The Odd Blog

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Johnson’s Election

Posted by That Other Mike on 05/05/2008

Well, they did it. Boris Johnson is now London Mayor.1 I’m aware that this comes a few days after the actual event; I do have a life, people.

For those of you not aware of either Johnson or the London Mayoralty, it runs like this: the London Mayor was the first directly-elected mayoral post in the UK, and it comes with a considerable amount of power attached. The London Mayor is directly in charge of transport for London, the emergency services and police. The post also carries with it responsibility for cultural strategy and economic development, no mean thing when considering the size and economic clout of the capital.

The Mayoralty has been dominated since its inception by “Red” Ken Livingstone, former Greater London Council leader. Livingstone has been a controversial figure in English politics for a long time; his achievements in irking Thatcher and her inheritors, the Blairites are something to cherished in the increasingly homogenised, right-leaning world of British politics. Policies he championed over the years as leader of the GLC and as Mayor have made him a hate figure for much of the right wing, such as the congestion charge and subsidising London transport costs for the poor. Although, interestingly enough, these same policies, along with a very public antipathy toward any and all “Establishment” authority figures, have at various points made him very popular. That popularity has waned in recent years with a series of high profile gaffes and slip-ups, including some extremely unpleasant remarks made by Mayor Livingstone towards a Jewish reporter.

In the bigger picture, this made the recent London Mayoral elections something more of an open field than it had been. It was pretty well a foregone conclusion in 2000 and 2004 that Ken would win; this last election has seen his defeat to Boris Johnson.

This troubles me somewhat. Not because he’s a Tory, per se; I think that even as a Conservative he will find himself locked into certain general patterns of behaviour as Mayor, based on the path already set by Livingstone and the Assembly2.

What worries me, in fact, is that Boris Johnson3 is seen as an incompetent upper class twit, always sticking his foot in it. His previous missteps have included insulting the entire city of Liverpool, particularly with reference to the Hillsborough football disaster, and for using, if ironically or privately, expressions like piccaninnies and describing Congolese people as breaking out into “watermelon smiles“. In short, just one more in a long line of vaguely boorish Oxbridge types whose only saving grace seems to be a certain fluffy charm.

You will note that I say that he seems to be an idiot. I believe that this is entirely a persona of convenience.

The reason I say this is that Boris Johnson has excelled scholastically throughout his life. He attended Eton College as a King’s Scholar and later read Classics at Balliol in Oxford, from which he graduated with a 2:1, a more than respectable degree. He then wrote for and later edited The Spectator, the oldest extant British political magazine (also known as being a springboard towards higher echelons of the Conservative party). He has also been elected to various positions, such as the President of the Oxford Union and MP for Henley, which require a certain amount of actual charm and savvy.

He is not a stupid or incompetent man, not by any reasonable metric. He is intelligent and capable; he would not be where he is today without this4. His image, on the other hand, is one of the lovable buffoon – Hugh Grant on steroids. This troubles me, it really does.

I made the case that he is clever and able, but I was able to do so only because I did a little research on him. And I mean a little – the information is there, it is widely available and easy to find; you only just barely have to dig. However, going on previous experience and general knowledge of the voting public, most Londoners who voted would not have done the digging; for all that the media portrays this as the Internet Age, for a lot of people that extends to emailing and eBay, while many will have nothing to do with the internet at all.

In other words, it seems that they may well have voted for Boris largely unknowing that he is more complex than the bumbler they see stumbling across the screen during the news or waffling on the front page. That rather disturbs me – Ken Livingstone said some pretty awful things, and it was probably time for him to go. But there were alternatives to Boris! It seems likely that people voted for the entertaining candidate over the more obviously competent ones, such as Brian Paddick5.

That depresses me somewhat – the people of one of the largest cities in the world voted for an executive based mostly on the fact that he amuses them. As I said before, I think he will be a competent Mayor, but this isn’t the issue.

His persona of calculated bumbling is, I think, a way to deflect criticism. If he is seen as burbling fool, criticism of his abilities and policies will be seen as a largely pointless act; he will be insulated against unfavourable opinions because any criticism of him will be met with the viewpoint that everyone knew he was an idiot anyway.

There you have my chief issue with Boris Johnson’s election – not that he will be ineffective as Mayor, but that he will appear to be as a shield against contrary opinions. While I think London should definitely have a competent Mayor, I also think it should have an honest one.


1Incidentally, Gary has blogged about this as well, albeit from a different angle. I urge you to go and read his post immediately; if not for his stellar writing and wit, then because one always benefits from different perspectives.
2The Assembly is simple majority Conservative; they hold 11 seats out of 25. This means that they will take a largely Conservative agenda but one which will be ameliorated by the threat of being overruled by the other parties.
3Recently called BoJo on Have I Got News For You by Alan Duncan, MP. In light of this, I toyed with titles like “Mr BoJongles” and “BoJo the Clown” for this post. Aren’t you lucky I didn’t take them?
4I’m more than aware that class warriors will point to his familial and class advantages; my response is that familial and class advantages don’t vote. They are a leg up, perhaps, a granting of advantage, but advantage is potential in character, rather than actual. Privilege may have helped him get a place at Oxford, but effort is what got him a 2:1.
4 That being said, there were a number of fringe parties in this election, such as the Christian People’s Alliance and UKIP.

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8 Responses to “Johnson’s Election”

  1. Absolutely agree, mate. Boris is clever, no doubt about it — and that “insulation” factor is very worrying. I find the guy immensely entertaining, and I do think he is obviously clever if one pays attention to him, but he’s definitely got a wonderful (and, yes, highly duplicitous) get-out-of-jail-free card up his sleeve, that’s for sure. “Oh, it’s only Boris being Boris.”

    Slightly off topic. If they let Brian Blessed host HIGNFY again, I’m going to stop watching!

  2. Mike said

    Exactly. He’s a king in jester’s clothing…

    Heh. I thought he was funny in a one-off kind of way; the “Gordon’s alive!” bit slayed me. I wouldn’t want him back every week, though.

  3. Well, yes — I guess he did have a one-off appeal. But I had to watch with my finger on the fucking volume button. 🙂

  4. […] 6, 2008 A fine post from Mike on the new Mayor of London. Posted by garymurning Filed in Current Affairs., Politics., Stupid Government. Tagged: boris, […]

  5. Mike said

    Hehehe… I know what you mean. I was watching it with my grand-dad, and the volume bar went up and down like Gordon Brown’s approval ratings.

  6. the volume bar went up and down like Gordon Brown’s approval ratings.

    You didn’t turn it up at all, then? 😉

    I must admit, the “Gordon’s got a mountain to climb — the lucky bastard” bit made I larf… and I loved the way he said, a couple of times, that they’d answered correctly, only to prove in his detailing of the answer that they hadn’t.

  7. Mike said

    Hah. It was quite funny, seeing these normally polished guests sitting bemused and stupefied.

  8. They were completely overwhelmed, weren’t they? 🙂 Can’t think why…

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