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There was never a ‘liberal Boris’. Johnson’s been a ‘culture war’ warrior since the ‘90s

This article is over 2 years, 9 months old
Historian John Newsinger looks at how Johnson imported the US culture wars

Boris Johnson was impressed with the US right’s culture war strategy in the 2000s (Pic: Flickr/Downing Street)

Pathetic attempts to whip up outrage against “woke”. Right wing newspapers with mass circulations complaining that their lies and prejudices are in danger of being “cancelled”. Opposition to racism being ridiculed as “virtue signalling”. These are instances of British Tories trying to import the long-established methods of US Republicans and their media allies at Fox News and talk radio stations. And the man most responsible for this is prime minister Boris Johnson. 

Indeed, Johnson has been trying to bring the Republican party right’s “culture wars” to Britain for a good many years now. He first tried it when he became editor of The Spectator magazine in 1999.  There are two reasons for this. The first is that Johnson is totally uninterested in policy, hasn’t got the patience to actually master detail, and does not think it is really important. What happens is that other people come up with the policies, and his contribution is to translate them into “Johnson-speak”. 

For Johnson, policy has always been about rhetoric, about bluster rather than detail. This has, of course, made him the perfect front-man for the Tories, first as Mayor of London and now as prime minister. From this point of view, the culture wars strategy is obviously attractive to Johnson. Whipping up prejudice and division is something he learned to do during his years as a journalist at the Daily Telegraph newspaper. 

The second reason is that under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour moved so far to the right in with its embrace of Thatcherism. They were committed to privatisation, refused to repeal Margaret Thatcher’s anti trade union laws and cosied up to big business and the superrich. Johnson and his circle at the Spectator decided that, without any significant difference in economic policy, they would have to stand and fight on the culture wars terrain. Johnson himself made this clear when he complained of Blair trying to impersonate Thatcher, although he insisted that Blair always lacked the Thatcher “zing”. 

Instead, Johnson looked to the US, where the right wing of the Republican party had mobilised support around so-called “cultural issues” since the 1970s. This strategy rests on trying to cut across class divisions by whipping up opposition to issues such as a woman’s right to choose, civil rights or immigration. Doing so helps them corral ordinary people behind a corporate, anti-working class agenda. 

One problem for Johnson was the role that evangelical Christianity played and still plays in this endeavour in the US. He was, for example, completely out of sympathy with how the Republicans went after then president Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky in the late 1990s. Indeed the affair, according to Johnson, showed what “prodigious powers of organisation” Clinton had, being “able to lead the free world…while simultaneously having a fling”. 

Similarly he was out of sympathy with president George W Bush’s “socially conservative moves…that are probably not open to British Tories and yet are increasingly popular in America” in the 2000s. He was at a Bush rally where the president’s declaration of opposition to abortion “received one of the most heartfelt whoops of the night”. 

Johnson displayed the extent of his alienation from this religiosity when he joked about getting lost while driving “through rural Virginia”. He thought he kept passing the same hill with three crosses on it until he realised “that in fact the crosses were everywhere”. And, of course, Bush did not drink and went to bed at 9pm every night. But while the Christian dimension to the US culture wars might not work in Britain, the white nationalism championed by the Republicans was certainly worth bringing back home. 

One thing that did really impress Johnson about the US was “the way the Americans fly that flag of theirs”. The stars and stripes was everywhere, “unabashed, exuberant and proud”. And in the schools “American children still begin their day at school by pledging allegiance to the flag”. 

The contrast with British attitudes to the Union Flag was shameful. More to the point, he went on to argue that “we no longer make any real demands of loyalty upon those who are immigrants or the children of immigrants”. 

And this apparently was why the US had to import its suicide bombers “while we produce our own”. He goes on, “Too many Britons have absolutely no sense of allegiance to this country…a cultural calamity that will take decades to reverse”. He announced that the Spectator was launching a campaign for “the re-Britannification of Britain”. This was written in May 2005. The culture wars had begun. 

It is important here to remember one key element of the US culture wars—that the right always claimed to be the victim, fighting back against an oppressive aggressor. In the US, the aggressors were the liberals and secularists, in Johnson’s Britain the aggressors were the “lefties”. 

With so much shared ground between the Tories and Blair’s Labour over the economy, Johnson’s Spectator focused on Labour as party of regulation, government interference and welfare dependence. This still demoralised working class people, thwarting their entrepreneurial spirit, preventing them from standing on their own two feet like Johnson and generations of Old Etonians had always had to. 

Having lost the economic argument with the triumph of Thatcherism, Johnson argued that far from disappearing the left had mutated. There was no longer “any need to own large chunks of industry”. Instead, the left “could achieve their objectives through regulation and the tyranny of political correctness”. “Lefties are fundamentally interested in coercion and control, and across British society you can see the huge progress they are now making in achieving their objectives,” he wrote. “In the erosions of free speech and civil liberties that are taking place under this government, in the ever more elaborate regulation of the workplace, the bans on hunting, smacking, smoking and so on.” 

He wrote that in February 2006. It is worth noticing that, at this time, Johnson considered the minimum wage a shocking infringement of British freedom and the introduction of charges for NHS treatment a “brave new world”. 

Johnson was already heavily engaged in fighting the culture wars. Remember, this was at a time when Blair and Brown had been running Britain for the benefit of big business and had both courted Rupert Murdoch. 

