*Note: I wrote the following last week, and proposed it as a local newspaper column, but it hasn’t been accepted for print: this hopefully explains its rather explanatory/overview nature and the fact I couldn’t go into every avenue of discussion. I just thought I’d stick it up here, content for contents sake.
What is the point of winning power if you’ve had to set the country on fire in order to do it? That should be the question put to Boris Johnson, Zac Goldsmith and David Cameron after a string of increasingly dispiriting moments in British politics over the last week.
Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond, is the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. An apparently charming, independently-minded and serious man, he has allowed his campaign to appeal to the worst instincts of his potential voters. He is running against Sadiq Khan, the former Labour Minister and MP for Tooting, and the first Muslim to attend Cabinet. Khan is a moderate: a solicitor, he was Minister for Transport in Gordon Brown’s government, and holds middle-of-the-road policies on almost everything, although he did nominate Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership.
Goldsmith’s campaign has in recent weeks stepped up its attacks on Khan. Labelling him a ‘radical’ and ‘divisive’, without pointing to any policy proposals which even come close to deserving such rhetoric, Goldsmith has argued that Khan has given a “platform, oxygen and cover to people who are extremists”. His campaign targeted Hindu and Sikh voters with leaflets suggesting Khan will put an extra tax on their family jewellery. In Prime Minister’s Questions last week, David Cameron brought up Khan’s sharing of a platform with a controversial London imam as an example of his bad judgement and tolerance of extremism. Such baseless accusations stick to Muslim politicians in a very specific way.
As the Labour MP Chuka Umunna put it, the Goldsmith campaign is seeking to punish Khan for “committing the crime of being a Muslim and having been a human rights lawyer.” Khan has received significant opposition from conservative Muslims for his support of same-sex marriage, and is widely credited across the board for his work in trying to counter extremism.
But such guilt by association is a growing trend. If you are a leader in anti-racist or marginalised causes in poorer inner-city communities you will occasionally end up sharing a platform with people whose views are more extreme than your own. But surely it goes without saying that to sit next to them on a panel does not mean you support their views. Perhaps in a time of social media and instant guttural reaction, people hoping for political careers should be more careful, but such an approach will only make our politics more bland and narrow than it already is. (This was written before Naz Shah’s anti-Semitic statements were revealed, which is a whole other avenue of crap).
While these problems are dominant on the left, we should remember that the Conservative Party sits in the same European Parliament grouping alongside the True Finns and the Danish People’s Party, elected politicians with consistently despicable views. It should also be pointed out that the controversial imam in question, Suliman Gani, is a Conservative Party supporter.
In a similar tone, the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union has increasingly utilised such dog-whistle tactics. Those of us who follow British politics closely have come to expect such language from UKIP, but given the momentous decision to be made on July 23rd and the profound impact it will have on our society, the two official sides of the referendum are upping the ante.
The Remain campaign has been labelled Project Fear for the way it has sought to portray the potential economic ruin done to Britain in the wake of a Leave vote. But last Friday’s intervention in the Brexit debate from Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London, was a disgusting attempt to use the history of colonialism as a weapon to discredit the Remain campaign.
After President Barack Obama, who visited the UK last week to both honour the Queen’s 90th birthday and to intervene in the referendum campaign argued in the Daily Telegraph for Britain to vote Remain, Johnson wrote an article in The Sun in which he wrote of the “part-Kenyan” President’s “ancestral dislike of the British empire”.
To use the imagery of Obama’s Kenyan heritage as a driving reason for his hatred of Britain displays not only mystifyingly bad logic, but simply appeals to the lowest common denominator. It is akin to saying that Obama has African heritage and is therefore not worth listening to on the matter. Reducing the world’s most important man to his race is what we expect of Donald Trump supporters, not the current Mayor of London.
The London Mayoralty matters. While in Yorkshire we often rightly feel that the South dominates our political, economic and cultural life, and that the country would be a much healthier and spirited place to live in this power was more evenly spread, we cannot deny London’s position as a global powerhouse. It is perhaps the world’s premier city.
And for London to be led by a Muslim man at a time when the division between the West and the Islamic world has never seemed more precarious, and when a putrid inversion of Islam is being used as an excuse for genocide across Iraq and Syria, could there be a better symbol of our moral superiority over the butchers of Daesh? This isn’t mere tokenism or diversity for diversity’s sake: Khan would genuinely be a better Mayor than Goldsmith, someone who seems to understand both the challenges and opportunities offered by Britain, especially to younger, diverse communities in the twenty-first century. But we cannot deny the symbolic potential of such a victory.
In politics, fighting a good fight is important. The battle of ideas, played out in public, is good for democracy and good for education. Thankfully, recent polls have shown Khan with a 20-point lead over Goldsmith. London’s position as a place of tolerance looks assured. It’s a city with a lot of problems, many of with Khan’s party helped create, but in a two horse race, it’s clear who we should want to gallop to victory.