Boris Johnson's 'Nice Chap' Image Isn't Nice at All
It's not that he's concealing his evil with an affable image. The whole package is rotten.
Boris Johnson offering journalists tea outside his house (Screen grabs via ITV)
Tea. Ahh, tea! There's nothing like a lovely cup of tea. Nothing more English, in a way, is there? Tea: the chosen beverage of visits to grandma's house, of church fêtes, of sitting down for a chat with your mum. If someone pops round to your house – friend, neighbour, BT engineer – what do you do? Of course: you offer them a cup of tea. Tea is welcome, tea is politeness, tea is an unthreatening, cosy niceness. Tea is a powerful thing: apparently, it's even powerful enough to get journalists to stop scrutinising politicians.
Here he comes. Here comes Boris Johnson. Look how cuddly and adorable he is. Look how doddery and Bertie Wooster-ish he seems. Striding out there in his zip-neck sweater and his bad shorts, like some sort of delightfully addled dad. Why are these journalists filming outside his house anyway? Oh, something about rampant and open Islamophobia, I don't know. It hardly seems to matter now. Look, he's got a tray! And seven perfectly mismatched mugs of warm, delicious tea.
(How deliberate is this choice of mugs, incidentally? Does Johnson normally drink tea out of mugs like this? Did he have them fished out of a charity bin at some point, in anticipation of a moment like this? Does Boris Johnson have some sort of special mugs adviser?)
"Will you have a cup of tea?" he asks. "Would you like a cup of tea?" Now, slightly more insistent: "I want you to have a cup of tea." He's not going to answer any questions, he says. "I'm here solely on a humanitarian mission," he tells the cameras, because the poor journalists have been here all day. "And I feel very sorry for you, because I have nothing to say about this matter, except do you want some tea?"
Last week, Johnson wrote a column for the Telegraph in which he compared Muslim women who wear full-face veils to bank robbers and letter-boxes: foul, dehumanising language aimed at some of the most marginalised people in our society. Oh, of course, Johnson claims – he is personally against banning the burqa and niqab; he doesn't agree with Denmark's recent decision to do so. He's much too libertarian in his instincts for that! But, apparently, not magnanimous and liberal-minded enough to simply not start an utterly unnecessary and grindingly predictable "debate" about it.
But we've known for a long time now that Johnson is Bad. For his whole adult life, pretty much, Johnson has been putting on his nice old chap act and failing upwards into some of the most important jobs in UK politics – despite his long track record of incompetence, he still harbours real ambitions to be Prime Minister.
Johnson's strategy for winning power has long since been centred around a sort of advanced political littering, cluttering up our discourse with whatever cynical, hateful, self-serving trash he can think to spout and making everything, for everyone else who isn't him, stupider and more dangerous and worse. Any sensible, decent political community would have had him tarred and feathered and sent on his way long ago – the fact we seem unable to, the fact that Boris Johnson still maintains a prominent position within the political and media establishment, is a damning indictment of us all.
So what do all the journalists in the video do, when confronted with Boris Johnson bearing cups of tea? They acquiesce, of course. They titter and chum around with him like they've just started filming their own impromptu edition of Have I Got News For You?. They sip their drinks and fail utterly to force the issue. No "Why are you poisoning UK public discourse, Boris?" No "What are the nature of your links to Steve Bannon?" Just total deference: thanks for the tea, sir! "If you're not going to answer questions," tweeted ITV political correspondent Carl Dinnen, admittedly to quite a bit of pushback from his peers, "this is the classy way to do it."
There is a natural way of reading the video – a natural way of reading Johnson's whole doddering affect, actually – where his show of "niceness" is basically a front for his very real nastiness, an effective way of concealing it. On this reading, the journalists in the video are being taken in by Johnson offering them tea, and ignoring the Islamophobia as a result.
But this reading underestimates the power of Johnson's politics – and the politics of those like him. We should stop seeing Johnson's display of niceness as a trick – a way of concealing his real, bad views. In fact, Johnson is using a display of niceness to construct what is, ultimately, a pretty nasty political impression. It's not a nice image concealing a nasty man. The image itself is rotten.
To many in this country, as we know (in particular, from certain referendum results), the politics of the Tory/UKIP right hold a very real appeal. This appeal is not only rooted in racism (particularly Islamophobia), it also feeds off a sort of nostalgia: a nostalgia for Empire; for "Blitz spirit"; for when Britain was a "proper" country that "did" things; for when we had a "proper" community where everyone knew their place, and so forth.
Nostalgia for when Britain was the sort of country where you could have felt comfortable greeting all your neighbours, perhaps, and offering them a cup of tea.
Nostalgia for when the whole of the British Empire was governed by merrily mischievous posh chaps like Johnson.
When Johnson does his fuddy-duddy oh-sorry-I-seem-to-have-got-lost-on-my-way-to-lunch-at-the-vicar's act, or delivers a bunch of journalists some tea, he is conjuring this world up from the depths of our national libido. Once you're looking for it, this world's appeal can be witnessed everywhere: from Richard Curtis films to the Great British Bake-Off to Keep Calm and Carry On kitsch to the branding on the food at M&S.
This world is, I suppose, a "nice" one, but only superficially: in fact, its niceness is premised on hierarchy and racial/cultural exclusivity, just as sure as tea's ubiquity, over here, can only be accounted for by the legacy of colonialism.
If we're looking for real "niceness", this ain't it. Real niceness requires compassion, and this is exactly what Johnson lacks when confronted with anyone less fortunate than he is. Don't let the tea distract you from the truth.