Disfigured by class

The very fact that Boris Johnson could appear to be a plausible candidate for Mayor of London shows

Boris Johnson is a dishonest, incompetent clown, whose life has been a story of contemptuous, self-serving privilege. The fact that he may on 1 May be elected Mayor of London tells us something very unsavoury about the ways in which Britain continues to be disfigured by social class.

The facts about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson are well-known, and should be more than sufficient to stop him being a plausible candidate for any kind of elected office in a mature democracy. He is a man who has lost a number of jobs for lying: he was sacked from The Times for making up a quotation from his godfather, the Oxford historian Colin Lucas, and lost his front-bench role, under Michael Howard, for lying about his four-year extra-marital affair with his fellow toff journalist, Petronella Wyatt. (For men like Johnson, with friends in high places, serial sackings are no bar to advancement.)

As well as being a famous liar, Johnson has skirted the borders of criminality when it has suited his interests or those of his foul, larcenous and over-privileged friends. In 1990 he agreed to give the home address of journalist Stuart Collier to Darius Guppy, a narcissistic Old Etonian convicted fraudster, who wanted to have Collier beaten up in revenge for some perceived slight. On being asked how badly Collier would be beaten up, Guppy informed Johnson that it would involve “a couple of black eyes, a cracked rib … or something like that”.

It is beyond satire that the man campaigning for the mayoralty of London by stoking up fear of violent crime should once himself have been involved in the attempted commission of an instance of GBH. Despite his new found enthusiasm for the Metropolitan police, did he alert the authorities to Guppy’s intentions? No doubt he takes the view that police attention should just be “for the little people”, and not for his odious chums from Eton.

But this is only the beginning of the charge-sheet against Johnson. Although he is campaigning to run London, he admits to complete administrative incompetence: he left a job as a trainee management consultant complaining that he could not “stay conscious” when confronted with financial information. We should not be surprised, in that case, if he is unable to master the fine details of running one of the world’s most complex cities.

Boris Johnson is not only shady, dishonest and incompetent. He is also a particularly offensive kind of clown, as is evidenced by his absurd litany of gaffes and insults. The people of Papua New Guinea are, according to Johnson, “cannibals,” while Portsmouth is “full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs”.

Worst of all is Johnson’s casual racism, although it is perhaps not wholly surprising from someone of his class and background. It takes a particular kind of bad judgement, as despicable as it is revealing, to think that there could be anything funny about describing the participants in the Congolese civil war as having “watermelon smiles” or talking of “crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” (with conscious echoes of Enoch Powell?), yet both phrases appeared in a Daily Telegraph article by Johnson as recently as 2002. Such a man simply does not belong in modern, multicultural London.

Johnson’s casual racism is all of a part with his elitism in every other sphere of life. At Oxford, he was a member – alongside David Cameron – of the Bullingdon Club, a dining club restricted to public schoolboys, with a £1,200 uniform and a habit of smashing up restaurants. This is the world in which Boris Johnson belongs and feels at home, as almost every pronouncement of his makes clear.

For a while, at least from Ted Heath to John Major, the Conservatives paid lip-service to meritocracy and the idea of a classless society. But the grammar school boys have been supplanted by old-fashioned class warriors like Cameron and Johnson. They come from privilege and, when one looks at the policies behind their public personas, one finds them concerned above all to protect the social and economic privileges of their kind. When Johnson revealed his team of advisers, it included Bob Diamond, head of Barclays Capital and the FTSE 100’s highest paid boss; Sir Trevor Chinn, who works for private equity outfit CVC Capital Partners; and Goldman Sachs banker Richard Sharp. Johnson does not make much effort to hide his plan of government by the privileged, for the privileged.

In any sane society, Boris Johnson would not be a plausible candidate for Mayor, even within the Conservative party. Yet he is odds-on favourite to win the mayoralty. The key to understanding the strange popularity of Boris Johnson is to think about public perceptions of another gaffe-prone politician, the former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Working class Prescott was viewed with utter contempt by large swathes of public opinion, whilst Johnson’s far more serious gaffes and indiscretions are met with smiling indulgence. As a society, we seem for some reason to suspend our critical faculties when it comes to men like Johnson.

It is hard to understand the sources of the remaining thread of class deference in our society, but it is undeniably still with us. Perhaps it is born of nostalgia; or perhaps it stems from a certain anxiety about the future. It is very hard to make any sense of it.

One of the terrible things about ingrained distinctions of social class is that they can mould the ways in which we react to others at something like a sub-conscious level. Johnson gets away with his mendacity, offensiveness and incompetence because, as a society, we seem still to be prepared to judge the posh by different standards. The real scandal is not so much that shambling reactionary fools like Johnson still exist, but that we still live in a society that feels social contempt for men like Prescott, whilst enduring and indulging Johnson’s own incessantly displayed contempt for ordinary people.

Whatever one thinks of Ken Livingstone, his commitment to an egalitarian society, and his respect for London’s various minority communities, is surely beyond doubt. The very fact that Boris Johnson could appear to be a plausible candidate for Mayor of London shows us that our society is still disfigured by problems of social class, and that Livingstone’s progressive politics are needed now more than ever.

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