Must I defend Boris Johnson? Very well, I must.
Once, as an insufferably zealous progressive, I disliked Boris from the left – even contributing to a blog called “Boris Watch” that I, a non-Londoner, somehow felt compelled to pronounce from. Now, about eight years on, I dislike him from the right. This is a somewhat embarrassing odyssey of opinion, but in my defence I will never be half as inconsistent as the man they call BoJo. This, after all, is a man who is campaigning for Britain to leave the EU yet once not only supported the institution but campaigned for its expansion.
Boris Johnson represents British conservativism – a conservatism that exists entirely in affectation. The voices are posh. The clothing is stuffy. The artistic accoutrements are traditional. Look at Boris, appearing like a time-traveller from 1940, to educate us about classical civilisation! He is, truly, as English as a nice cup of tea. Underneath all these aesthetic airs and graces, however, is a liberal disposition. How could a conservative have loudly, forcefully campaigned for admitting Turkey into the EU, an act that would, at a stroke, have granted 70 million Turks free movement around Europe? He might as well have been Tony Blair.
Still, for many, Boris also represents conservative backwardness and bigotry. Condemnations have been flying after he wrote that Barack Obama was thought by some people to have removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office because of his “ancestral dislike of the British Empire”. He mentions this opinion without judgement but it seems respectable to me. If my dad, like Obama’s, hailed from Kenya, where rebellions were crushed by the British, I might have a low opinion of their leaders. Obama might not, of course, but it is at least plausible, and, indeed, the idea was once promoted by that fallen angel of progressives, Johann Hari.
Yet somehow even mentioning an idea that Independent (and Guardian) columnists once spoke of with approval is now “dog whistle racism”, “an unacceptable smear”, “partisan, unforgivable nonsense” and “the worst Tea Party rhetoric” according to a broad swathe of our leading politicians and commentators. Even Nigel Farage has seen fit to distance himself from Boris. What an embarrassing reflection on our hypersensitive and hyperbolic culture when a talking point of left-wingers commentators can become an unspeakable slur of the extreme right. It helps to explain why liberals such as Boris are perceived as outposts of traditional conservatism.