Racist or clown?

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Just a bit of housekeeping from my appearance on 18DS’ Vox Politix on Monday (it’s still available to view at the moment), to follow up on an issue that has been bugging me.

Caroline Hunt took great exception to my reference to the various attacks that have been made about Boris Johnson’s views on black people in recent weeks. To be clear, I didn’t call him a racist; that isn’t an argument I’m particularly interested in having (I note however, that it was an argument the Tories were jonesing for a few months ago). What I was trying to say before we were moved on is that public figures are accountable for the words they say and write and that it is thus entirely justifiable for political opponents to attempt to make capital out of them.

Johnson’s feeble jokes about ‘watermelon smiles’ and ‘picaninnies’ may not count as explicit racism, but they are appallingly insensitive. It simply isn’t good enough for him to say that he didn’t expect to be taken seriously when he wrote that article while simultaneously demanding that we take him seriously now. There are far more extreme examples of politicians’ utterances being used against them. Jody Dunn springs to mind, and compared to her experience Johnson has got off lightly.

His views on the Macpherson report are more interesting. After 8 years, it is time we cast over this report with a critical eye. Its definition of ‘institutionalised racism’ and that effectively racism in the eye of the beholder are problematic for any liberal. It is hard to see what progress we have made in race relations over the past decade. But, to be brutally honest, it is a third rail issue and one that it will be difficult to tackle without being portrayed in the most unflattering terms. Frankly, if Johnson was serious about wanting to do something about them now, having a back-catalogue of less-than-nuanced articles behind him is not going to help.

The question is, will Johnson make anything of this issue in his campaign, or is he going to shy away from it completely? It will be a tough call. His rivals will pore over his every word and be eager to make hay if they can. If he tries to sweep it to one side on the other hand, then it will look as if he lacks the courage of his convictions; not a good thing to be labeled in a campaign if you are also a dilettante who has cultivated such a comical public image. And there’s a serious democratic issue too: if he runs away from the issue, we can have no idea what he would do if he got elected.

Ultimately, Johnson’s problem is not that he is a ‘colourful’ character. British politics could do with more mavericks and he is surely that. His problem is that he lacks authenticity. His stock in trade is vagueness and it will be tough for him to present himself as anything other than even more vague every time someone trots out another potentially embarrassing thing he wrote or said in the past. He’s also the top hatted toff to end all top hatted toffs. For a certain demographic that is screamingly hilarious and endearing. The same demographic thought that voting for Robert Kilroy-Silk would be a good idea and look how that turned out. Even if he won, he’s in danger of making the Conservatives look less like a serious party of government than they were before the election.

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