Comment: Boris disgraces himself with protest evictions
The London Mayor is developing a reputation for authoritarianism and inaction. The Parliament Square eviction is his most disgraceful move so far.
By Ian Dunt
Quick. Think of something Boris Johnson has achieved as London Mayor. Strange, isn’t it? Nothing comes to mind. Under the pressure of my own challenge, I have emerged with three policies: the ban on drinking on public transport, the failure to put up screens for the World Cup and the eviction of demonstrators in Parliament Square.
Each of these actions reveals a political attitude which can best be described as paternal, although in truth it is pure authoritarianism. It’s an approach quite at odds with the libertarian spirit Boris’ one-man PR machine implies. The bumbling mayor has always used this charming persona of his to accomplish political goals.
As anyone who watches TV knows, he comes across as smart, ditsy, amiable, entertaining, good natured and liberal. Indeed, some of those liberal impressions appear to be genuine, most notably his attitude to immigration, where Boris is pro-amnesty and anti-cap. But scratch beneath the surface and these are really just pro-business policies. Boris wants labour to flow as easily as capital. Those who are responsibly pro-immigration know you need a robust trade union movement to make sure it is not used simply to drive down domestic wages. Whatever else he is, Boris is not sympathetic to trade unions.
Peer long enough into his record, and you’ll find plenty of suspicious views. His track record on gay rights is staggeringly dodgy. The one moment of genuine emotion I’ve seen from him came during a hustings event organised by pinknews.co.uk during the mayoral race, in which the site’s then editor, Tony Grew, managed to provoke a table-thumping outburst from the Mayor-to-be. How? Well Boris was being openly mocked by the audience for defending Section 28 on the basis that it meant there would be less interference in teaching. As informed readers will know, Section 28 was specifically designed to interfere with the education system, to try and make sure children never realised that homosexuality is an entirely natural and healthy state of affairs.
The first decision Boris took as mayor, to ban alcohol on the Tube, was pointless and authoritarian. It was also straight PR. No expert called for it and no evidence demanded it. Drinks are not the threat on public transport. Angry young men with nothing to lose are the problem, and preventing them drinking on the Tube isn’t going to solve anything. The problems are vastly more complex than a beer on the underground. This was a stunt, but one which had the consequence of taking away a little more freedom from Londoners. It’s hardly a fundamental right, drinking on public transport, but I’m one of those old fashioned sorts who felt tremendously proud when friends from abroad came over and marvelled at the fact we could do so. “That’s what a free country looks like,” I used to think smugly. Smug self-satisfaction can be a foolish trait in modern Britain.
Similarly, most political journalists failed to get particularly het-up at the absence of large public screens in London for the World Cup, especially after England handed in another heart-shreddingly poor performance. But this sight of Boris watching the game in South Africa while Londoners were denied their screens was affecting. Other major UK cities seemed to find a way to provide this facility for the greatest communal experience the world offers. The capital apparently wasn’t. The excuse – that there were public safety and organisational repercussions – had little weight, especially since City Hall officials told us they would install them for the quarter finals (this was later changed to the semis. England fans may now scoff.) If there were public safety concerns for the group stages, wouldn’t they be more severe for the quarter finals? Why were there organisational problems for an event planned a decade in advance? The sense is that Boris is instinctively wary of the public – the emotions football and the World Cup raises. Every action reveals the dirt beneath the squeaky-clean veneer and reveals an authoritarian disposition.
Today the court of appeal rejected an action by protesters camped outside parliament. This is by far the most serious of his mistakes. He’s not alone of course. There’s an army of grumpy old men screaming at the need to clear up Parliament Square of the newly-formed Democracy Village, where anarchists, environmentalists, peace activists and a few looneys have gathered to use their right to free speech. Every argument against the camp begins with the assertion that it’s fine to protest. Straight after that it contradicts itself. They can’t help it, because the Democracy Village is doing nothing wrong. The only coherent argument you could possibly devise is that it is not OK to protest, but that’s plainly unacceptable. So instead an entirely fallacious argument is presented as reason. Boris’ approach, to my considerable mirth, has been to concentrate on the grass. Today, with a straight face, he had this to say: “I think it’s wonderful that as a city we can protest. But it is nauseating what they are doing to the lawn.”
Democracy is a messy business. It doesn’t always clean up after itself, and it rarely has the funds to appear as pretty as the palace of Westminster. Give that I work in the reporters lobby in parliament, I am particularly affected by the angry ranting of protesters outside. There is one woman in particular – I have no idea who she is – who spends most of her week screaming about Afghanistan through a megaphone. It is unspeakably annoying. But that’s one of the things you have to accept about free speech: it isn’t always Martin Luther King, sometimes it’s a nutter with a megaphone.
And beyond these actions, what has Boris done? Can you think of anything? There’s nothing, no achievement whatsoever. These acts are all we have to judge him on.
London is the greatest city on earth, a thriving, freedom-loving experiment in global living. It deserves better.
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