Maya Goodfellow is a research assistant at SOAS University of London and a freelance writer. She is the author of the upcoming book “Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats.”
An Eton-educated man whose career is a showreel of ineptitude and orchestrated blunder, heaped with a huge dose of confidence. This is how you might describe Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson. The people around him aren’t much better. Celebrated for being “diverse,” his picks for the country’s “Great Offices of State” are united by their regressive views. Together, they represent some of the major problems in this country: an outdated class system, entrenched privilege and a fixation on diversity over racial equality. They are exactly the opposite of what Britain needs.
It’s difficult to understate how calamitous Johnson’s government could be. Not unlike his presidential counterpart in the United States, Britain’s new prime minister comes from the elite, purports to be a man of the people and has used flagrant racism and homophobia when he thinks it might be good for his image. Though he differs from President Trump in his pitch as a supposed “one nation” Conservative, he’s already been called “Britain Trump” by the president himself.
Johnson’s saving grace, some seem to suggest, is that he has a diverse cabinet and ministers of Asian origin in the country’s most powerful political jobs. But representation can only get you so far. Priti Patel and Sajid Javid, the newly appointed home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer, respectively, don’t represent a step forward for people of color. As the new prime minister talked negatively of Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” heritage, the austerity package they supported was impacting low-income women of color harder than almost any other group in the country.
Johnson is now flanked by a home secretary who voted for stricter asylum laws, a foreign secretary who inflamed anti-immigration feeling by misleadingly claiming migration had raised house prices by more than 20 percent in a quarter-century, and a chancellor of the exchequer who tried to strip a woman of her citizenship years after she joined Islamic State as a child and ultimately left her newborn baby to die in a refugee camp. The concern is that they’ll further normalize hate and put visible minorities at risk.
That’s not all. Johnson’s government might talk big about fixing Britain’s deep socioeconomic problems — including our underfunded schools or rising level of in-work poverty — and claim they’ll “get Brexit done,” but they have been in government in some form or another for nine years producing these very problems. From tax cuts for the rich and austerity for everyone else, to the “hostile environment” and the housing crisis, the Conservative Party has implemented policies that have deepened and entrenched inequality.
So far, Johnson’s vaguely articulated promises consist of more tax cuts for the rich, a bump to the education budget that is less than they have taken out of it in the past nine years and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. His cabinet is a mix of Brexit true believers, xenophobia-peddlers and people so wedded to “free market economics” that they believe workers’ rights get in the way of economic growth. It’s easy to see how they would make poverty and inequality worse.
Yet this is also about what their ascendancy means for politics as a whole. Trying to fend off the far-right Brexit Party — headed by the former stockbroker and self-styled “man of the people” Nigel Farage — Johnson and his cabinet seem determined to turn the political dial even further to the right. Positioning themselves as nationalists with little concern about what that might mean for the United Kingdom and all of its constituent parts, they have embraced exclusionary politics that prioritizes the few over the many — and set a terrifying precedent for the country.
Moreover, throughout the leadership contest and in his first few days in office, Johnson has channeled a kind of “can do” attitude toward Brexit that harks back to the days of empire. By implying he’ll restore the country to its supposed former glory, he is almost harnessing a British version of “Make America Great Again” nostalgia. And he is no stranger to romanticizing colonialism.
But the Britain of then was not as benevolent or positive as he would have us believe, amassing wealth and power through violence, racism and exploitation. And the Britain of now, with its industry largely shattered, its importance reduced and a world economy structured around trade deals and partnership, couldn’t “go it alone” if it wanted to. Johnson’s vision of the country, which idealizes Winston Churchill and projects himself as the person to embody him again, is one that glorifies the worst aspects of our history and distracts from our reality.
In a country that already struggles to come to terms with its imperial past — never mind its imperial present — where children’s futures are being destroyed by disastrous economic policies and immigrants are still subject to policies that are designed to project and produce hostility, a Johnson-led government is a very worrying and dangerous thing indeed.