As the British PM firmly takes the reigns of a divided country, he faces numerous challenges. Liam Glen writes on why the rise of racism and bigotry must be a top priority.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson now has firm control over the United Kingdom’s government. In the latest parliamentary elections, candidates from his Conservative Party received 43.6 percent of the national vote and won 365 of the 650 available seats. Barring an unexpected political crisis, he will govern at least until the next planned elections in 2024.
First, he seeks to end the greatest debate in British politics. Johnson came into office promising that he would withdraw Britain from the European Union and neither law, nor love, nor league of swords would stop him. With a safe majority behind him, he is on track to do exactly that by January 31.
But that does not mean the country’s divisions will suddenly heal. Johnson’s government refuses to assess the economic impacts of the Brexit, which are sure to reverberate in the coming years. Meanwhile, the chaos surrounding the process have emboldened nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland who hope to hold their own referendums on membership in the United Kingdom.
This election season, Johnson benefited from a divided and unpopular opposition. If he wants to cement his hold on power, he needs to broaden his appeal. He must get through the fissures in British society and present himself as a unifying figure. To do this, the obvious first step would be to expel the forces of hatred and division that have latched themselves onto his coalition.
Whether or not it played a major role in the vote, no one can deny the presence of racism and xenophobia in the Brexit campaign. The ensuing years of increased far-right activity have seen a rise in racist and anti-LGBT hate crimes.
These tendencies are now trying to carve out their place amongst the Tories. Most notably, after the election, Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, a violent criminal and anti-Islam street activist known by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, claimed that he was joining the Conservative Party.
Robinson has spent much of his life in the football hooligan subculture. He urges these young white men to stop their indiscriminate destructive behavior and instead focus their energy into discriminate violence against racial minorities. Like many Islamophobes, he prefers to speak in dog whistles, but often cannot help himself. In 2011, for instance, he issued threats to “every single Muslim watching this.”
Despite this, Johnson has not denounced Robinson. The same is the case with other far-right supporters like Katie Hopkins, the columnist who has called for a “final solution” in response to jihadist terror and blamed the Jewish worshippers for inciting the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue attack.
This applies even to elected officials. Of three Conservative parliamentary candidates this cycle investigated for allegations of anti-Semitism, two – Lee Anderson and Sally-Ann Hart – managed to win their seats.
Shifting to Court the Mainstream
It is no coincidence that this is happening on Johnson’s watch. Describing him “not politically correct” is a politically correct way of saying that he has built his reputation as a public figure on making offensive comments, especially against Muslims.
Of all the things that Johnson may be, however, no one can call him an ideologue. His 1998 use of a homophobic slur in the phrase “tank-topped bum boys” gave way to support for gay rights throughout the 2000s. In the same column where he stated that women who wear burkas look like “letter boxes,” he also condemned government efforts to regulate religious clothing.
His recent victory came after a successful game of triangulation. His campaign used many right-wing populist tactics, but the Conservatives also promised to increase funding for the National Health Service and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. It is speculated that the new majority will allow Johnson to stop relying on the hard right of the party for support.
To see the perils of inaction in the face of hatred, one need look no further than Johnson’s main opponent, retiring Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He has been condemned over the past years for failing the confront the rise of anti-Semitism within the party, creating a culture where members could openly call of the death of all Jews and face no disciplinary action. These incidents destroyed voters’ trust in Corbyn and played a large role in his party’s decimation in the polls.
There should be nothing easier for Johnson than to call out the likes of Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins, to make it clear that hatred has no place in his Conservative Party. This will send them scurrying back to other parties like UKIP or the BNP, but it will win the trust of many more voters on the center.
Meanwhile, tacitly embracing these bigots by trying to govern from the hard right would be a risky electoral strategy, and he would deserve whatever consequences come of it.