But, incredibly, as far as Johnson was concerned the bankers’ friend Brown was actually guilty of whipping up hatred against the rich. It was a hatred that reminded him of “the rage whipped up by Stalin against the kulaks”. Really! To be fair, he did admit that this might be “an excessively colourful comparison”. Complete bollocks would be a better description.

One of the key battlefronts Johnson selected for fighting the culture wars was the ban on fox hunting. He was incandescent about this Labour assault on British liberty and tradition, vowing undying enmity towards those responsible. It was a Marxist-inspired atrocity. All this sound and fury signified nothing of course. Fox hunting, one of the great causes apparently closest to his heart, remains banned. 

What’s more interesting is his response to Bush’s repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol, committing the signatories to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He positively enthused about Bush, “Yo, Bush baby, I find myself saying, squashing my beer can like some crazed redneck; you tell ‘em boy. Just you tell all those pointy-headed liberals where to get off.” There was “something magnificent in the way he has taken on the great transatlantic left-liberal consensus-loving Third Way-ers”. It was a wonderful example of “exuberant Reaganism”. And claims that Bush had consigned “future generations to a dust-bowl planet” were so much rubbish because the time will come “when the market, and, inevitably US technology will deliver a greener planet”. 

We can be absolutely confident that this is what he still believes. Anyone who seriously believes that Johnson would ever put the fight against climate catastrophe before the pursuit of profit really needs to examine the man’s record.

What about Johnson and racism? He is, of course, well-known for his casual racism, for throwaway remarks about “watermelon smiles” and “piccaninnies”. But there is more to it than that. Johnson has a worked out strategy for putting his racism out there while at the same time covering his back. 

What he does is combine remarks that all of his racist admirers will recognise as racist with a condemnation of racism. When he launched the “re-Britannification’ of Britain” campaign— a campaign laced with Islamophobia—he prefaced it with a condemnation of Enoch Powell bringing racism into debates on immigration. 

On another occasion in April 2002, he published an interview with the leader of the French fascist National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He proceeded to defend the decision by attacking Labour’s then home secretary David Blunkett. LePen had done well at the polls because French voters, like “the British electorate…wanted something done about crime, and what they saw as the uncontrollable behaviour of illegal immigrants”. 

And he does this all the time—a condemnation or a denial of racism, accompanied by a policy or argument that racists everywhere will recognise as racist.  Another recent example came in August 2018. He opposed the Danish government’s ban on the burka, and then went on to describe the women who wore it as looking like “bank robbers” or “letter boxes”. 

Even worse than this, Johnson regularly published a column by Taki Theodoracopulos—a sympathiser of Greek Nazi party Golden Dawn. It including one arguing that black people have lower IQs than whites and another that even the Spectator’s proprietor, Conrad Black, objected to as antisemitic. Theodoracopulos went on to launch his own online magazine in the US, Taki’s Magazine, a part of the alt-right political constellation. Indeed, the very term ‘alt right’ was actually used for the first time in Taki’s Magazine by one of its then editors, the antisemitic white nationalist, Richard Spencer. And the fascist Proud Boys were launched in its pages in 2016. 

Johnson, we have to recognise, has absolutely no problem with being supported by the far right. This is something he shares with Donald Trump. Indeed, in his progress to the leadership of the Conservative Party, Johnson met with both Steve Bannon and the less well-known Stephen Miller. Miller was the architect of Trump’s vicious anti-immigrant policies, his speech writer and the warm-up man at his rallies. Johnson was apparently “fixated” on Miller, meeting him in secret outside the White House on a number of occasions when he was foreign secretary.

It still takes some getting used to the fact that this lying, blustering, wholly irresponsible, greedy, bullying, self-entitled toff is prime minister. As we have already seen though, he is there not to run the country, but to provide cover for those who actually do. 

Every week we see him out and about. He’s being filmed laying a brick, picking up a cardboard box, looking at a machine or sitting in the cab of a lorry. Other times he’s picking up a test tube, wiping a chair or taking part in a primary school lesson, giving the thumbs up at every opportunity. This is his job. 

He is the mask behind which the Tory right go about their job, furthering and consolidating a low wage, high-profit Britain. Britain is still being remade for the benefit of the global superrich. And waging the culture wars is today more important than ever before. Whereas it was once just the Spectator, today the whole of the right wing press is apparently obsessed with the “woke” cancelling everything they hold dear. They are going after every institution that dares so much as look at the bloody history of slavery and colonialism. Even the BBC remains a target. 

Their hope is that the culture wars can be used to construct a social base of support that will remain loyal no matter how disastrous and corrupt Tory policies are. Saving the statues of murdering slavers will be more important to people, they hope, than NHS privatisation, cruel immigration policies or the roll back of civil liberties. 

They still look to the US Republican Party and Donald Trump for inspiration. There is a clear element of desperation in all this and much of it is positively laughable. Obviously the bulk of the press is already enlisted on their side in the culture wars, but we have to be ready for a major drive to enrol schools and universities in the fight. We can beat them here. 

And, the attempt to import the Fox News model of journalism as open right wing propaganda, GB News, has stalled. Its audience halved in just two weeks, with Andrew Neil’s primetime show attracting a derisory audience of some 31,000 viewers. This was seen as a playing a crucial role in redefining British politics around the culture wars agenda. But we cannot be complacent. The right has waged culture wars in the US for decades. To avoid ending up in the same position, we have to uncompromisingly expose Britain’s continuing history of racism, imperialism, sexism, homophobia and class warfare against the working class.

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