Would Boris Johnson rather be attacked by a dozen duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?

The London Mayor's Twitter Q&A showed the perils of engaging with voters on digital platforms without really understanding them.

"Ask Boris is the latest in our series of Talk London events, your chance to talk to the Mayor about what matters most to you," suggested one of Boris's marketing whiz kids at City Hall. "Join us on Twitter to talk about what makes London the best big city in the world."
 
And so they did. In their thousands, tweeters took to the network to ask Johnson such vital questions as "Does it annoy you that Custard Creams from Tesco are normally all broken?" and: "Which would you prefer? To be attacked by a dozen duck sized horses or attacked by one horse sized duck?"
 
The Mayor might have expected abuse, but instead he faced a series of increasingly surreal questions: "Time flies like an arrow, whereas fruit flies like a banana - discuss/comment?" asked one concerned follower. "Did Bono finally find what he was looking for?" asked another.
 
The session quickly got out of hand. "Boris Johnson is doing a Twitter Q&A under #askboris and naturally some people aren't taking it seriously. Have a look," suggested one user. And before Boris could properly get to grips with the important topic of  "how many chucks can a woodchuck chuck" or decide between Curly Wurly bars and fudge fingers, #askBoris was one of the top trending topics in the world.
 
Whilst previous sessions had lasted a whole hour, the Mayor made a swift exit at half time citing previously unmentioned "diary commitments". Meanwhile most of the genuine and difficult questions posed by Londoners remained unanswered. Many users were left feeling that it was them, rather than the mayor, who had been taken for a ride.
 
"So @mayoroflondon chooses to answer questions about duck sized horses, but not about his 9 point plan for London," complained one follower. "So the #askboris session seemed to RT a whole bunch of questions and provide no answers...how very like a politician" complained another.
 
Boris later declared the session a resounding success with City Hall compiling an official mayoral report claiming that 553,076 users had been reached by the Twitter trend.
 
Whether any of those 500,000 were even remotely better informed about London issues is another matter, but in terms of promoting the Boris brand #askboris undoubtedly served its purpose.
 
Other politicians' Twitter question and answer sessions have not been quite as benign. Last year Ed Miliband was the target of particularly barbed questions on the site.
 
"If you give a speech, but nobody cares, do you make a sound?' asked one typically dismissive user on the site. "Do you feel bad about stabbing your brother in the back? asked many others.
 
What both examples show however is that so many politicians have completely failed to understand how social media works. For most users, conversations on Twitter and Facebook do not happen by prior appointment, but are part of their everyday lives.

Of course there are some politicians who understand this, and who actually use Twitter as a major part of their daily work.
 
But by setting up occasional brief Q+A sessions, Johnson and Miliband are almost asking for people to exploit and ridicule them. Not only are they sticking their heads in the public stocks, they are actually handing out sponges and cream pies for people to throw at them as well.

Of course being the Mayor of London or the leader of the opposition might not leave much time to spend answering endless questions on Twitter. 

But if they haven't got the time to properly to get to grips with social media then perhaps they shouldn't bother trying at all.

Boris Johnson is pretty much the definition of "in touch with the electorate". Photo: Getty Images

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia