respectable people can be heard saying that Islam is a repressive ideology, and alien to traditional British or European culture. Many people are open about this in a way that they are furtive about antisemitism – a bit like antisemitism in the 1930s. This is a remarkable turn of events. The British Empire included many Muslim subjects, who were recruited into the armed forces (especially in India) as they were considered to be good soldiers. These were then brought over to Europe to defend the homeland in both world wars. I remember my cousin, a senior colonial administrator in British Sudan, speaking warmly of Muslims.

It is not all that hard to see how the modern hostility came about, though. Militant Islamic terrorism, especially after the 9/11 attacks, is one reason. Muslims may regard these groups as nutters on the fringe of their society, but Islam is central to their identity, and they comprise a large part of what ordinary British people know about Muslims. And, over the last 50 years, there have been high levels of immigration from Muslim countries, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many people feel threatened by immigration, which becomes a scapegoat for modern ills generally. Many of these Muslim groups are conservative and have made little attempt to integrate. People find women dressed in the niqab or burqa, though rare, especially provocative. I have to confess that I’m not comfortable with them either – it seems insulting somehow. The real problem with Mr Johnson’s comments is that they will invite even more people to abuse these women in public. Indeed that seems to be exactly what has happened. Since the Brexit rebellion, hostility to all groups of immigrants has risen, and this has broken out into public abuse more often. It is why we all have to be careful in what we say.

Meanwhile most Muslims are good, law-abiding citizens, and harmonious integration proceeds apace. The fears of Islamophobes are fantasies. And yet it is these good citizens that will suffer the most. Mr Johnson well knows this (his family has Turkish roots after all), but he is happy to exploit anti-Muslim prejudice.

There are parallels with antisemitism. Just antisemitism disguises itself as perfectly legitimate criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, so Islamophobia masquerades as criticism of extremist terrorists, or conservative social customs, such as the niqab. Legitimate topics for political debate get subtly subverted. Mr Johnson’s subversion was particularly subtle – he just poked a bit of fun. Unfortunately this makes these legitimate topics harder to discuss.

So the anti-liberal backlash continues. I still believe that it will peak in Britain and other countries, and then turn. Partly this will be because the anti-liberals will be unable to deliver anything of actual value. But also I hope that liberals will buck up their ideas about how to help, and appeal to, left-behind people and places. Meanwhile we must call out prejudice when we see it.

 

Can liberals ever match the emotional appeal of populists? Should they?

Boris Johnson, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, understands the new politics. This week he put it about that he wanted to provide the British public with a dividend from Brexit by increasing funding to the NHS to the tune of £100M a week (or £5Bn a year). If the facts don’t suit you, you create new ones; emotion beats dispassionate analysis every time. This is the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump, and it is working very well for him. Is there anything sensible politicians can do about such behaviour?

There are plenty of good reasons to increase funding for the NHS, but a Brexit dividend is not among them. Such a dividend, famously estimated at £350M a week, was one of the most effective slogans of the Leave campaign in the EU referendum in 2016. It had only a slender basis in fact. Britain’s gross contributions to the EU are in that order, but most of the money comes back to Britain, including an unconditional rebate. So even if EU funding to poorer regions like Cornwall and Wales was cut off, along with farming subsidies and other goodies, there would still not be £350M a week of extra funding to go round. And that assumes that the economy, and the taxes funded by it, would not be adversely affected by Brexit. These criticisms were made during the referendum campaign, but the objections only served to publicise the original claim. People believed what they wanted to believe. For many this was the extra £350M a week for the NHS, starting on the day after the referendum result. Most were no doubt more realistic, and simply took the wrangling to mean that something was up, and there would be some kind of dividend.

But, a year and a half on, it is clear that any Brexit dividend will be a long time a-coming, if it ever does. It is not so easy to escape many of those payment obligations (e.g. to fund the pensions of British members of the European Parliament, such as the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage). There will be at least two years of transition in which not much will change, and certainly not the money the UK is paying out to the EU. And then even most Brexit supporters accept that there will be some economic dislocation, even if it does not turn out to harm the economy overall in the longer term.

