Critics of Boris Johnson were quick to seize on the fact that when Beth Rigby, the political editor of Sky News, asked a question at his launch yesterday she was jeered by some of his supporters. Jessica Simor QC, an opponent of Brexit, tweeted: ‘The road to fascism – their boos at Beth Rigby made me shiver.’ Referring to the same incident, professor Colin Talbot asked: ‘How long before he goes full Trump and starts talking about Fake News?’
Had Rigby been non-partisan, these complaints might have some merit. But the words she used when she was jeered made it sound as if she was siding with Boris’s opponents. You can listen to her question here:
'People who have worked with you do not think you are fit to be prime minister.'@BethRigby challenges @BorisJohnson on his previous controversial comments. He apologises for any offence caused but says he'll "continue to speak as direct as I can".https://t.co/qOl9lhpMhe pic.twitter.com/Umw3qLpOWa
— Sky News Politics (@SkyNewsPolitics) June 12, 2019
It was Rigby’s claim that Boris ‘brought shame’ on his party by describing burka-wearing Muslim women as letter-boxes and bank robbers that prompted the dissenting noises (‘boos’ is too strong). She didn’t say, ‘There have been suggestions that…’ or ‘Some of your colleagues believe that…’ No. She stated, categorically, that his comments had ‘brought shame’ on the Conservative party.
Whether you share that view or not, it was inappropriate for the political editor of Sky News to express it so trenchantly, given Ofcom’s requirement that television news should be presented with ‘due impartiality’.
It would be one thing if there was something approaching a consensus about Boris’s burka comments within the Conservative party. But there isn’t. On the contrary, the party chairman appointed an independent panel to investigate the matter and it completely exonerated him, saying he had been ‘respectful and tolerant’.
Let’s not forget that they were made in a newspaper column in which Boris was arguing against the decision of the Danish government to ban the burka. Far from being evidence of his ‘fascism’ or ‘Islamophobia’, that piece was an illustration of how socially liberal he is. ‘A total ban is not the answer,’ he wrote.
Admittedly, Boris is no fan of the burka – but, again, that is for impeccably liberal reasons. Here is the key paragraph from his column:
If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran. I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes; and I thoroughly dislike any attempt by any – invariably male – government to encourage such demonstrations of ‘modesty’, notably the extraordinary exhortations of President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, who has told the men of his country to splat their women with paintballs if they fail to cover their heads.
Not long ago, expressing your misgivings about the burka would have been an uncontroversial position to take among the liberal intelligentsia. Indeed, many second-wave feminists were passionately opposed to the veil, including Dr Phyllis Chesler, who wrote a book about the rampant misogyny she encountered in Kabul as the 20-year-old bride of a Muslim man.
But in the past few years it has become fashionable for the metropolitan Left to rank Muslims above women in the intersectional hierarchy of oppression. That would explain why the recent protests against the veil by women in Iran received so little support from feminists in the West and why a Reuters poll of woke academics and policy experts ranked America as the tenth most dangerous country in the world for women last year, above several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.
What about the offence that Boris’s remarks about the burka supposedly caused? If some Muslim women were offended by those comments, they should grow a thicker skin. Britain has a long and celebrated tradition of taking the Mickey out of religion, from the Pardoner’s Tale to the Life of Brian. Indeed, ridiculing people for their excessive moral piety, whether religious or secular, is one of the things that has prevented fascism from making much headway in this country.
I don’t see why Boris should face censure for offending Muslims any more than the Pythons should have faced censure for offending Christians. As John Cleese said, no one has the right not to be offended.
So let’s not hear any more about Boris having ‘brought shame’ on his party for his burka gags. I still haven’t made up my mind between him and Michael Gove, but the fact that he drives members of the holier-than-thou Brahmin Left so completely doolally – let’s call it ‘Boris Derangement Syndrome’ – is an excellent reason to support him.