One of the advantages to adopting the stairheid rammy as our national mode of conversation is that we are no longer obliged to listen to one another.
Debate can at last flow freely, uninterrupted by the burdensome details of what our opponents actually say and believe. Cool heads are the first casualties of culture war.
A case in point is Boris Johnson’s newspaper column comparing some veiled Muslim women to ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letter boxes’. His detractors, many of whom had not read the article, denounced his call for ‘a ban on the burka’, a policy which he not only hadn’t called for but had explicitly rejected. Others suggested disfavouring Islamic headscarves was ‘Islamophobic’.
Johnson’s defenders, many of whom also hadn’t bothered to take a peek at his words, declared him a sincere critic of fundamentalism and — this was brave — a feminist. The fact that his research did not extend to learning the name of the veil in question — he confused the niqab with the burka — rather undermines his analysis. As for women’s lib, note that Johnson did not direct his crass one-liners at the clerics who enjoin women to cover their faces but at the women themselves.
Islamic beliefs and practices should be as open to criticism and ridicule as every other religion. Equally, though, politicians should not gratuitously insult a visible minority for their religious observance. Attack the veil, not the veiled.
Cynics are suspicious of the former Foreign Secretary’s sudden desire for a debate on Islam. As Brexiteers inside and outside Parliament agitate for Theresa May’s replacement, the notoriously ambitious Mr Johnson has seized on the most populist of issues and voiced views that, however much they may offend liberal hand-wringers among us, are shared by much of the public. Westminster watchers reckon a leadership challenge is under way.
The prospect of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister fills Remainers with terror. Guardian columnists, when they return from their Tuscan timeshares, will positively shudder. But the reactions of the Left are as nothing compared to the dread you hear from Tories closer to home.
This is what happens when you raise the possibility with key players in the Scottish Conservatives. A senior source said the impact on the party’s vote would be ‘unimaginably awful’. A prominent Tory predicted that Ruth Davidson would be unable to remain in post and even foresaw the Scottish party breaking away altogether. One MP quipped: ‘I’m sure he’d combine the roles of Prime Minister of Middle England and Leader of the Opposition marvellously’. Reached via WhatsApp, a high-ranking party insider replied with the emojis ‘flushed face’, ‘fearful face’ and ‘face screaming in fear’.
What prompts the Scottish Tories’ top tier to fear Johnson? Of course, there is bad blood between him and Ruth Davidson but it is about more than personalities. The sources I spoke to have many years and long memories in Conservative politics and view Johnson as a showman whose only principle is self-advancement. Boris, they say, believes in nothing but Boris. After all, this is the man who penned two drafts of the column announcing his stance on Brexit — one pro-EU, one anti.
Above all, they recognise Johnson as the UK Tory leader the SNP most wants. The Nationalists will have an opposition research file of biblical proportions, documenting his every snide dig at Scotland over the years. And they would hang him not only with his own words but with those of others. Between 1999 and 2005, Johnson was editor of the Spectator, where he made a habit of publishing salty polemics putting the benighted Jocks in their place.
One jeremiad read: ‘The English need to be a little less foolish as regards their none too appreciative Celtic cousins. A period of tough love might be a good idea.’ Another lamented ‘the tiny-mindedness that passes for patriotism in this woefully parochial little country’, while a third decried ‘the number of Scotch voices you now hear on the BBC… with their incomprehensible accents and bad manners’.
Calls for the Scottish Parliament to be shuttered were common. Scotland was more than once compared to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Our regiments struggled to recruit because ‘Scots simply don’t seem to want to fight any more, unless against each other or the English’.
This gloriously un-PC eye-poking delighted readers of Johnson’s Spectator but it would exact a heavy price on a Tory party that has slogged long and hard to convince voters it is not ‘anti-Scottish’.
Johnson as leader would hand the SNP its dream pantomime villain: an Old Etonian posh boy with little understanding of and even less interest in Scotland. While one of his Scottish critics admits privately that Johnson’s routine may not be ‘as unpopular in Scotland as [the Nationalists] think’, a party leader is not a turn. Politics is a serious business and more often about winning over your opponents than giving voice to your supporters.
Ruth Davidson has a sense of humour that would make a sailor blanch but she understands that she is a candidate for First Minister, not a Fringe revue. You don’t need to be outrageous to be effective. Recall the polite resolve with which Theresa May rebuffed Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Businesslike. No wisecracks. Got the job done.
True blue Tories sometimes forget that not all No voters are as staunch in their Unionism. For many Labour voters, it is purely a matter of pragmatism. These independence sceptics — traditionally Labour, voted SNP lately, hate the Tories, not keen on Corbyn — are the Unionist firewall that stands between Nicola Sturgeon and a separate Scotland. Foist Johnson on them and enough might just snap to shift the needle the crucial extra few points in the SNP’s direction. The Union is a lot to lose for a bit more colour in politics.
It should be noted, in the interests of fairness, that not everyone in the Scottish Tories shares the dominant view of Johnson. An MP stuck up for him as ‘a really decent, intelligent and humorous guy’, but argued that he ‘simply doesn’t have the numbers in the parliamentary party… If he had the numbers he would be leader by now’. This reading may be a little too pessimistic for Johnson’s enthusiasts. Margaret Thatcher was roundly written off when she announced her challenge to Ted Heath.
Many Conservative MPs hold Johnson in low regard but were he to make a formal bid for the leadership, they would come under immense pressure from their local members and association chairs to back the grassroots’ choice. Plenty of Scottish Tory generals would like to tell themselves that Johnson will never make it onto the battlefield but they know only too well that their Labour and Republican counterparts said the same of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump.
There are two interconnected facts at play here. The first is that Boris Johnson is very popular with the Tory base and a sizeable segment of the electorate. The party establishment sees this as a problem when it should be seizing on the opportunity to deploy this useful asset where he helps most: Middle England, Brexiteers, those who currently don’t vote but are attracted to populist politics. Johnson would not be easy to manage but managed well he could come in handy getting the Tories through Brexit and helping fend off the Corbyn threat.
The other fact is just as inescapable: Boris Johnson is electoral strychnine in Scotland and could poison not only the Scottish Tories but the future of the Union.
If the Tories talked to one another instead of shouting, they could grasp these two truths and make them work to their advantage. For now, though, they prefer to air their dirty laundry on the stairheid for all the neighbours to see.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image © Foreign Office (cc/2.0).