Mr Johnson is well aware of all this; he is a clever man and very much part of the political class where such discussion is common currency. But the recent success of populist politics means that facts don’t matter any more. So why not just claim a dividend even if one does not exist? And so what if the government overspends a bit? It isn’t clear what adverse consequences would flow, after all. It would also show a government taking the initiative, rather than being trapped by events. A bigger political problem is that the government could announce the extra funding and then nobody actually notice any difference to the NHS. Its problems run deeper than money – such as its loss of EU national staff, and the reduced ability to recruit immigrants. The government already claims it has increased funding by a similar amount, and and the NHS winter crisis seems more dire than for many years. The NHS is an organisational monster than can quite happily eat money to no effect: it would takes greater management skills than Mr Johnson’s to achieve anything noticeable.

You don’t have to be much of a cynic, though, to think that Mr Johnson has no intention that the policy actually be implemented, knowing full well that the government will stamp on it, as it duly has. The whole thing is got up to improve his own chances of taking the top job, before a supposed generation of Tory bright young things pushes his generation out of leadership contention. MPs are rumoured to organising a putsch on Theresa May quite soon. There is a snag to that theory, of course: it might work. If Mr Johnson does indeed become Prime Minister, he would be left with the responsibility of managing the NHS.

Which is where the example of Donald Trump is instructive. Mr Trump was elected on a series of unachievable promises, based on a deep emotional appeal. That he has failed to implement many of these does not seem to bother him: he either pretends that he has, or blames some popular scapegoat group for any lack of progress. And it works. His approval ratings may be dismal by the standards of earlier holders of the office in the first year, but support amongst his base looks rock-solid. Few seem prepared to bet against him making it to the end of his term in 2020 and then being re-elected. He does the new politics of emotional manipulation too well.

Is there anything liberal political types can do? Mostly their attacks on populist politicians backfire.They either make dry intellectual arguments using facts, which are then ignored, or express emotional outrage, which tends to simply wind up the populist supporters even more. Trump supporters doubtless think that calling African and Middle Eastern countries “s**t-holes” is merely talking truth to the liberal elite.

People suggest that liberals should follow either or both of two strategies: to meet the populists half-way to undermine them, or to counter emotional appeals with emotional arguments of their own. The former is happening quite a bit already: it is becoming the centre-right mainstream in Europe. That is what the British Conservatives are trying to do, along with similar parties in other European countries – including Germany’s liberal Free Democrats. And it seems to guide the practice of Emmanuel Macron’s French government. While I would like to say that such strategies are doomed, it looks more like a response to political reality. The problem is that it is impossible to back it up with an emotional appeal that will beat the populists. That appeal is based on closet racism and an attachment to old values that contain the seeds of their own destruction: it is an attack on an important part of liberals’ own base.

Having said that there are two emotional strategies that might work: fear and backlash. For the former it is necessary to find a weakness in the populist position that will make people fear for their security and savings. But that is actually quite quite hard: the Remain campaign in the British referendum conspicuously failed, perhaps because the Conservatives in the campaign pulled their punches for the sake of party unity. Mr Macron did succeed in the final round of the French presidential election, however, when Marine le Pen’s ambiguity towards the Euro suddenly frightened a lot of her potential supporters.

The backlash idea takes the emotional appeal of the populists as the starting point, and stokes up outrage amongst those it attacks. But it is quite hard to appeal beyond a minority – populism’s targets are often chosen with care. Not always: the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment has real power, feeding off the misogynist attitudes of Mr Trump – that is surely the reason why this campaign is succeeding now where its predecessors over the years have fizzled. Women are not a minority, and you don’t have to be liberal to think that sexual harassment is disgusting.

But both types of emotional appeal suffer a problem in the political sphere. You have to pick up the pieces afterwards. Fighting emotion with emotion leads to either prolonged conflict or depression. In the end society must be healed somehow, and that healing takes place through putting emotions to one side, and understanding what people have in common and using a gradual process of persuasion and confidence building. That is one reason that populists will ultimately fail – and it helps that so many of them, Mr Trump and Mr Johnson included, do not value hard work or competence.

So what is the liberal strategy? They must let the populists burn out and collapse under their own contradictions. And then they must be ready with new ideas that will help society to cohere.