NEWS
17/08/2018 15:53 BST | Updated 17/08/2018 16:56 BST

Boris Johnson Burka Row Leads Classics For All Patrons To Threaten To Resign

"What he is doing is cynical: stoking cultural and religious tensions."

PA Wire/PA Images

Two of the UK’s leading writers have threatened to resign as patrons of the charity Classics for All unless it ends its association with Boris Johnson in the wake of his controversial burka comments.

The Guardian’s chief culture writer Charlotte Higgins and BBC broadcaster Natalie Haynes said they will remove their support for the organisation as long as the former foreign secretary remains a fellow patron.

Classics for All funds the teaching of classics in state primary and secondary schools, aiming to help “equip pupils with grammar, critical thinking and language skills”.

But Johnson’s comments earlier this month, in which he compared women in burkas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” have outraged Higgins and Haynes.

Higgins told HuffPost UK: “The clue is in the title [of the charity] – classics are supposed to be for everyone and by making these very cruel and derogatory remarks about women who wear certain types of apparel, just makes it so much harder to reach everyone.”

In her letter informing the charity, Higgins added: “Let us not be confused about what is at stake here. Boris Johnson has chosen – disguised under the guise of a liberal argument – to make cruel, derogatory and belittling remarks about a section of our community that is not powerful, that is not well represented at any political level, and that is under particular threat from racism, misogyny and Islamophobia at this time.

“What he is doing is cynical: stoking cultural and religious tensions, with the ultimate aim not of forwarding any liberal argument about the niqab or burka, but of furthering his own political ambitions.”

Classics for All earlier this week distanced itself from Johnson’s comments, saying it does “not endorse or support” his statements but has so far stopped short of taking any further action.

The charity’s trustees have been informed of the row and will discuss the matter on 9 October.

Classics for All has a total of 20 patrons including Joanna Lumley, Ian Hislop, Sir Michael Fallon and Professor Mary Beard.

Higgins and Haynes are so far the only two to speak out over the matter.

Classics for All has been contacted for comment.

Higgins’ letter in full reads:

Dear Jules,

Thank you for writing to me and for sharing the chairman’s letter to the trustees.

It may be useful for me to expand on what I wrote in brief at the weekend, and to respond to some points raised by the chairman. The issue at hand does not turn in any way on freedom of speech, “political correctness” or individuality of thought. Boris Johnson’s views on the apparel worn by certain Muslim women are entirely irrelevant, and so are mine.

Let us not be confused about what is at stake here. Boris Johnson has chosen – disguised under the guise of a liberal argument – to make cruel, derogatory and belittling remarks about a section of our community that is not powerful, that is not well represented at any political level, and that is under particular threat from racism, misogyny and Islamophobia at this time. Fellow conservatives have censured him; even the (hardly left-wing) Anne McElvoy has described him as calculatedly using the tools of the alt-right as a kind of “unvirtue signalling”. What he is doing is cynical: stoking cultural and religious tensions, with the ultimate aim not of forwarding any liberal argument about the niqab or burqa, but of furthering his own political ambitions.

Classics for All has a simple and commendable purpose: to bring classics to anyone – whoever they are, and from whatever background – who wishes to be stimulated, provoked and challenged by an extraordinarily enriching discipline. No one, as far as I know, is talking about censoring Lysistrata, or the Histories. It’s precisely Aristophanes and Herodotus who are the kind of writers I would like people to be able to access, and I’ve devoted quite a lot of energy trying to make that happen, one way or another. But Boris Johnson’s derogatory remarks about Muslim women make this work harder not easier, and that is why, ultimately, I don’t want to appear on the list of patrons with him, and nor do I think it is helpful for the charity to associate itself with him at this time. That is notwithstanding his history of supporting and promoting the classics in the past.

I realise, of course, that I am donating my time for an event at the beginning of October, and I don’t want to cause you embarrassment and inconvenience by pulling out of it. I’m happy to stay as a patron for the time being, until the trustees’ meeting. If Boris Johnson apologises for his remarks then all well and good. If he doesn’t, and if the trustees decide on October 9 that they would like to retain him as a patron, then I will regretfully withdraw.

Kind regards

Charlotte