Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

When, in May, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson gives up his role as Tory MP for the Spectator to take over from Michael Heseltine as the editor of Henley-on-Thames, you have to wonder where they’re going to find someone sufficiently blond to be his successor at Doughty Street (from which sturdy address the organ Johnson currently oversees emerges each week). Blondness might be thought to matter to the Conservatives of south Oxfordshire: what better tonic for the blue-rinse brigade than to trade in Tarzan’s greying mane for Boris’s floppy fair fringe, even if it is less full-bodied than Hezza’s? Johnson’s new job ought perhaps to worry William Hague, who peaked in the hair stakes when he was 16. But why should blondness be important to a serious periodical like the Spectator?

In a recent number of the rag (6 January) there’s an article by Big Boris defending William Macpherson, ‘a keen old buzzard’, against right-wing accusations that his report into the case of Stephen Lawrence, with its ‘Ceausescu-ish recommendation that it should be possible to legislate against racism even in a private place’, is yet another instance of ‘the race relations industry’ and ‘political correctness gone mad’. (Criticism didn’t come only from the Right: see, for example, John Upton’s piece in the LRB, 1 July 1999.) The accusations Johnson had in mind might include an article about Macpherson by a certain Boris Johnson that appeared in the Guardian last February – in which the author wondered how ‘this sober old buzzard’ could recommend a change in the law which compared unfavourably with ‘Ceausescu’s Romania’. He must assume that not many people read both the Guardian and Spectator, and he’s probably right. (He also, incidentally, assumes that all Guardian readers are white.)

Johnson’s attempt to rehabilitate Macpherson with the Spectator’s readers is sadly revealing. We are reminded of the laird’s pedigree (chief of the Macpherson clan), schooling (Wellington and Oxford), Army career (commander in the SAS) and record as a High Court judge (‘cheerfully bunging illegal immigrants back on the plane’). Johnson quotes Macpherson as telling him: ‘Asylum-seekers are one thing, but there are a tremendous number of people who come in legitimately.’ Maybe the word ‘bogus’ was excised by an editor, but either way it’s doublethink. Johnson questions Macpherson about the ‘Ceausescu-ish recommendation’. I agree with Boris that it would be an infringement of civil liberties, but Macpherson – though we mustn’t forget that the account of the discussion is Johnson’s – is only worried about the civil liberties of a certain sector of the population: ‘if there is no way private racism could be dealt with, because it would spill over into dinner parties, then of course we would abandon it.’ In other words, it’s all right to express racist opinions as long as you do it in a comfortable and crusty context – like, say, the Spectator.

The interview with Macpherson is followed by an article on immigration by David Coleman (the reader in demography at Oxford rather than the sports commentator). He is worried that ‘a long national tradition, developed over many centuries, could diminish for no better reason than its inability to control its own borders.’ It isn’t clear how a national tradition is supposed to control its borders, but that’s beside the point; whatever Coleman means, he isn’t talking about the age of imperial expansion, when Britain was nothing short of incontinent in the matter of keeping its borders under control. He is outraged at the ‘unique ability of non-UK citizens from the Commonwealth to vote in national elections’ which translates ‘immigration promptly into political power’, conveniently overlooking the origins of the Commonwealth and the ability of the British Army to translate invasion into political power. The ‘tradition’ he considers to be under threat has lasted ‘for the first two millennia of the Christian epoch’. This covers, at the very least, invasion by the Romans, waves of Scandinavians and Germans (including the English) and the Normans; and a fair few changes in language and religion. Nonetheless, it is a ‘continuing community’. It would appear that David Coleman is happy enough with immigration as long as it is undertaken with violence by whites.

‘Growing immigrant populations constantly reinforce deprivation and the need for urban regeneration,’ Coleman assures us. It’s not at all clear that this is the case, but even if it were, does he really believe that curbing immigration would at a stroke regenerate Britain’s inner cities and put an end to poverty?

In response to his parochial tract, brimming with nostalgia for a heritage neverland and emaciated by its impoverished sense of history, one word springs to mind, for ever linked to his Grandstand namesake by Private Eye: balls.

PS: The following week’s edition of the Spectator, arriving at the LRB as we go to press, carries no letters responding to Coleman. There is, however, a reply to Johnson’s article: a piece in which Martin Mears ‘takes Boris Johnson to task for having deviated from a right-wing orthodoxy on the Lawrence report’. Audi alteram partem? If only.