Who is Boris Johnson?

When he announced that his great-great-grandmother was a Circassian slave, was it just another "inve

The garden in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, was always packed during the Spectator's summer parties. Former Tory cabinet ministers like Lord Gilmour might be spotted conversing with Sir Charles Wheeler, the veteran BBC correspondent. A smattering of Pakenhams, the literary clan headed by Lord Longford, perhaps; Telegraph editors past and present, such as Charles Moore and Sir Peregrine Worsthorne; novelists, painters, political commentators and, darting hither and thither, shirt untucked and tie askew, the magazine's then editor, Boris Johnson. The guests, a mix of influential Tories, raffish writers, a few stray aristocrats and several young women whose purpose appeared mainly decorative, may have been what one would expect at gatherings thrown by the cheerleading magazine of the right.

But what would not have been obvious to many was the extraordinary degree to which the host was connected to a large proportion of those who were supping his Ruinart champagne - and not merely by ties from journalism and politics, but by much deeper, long-standing ones of school, university, family and extended kinship. Nor could the newcomer have any idea that if history had taken a different turn a century ago, the Tory MP and former Spectator editor of today, whose Wodehousian circumlocutions seem the very quintessence of Englishness, might have found himself named not Boris Johnson but Iskander Ali.

Whether Boris's great-great-grandmother was indeed a Circassian slave is an unprovable matter of family legend. Her son's life, however, is better documented. Ali Kemal, Boris's great-grandfather, was the last interior minister of the Ottoman empire after the First World War. Soon after Atatürk's nationalists took power in 1922, Kemal, who had been one of their most vehement opponents, met a sticky end. He was kidnapped and taken to Izmit, where he was handed over to a mob who attacked him with sticks, stones and knives, then hanged him from a tree in the square.

Before all this, though, Kemal had fathered a son, Osman Ali, by his half-English first wife. Born in Bournemouth in 1909, the child was brought up by his grandmother, whose surname he took; so Osman Ali became Wilfred Johnson. (If this change of surname and religion had not taken place, then Alexander Johnson could have been Iskander - the Arabic version of Alexander - Ali.) The Johnsons' relations through Kemal's second wife, with whom they are in contact, include two past Turkish ambassadors, to Britain and to Norway. So when the member for Henley holds forth on Turkish accession to the EU, he has more insight than he is often given credit for.

Through his father's side Boris has not only Muslim ancestry but a connection to one of Britain's most prominent Jewish families. Boris's stepmother Jenny, the second wife of his father Stanley, is the stepdaughter of Edward Sieff, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer. This also provides a link to two politicians he was later to encounter in the House of Commons: Edward Sieff's son Adam, the urbane record executive, has the distinction of having been in a Seventies rock band, Jaded, that was promoted at different times by both Tony Blair and Chris Huhne.

Stanley is in the unusual position of both preceding and attempting to succeed his oldest son in public office. An early environmentalist and a Tory MEP from 1979-84, Johnson père stood for the Devon constituency of Teignbridge in the last election. Son and father campaigned together, forming a double act that failed to win Stanley the seat but produced some memorable bons mots. Discussing higher education with a small crowd, Boris dismissed "loony degrees in windsurfing from Bangor University". Added Stanley sagely: "They also surf, who only stand and wait."

Andrew Gimson, Boris's biographer, theorises that the almost caricature Englishness stems from Stanley's side of the family, that it is a front to conceal the very non-English paternal inheritance. Possibly more surprising, however, is that Boris's mother, Charlotte, has an impeccable left-wing pedigree. Her father, Sir James Fawcett, was a prominent barrister and a member of the European Commission of Human Rights. The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality for women, is named after a 19th-century forebear, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and wife of the Radical MP Henry Fawcett.

