Boris Johnson is part of British popular culture. The blonde and seemingly bashful former mayor of London, famous for getting stuck on a zip-wire or introducing Boris Bikes, is looked upon fondly, in part because – despite being an Oxford alumnus – Johnson has consistently been portrayed as an eccentric and harmless simpleton. Strange, then, that this perceived fool is now the man most likely to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. After a brief stint as foreign secretary, Johnson is now vying for the most powerful office in the country. It should be crystal clear that Johnson’s reputation as a jokester is little more than a political façade.
And it is this façade which makes Johnson’s potential premiership so horrifying. While he bears a striking resemblance to (and indeed shares the same home city as) Donald Trump, it is his immense capacity for bigotry where they share a true affinity. Where they differ, is that while Trump was seen as a malignant demagogue, Johnson has been seen as a benign fool. The reality, however, is that Johnson is a cold, calculated careerist politician who has expressed deeply disturbing and racist views every bit malignant as Trump’s. Johnson’s ascent is a masterclass on manipulating public perception to climb the political ladder.
It is difficult to comprehensively address Johnson’s career of bigotry within the confines of this article, but it is possible to discuss some of the most notorious examples. The first thing that becomes apparent is Johnson’s partiality for anti-blackness. In 2008, Johnson described black people as “piccanninies” with “watermelon smiles”, both pieces of North American anti-black language.
In 2002, Johnson espoused his admiration for the colonial history of the British Empire, writing of Africa in the Spectator: “the continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”. Johnson continues with his defence of the British colonial endeavour, saying “Africa is a mess but we can’t blame colonialism”. It is genuinely impossible to list all of the colonially-motivated atrocities committed in the name of the British Empire, but a recent one that comes to mind is the Mau Mau Uprising in Africa. In the 1950s members of the Kikuyu tribe were detained in what are now referred to as “Britain’s gulags”. At these camps, death estimates range from 20,000 - 100,000, and inmates were tortured and sexually assaulted.
However, it was the discovery of Johnson’s decision to publish a eugenics piece while editor at the Spectator that truly made me feel sick. The contents of the article explored why black people have lower IQs. Historically, eugenic ideology and discussions, such as those in the piece, have been at the heart of many of the most brutal and racist campaigns in history – the most infamous being Nazi Germany.
However, it is not just black people who Johnson targets. In 2018, Muslims became fair game for him. Taking full advantage of his self-styled comedic persona, he described Muslim women wearing burqas as “letterboxes” or “bank robbers”. Indeed, Conservative peer Baroness Warsi stated concern about the lack of action, and consider this happened in a party that currently is in the midst of an Islamophobia crisis. And, despite being foreign minister, he has described the people of Papua New Guinea as partaking in “cannibalism and chief-killing”, prompting anger from the country’s high commission.
Whilst ethnic minorities take the brunt, it is not just those groups that are subjected to bigotry and abuse at the hands of Johnson. Boris has joked how “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”, and in 2007 blamed rising house prices on women graduates. He referred to Hillary Clinton as a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”, and once claimed Malaysian women went to university to “find men to marry”.
The prospect of Prime Minster Boris Johnson truly turns the stomach. A country with a bigot at the helm, who is widely perceived as a harmless eccentric, is not a country in which ethnic minorities can feel safe. Racism is on the rise, and Johnson’s unchecked bigotry will only exacerbate this – boosting the views of white nationalists and far-right demagogues and creating an even more hostile social and political environment for marginalised groups.. That is why I, and many other ethnic minorities, will enter July in the hope that the political machinations of Boris Johnson will fail.