Janus was a Roman god of doors and gateways and was often depicted with two faces, pointing in different directions. It is from Janus that we get the word January is it is the month that sees the end of one year and the start of the new. Janus’ faces point towards the past and the future. The analogy I try to paint with this piece may be a little strained but I hope it makes sense.
On Monday Boris Johnson wrote a piece in the Telegraph which contained some strong comments (flummery?) about the wearing of burqas or niqabs by Muslim women. One of the comments in the piece which appears to have caused most offence is when he says “it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”.
Have you read the piece or have you been one of the many who criticise based on other people’s observations rather than your own? Here is a link to the piece. Take out the crass attempt at humour and it is, in my opinion, a thoughtful piece arguing against the Danish ban on such clothing.
We need to look at Boris’ ‘flowery’ use of the English language on two different level. Before I do that I ought to put on record my own views. I share some of the concerns that people have about women wearing such clothing – how much is choice and how much is household and/or cultural pressure? If a person WANTS (and I do mean THEY want without pressure) to go around wearing such clothing I really feel they have the right to do so. However where we would require a person’s identity to be clear – a court of law, a social security office, a bank to name just 3 examples, then it should be removed without offense being caused to either party. Actually, in his own rather clumsy way this is exactly what Boris Johnson was arguing. I would be totally opposed to a legal ban of the kind in place in a number of countries. Of course the thing inflaming discourse over the last few days is his refusal to apologise for the comments he made and other people jumping in, on both sides, some quite hypocritically based on things they’ve said in the past, either demanding that he apologise or demanding that he doesn’t. All the while Boris is happily enjoying a holiday lapping up the ructions he has caused.
The first level is like to look at this is the fall out from his piece in the telegraph. All this high minded criticism from all parties in parliament including the Tory party chairman and the Prime Minister herself. Today Ruth Davidson, the socially liberal leader of the Scottish Conservatives (to some a future leader of the Conservative party) added her ten penneth when she asked whether Boris Johnson would ever call for Christians to be banned from wearing a crucifix in public. I don’t think comparing a crucifix with a niqab is really comparing like with like surely? One is a symbol of a religion usually worn unobtrusively and the other is a pretty obvious barrier between one person and the outside world. The essential point here is a freedom of speech issue. I don’t particularly find Boris Johnson’s comments funny or offensive (but I am not a muslim woman so I suppose I’m not qualified to comment on offense taken). Just like wearing clothing of this type is a freedom of expression issue (some would argue a religious freedom but even muslim scholars cannot agree on this) – you either have it (and allow burqas and niqabs) or you don’t (and you ban them), Boris Johnson’s comments is a freedom of speech issue – either we have it and he shouldn’t be bullied into apologising or we don’t and he apologises.
For me the key here is the type of politicians we want – and they do say we get the politicians we deserve. Do we want the anodyne, fence sitting, splinter in the arse type that now seems to predominate in Westminster and other halls of power – the type that would run comment pieces like this through and least three focus groups before publishing a pretty boring piece that says absolutely nothing but won’t offend anyone, or do we want politicians to actually say what they mean – even if some of us are offended by this. Personally if someone offends me but it is what they think, give me that politician rather than the one who only says what the audience in front of them wants them to say. I may not like them but I would trust they say what they really mean.
The second part to this is the long game that Boris Johnson is playing – and here my Janus analogy will hopefully become clear. Is Boris the buffoon he is often portrayed? I believe most of the time yes he is and had he not recently met Steven Bannon the ex-advisor to President Donald Trump and a person attempting to put an alliance of right wing parties and politicians together in Europe this opinion would not have changed – typically clumsy comment from a bright but buffoonish Boris. However I do think other forces are in play here. The furore this piece has caused is doing Boris a LOT of good with a rather large section of the electorate. Whilst the metropolitian and liberal elite cry islamophobia (without really fully understanding the definition of the word) the majority of the electorate seem to be supporting Boris Johnson and in fact want to go further and actually ban clothing such as the burqa or niqab. Boris faces towards these people saying what they want to hear and being flattered by the support he receives from the ordinary person. He is a ‘man of the people’ saying what he thinks and what the majority of the public think and damned all that PC nonsense. The other face points towards where this leads. Without a doubt this is an early shot in the direction of a leadership bid for the Conservative party on a platform being built with the support of Bannon et al – I do believe Boris sees himself as an Orban of the UK. Boris Johnson is not the buffoon everyone thinks he is and this is only the first volley in his battle for the top. Mark my words – there will be other equally inflammatory arguments coming from him which many on the fence sitting elite will hate but he know the majority of the public will actually quite like. One face points to the populus the other to 10 Downing Street. Boris Johnson is the Janus of Westminster.