Charlotte's parents were close friends with Lord and Lady Longford. Their daughter, the novelist Rachel Billington, is godmother to Boris, providing him with further unlikely socialist kith on top of the Fawcett kin. But through the Longfords come also ideological fellow-travellers: Billington's cousin, the writer Ferdinand Mount, is a former head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit at No 10, and his son Harry is a vigorously right-wing Telegraph columnist. These paths happily cross, as does Boris's with that of Orlando Fraser, son of Billington's sister Lady Antonia Fraser from her first marriage to the late Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser. In 2005, Orlando himself tried to win a Devon constituency for the Conservatives, but did not prevail despite (or, dare one suggest, because of) support from Boris and Stanley. More distantly, Ferdy Mount's cousin Mary is the mother of a junior of Boris's at Eton and Oxford, the Tory leader David Cameron.

Johnson & Johnson

Boris almost derailed his career in journalism at the very beginning, when as a Times trainee he made up a quote from his godfather, the historian Colin Lucas. The quote was not only fictitious but also inaccurate, exposing Lucas to considerable academic ridicule. Lucas overcame his godson's thoughtful attempt to bring his name to a wider audience, and later became Master of Balliol and vice-chancellor of Oxford University; but his angry complaint at the time got Boris the sack.

Such incidents did not deter his younger siblings from entering the fourth estate. Regular Johnson bylines include those of his sister Rachel, a novelist and Sunday Times columnist whose husband, Ivo Dawnay, is communications director of the National Trust and a former foreign editor of the Sunday Telegraph; and his brother Jo, recently appointed editor of the Financial Times Lex column and married to the award-winning foreign correspondent Amelia Gentleman.

At one point during Boris's editorship of the Spec, the Johnson surname appeared so often (his predecessor, Frank Johnson - no relation - was a regular columnist as well) that no one noticed when the diarist one week was a Leo Johnson. Surely, readers thought, it can't be another member of the family. But close inspection of the article, an account of Leo's bizarre pitch to a movie mogul, revealed a certain similarity of style:

"It is the mainstream, genre movie of Stanko the Bulgarian pastry chef who casts off the shackles of liberty, deflating the soufflé of capital and licking clean the spatula of injustice," said Leo to the mogul. Goldwyn spoke. "Let me tell you something. I have been in this business a long time. This is the worst story I have ever heard." It is believed to be Leo's sole foray into journalism.

The media connections do not end there, however. Sir Charles Wheeler is Boris's father-in-law through his second wife and the mother of his four children, Marina. The affair that Boris tried to deny with his line about an "inverted pyramid of piffle" was with another writer, the former Spectator deputy editor Petronella Wyatt, daughter of the News of the World's "Voice of Reason" columnist, the late Lord (Woodrow) Wyatt. And many of the writers whom Boris championed during his editorship of the Spec were friends from Oxford, including the Tory MP and former Times executive Michael Gove, the magazine's regular Africa correspondent Aidan Hartley, and its theatre critics Lloyd Evans and Toby Young.

Other friends from Oxford include the US pollster Frank Luntz; Earl Spencer; the fraudster Darius Guppy (who once telephoned Boris for the home address of a NoW journalist he wanted beaten up; although he did not supply it, Boris did not refuse the request, and the incident was to cause him no end of trouble); Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski (who is married to Anne Applebaum, another former deputy editor of the Spectator); and the barrister Justin Rushbrooke, the son-in-law of the former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, to whose house Boris escaped when Marina threw him out temporarily in 2004 after his escapades proved too much for her.

Many of the above were to be seen at the parties Boris held at the Spectator, and are familiar with each other's homes in north and west London. Broad networks in media and politics are not unusual. The extent of the ties that Boris can draw on, however, harks back to a different time: to that of the Salisburys and Balfours at the end of the 19th century, to the Bonham Carters and Asquiths in the early 20th century, or later, up until the fading of the grouse moor Tories in the Sixties, to that vast tree that encompassed the Churchill, Eden, Sandys and Marlborough families. Boris's network is less Establishment than that - there is a whiff of the demi-monde about all those literary types - but it is wider-reaching and more deep-rooted than that surrounding any Tory leader from Ted Heath to Michael Howard, and, unlike their circles, its foundation is class and family, not pure politics.

If anyone can confirm Boris's great-great-grandmother's origins, however, I'm sure he'd be grateful. The election's going to be close, and the ex-Circassian slave vote could be crucial.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?