Johnson, Bannon, burqas and a struggling UK state

By Savi Hensman
August 12, 2018

A leading UK politician’s refusal to apologise for stoking anti-Muslim prejudice has made the headlines. Meanwhile public services are struggling and some local authorities are on the edge of bankruptcy.

Arguments about the burqa may shift attention away from the looming catastrophe caused by austerity. But both situations have exposed divisions in the governing party and ruling class. And the risk of serious economic and social disruption, worsened by Brexit, may open the door to a dangerous swing to the far right.

Councils and health service in trouble

Northamptonshire County Council has agreed huge cuts to services and jobs after facing insolvency. East Sussex Council is also planning drastic reductions in support), warning that families and voluntary organisations would have to take more responsibility for older people denied social care.

This is especially worrying since both are Conservative-run and Labour councils have tended to face far more drastic cuts in government funding, hitting poorest areas worst. Other local authorities may soon face similar crises , a concern highlighted by Eric Lewer, the Conservative MP for Northamptonshire South, among others .

The impact of council cuts is already hugely harmful nationally (and has sometimes led to even basic legal obligations not being met. The Children’s Commissioner recently warned that 1.5 million children might be being denied much-needed support. The findings of an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children confirms that children’s safety is being put at risk).

Adult social care has also been heavily cut. 1.4 million people over 65 now have some level of unmet need with basic personal care, such as getting dressed, Age UK found.

Statistics cannot convey the human cost for just one child waiting in terror for help that will never come or one frail adult repeatedly suffering squalor or thirst or lying injured on the floor for hours .

Meanwhile the heatwave has put the NHS under even heavier strain after years of austerity.

Despite a global crisis caused largely by failure properly to regulate the financial sector, tax cuts and loopholes for the rich and profitable corporations  have deepened social divisions. People requiring social security have been targeted for harsh treatment .

The most vulnerable in society have been harmed, with, some estimate, an average 100 extra deaths a day. Life expectancy growth has slowed to a near-standstill.

Against this background the government has launched a civil society strategy, with echoes of the previous prime minister’s failed ‘big society’ initiative. But volunteers and families are already overstretched and a modest amount of extra money will not allow them to do more than darn the odd hole in a garment which is falling apart.

Carers, millions of whom are older themselves are providing increasing amounts of care. Foodbanks are at risk of running out of essentials during school holidays. There is a limit to how much more is possible. And people would often rather enjoy companionship from family and neighbours than have to rely on their practical help to survive.

The prospect of leaving the European Union, together with earlier measures which have helped to create a ‘hostile climate’ for numerous migrants, is further affecting public services. And a ‘no deal’ Brexit (an increasing risk) could plunge society into chaos, with even food and medicines running short.

Stoking religious and racist prejudice

Against this background one of the main architects of the current Brexit mess, the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson used a newspaper column to mock Muslim women wearing niqabs or burqas as looking like letter boxes and bank robbers.

Amidst record levels of anti-Muslim hate crime, mainly by boys and men and directed against women, this verbal attack was condemned by many, including some fellow-Conservatives. There has been an apparent spike in abuse of Muslims since the remarks.

Johnson has a track record of making racist and misogynistic  as well as, in the past, homophobic comments. However, as Baroness Warsi pointed out, these remarks in a newspaper column were calculated to help him politically.

Indeed, he was cleverly able to appeal both to anti-Muslim extremists and some liberals. He was arguing that – though employers and service providers should be allowed to discriminate – burqas should not be banned, as in Denmark. Also it is true that these tend to be associated with more repressive strands of Islam, though it is hardly men’s business to dictate what women should wear. And he could claim to be exercising freedom of speech.

Fifty-three per cent of British adults do not think Boris Johnson should be disciplined for his comments, a ComRes poll for the 12 August 2018 Sunday Express showed, while 40 per cent did. There are stark differences among generations: 77 per cent of people aged 65+ are opposed to disciplining him while 62 per cent of 18-24 year olds are in favour. 60 per cent overall feel that freedom of speech is getting weaker.

Boris Johnson was tipped as a good potential prime minister by the US president Donald Trump and has been cultivated too by his former strategist, Steve Bannon, who has also praised, and been in contact with the MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has spoken out in defence of Johnson..

Bannon has been seeking to strengthen links with the European far right and almost a quarter of UK voters might now consider backing an openly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party. As he has suggested from US experience, condemning a politician for racism may do them more good than harm, if they appeal to economic nationalism.

Responding in difficult times

Public services and values such as respect for diversity are under attack, in ways that might have been hard to imagine forty or so years ago. Coalitions to try to defend people at most risk and democratic principles may be required. So too perhaps, are both courtesy and challenge in communicating with those not yet on the far right but to whom it appeals.

This may include acknowledging those Conservatives speaking out about what is harmful, even if this exposes them to political pressure or hate-speech themselves.

At the same time, continuing to highlight the damage done by austerity, the political principles behind it and the existence of viable alternatives may be important. That it has gone too far is widely acknowledged. But those responsible have largely got away with presenting it as a result of public overspending rather than of reckless policies which benefited the richest at everyone else’s expense.

Approaches to countering the kind of racism on the rise may be most effective if these are not too judgmental, but rather emphasise what people have in common. For instance, a woman in a burqa who is a cleaner or school cook is likely to face the same economic insecurity as her white neighbours, her stress made worse if politicians also badmouth her.

Rich ex-Etonians such as Johnson (reportedly one of the world’s highest-earning politicians and Rees-Mogg will be protected by their wealth if the NHS and social care collapse or Brexit causes economic and social chaos. However few are as fortunate, whether or not they are minority ethnic or Muslim.

Michael Nazir-Ali, a former Bishop of Rochester who has spoken at a UKIP conference , has used this controversy to push for a partial burqa ban. Current church leaders may wish to explain the risks to religious freedom of such a stance. It will be harder to oppose persecution of Christians abroad if abuse of state power over minority faith groups is treated as acceptable.

Making it clear that care by loved ones, faith-based and other community groups cannot replace adequate social security and public services may also be helpful. Indeed serving those in need and speaking out against their mistreatment, the pastoral and prophetic, often go together.

Promoting wider awareness of human rights (including political, social, cultural and economic rights) can bring together people of goodwill across various traditions. These are not enough – a comment may be lawful yet cruel – but can serve as a basis for deeper discussion on creating a more loving and peaceful world.

The spiritual damage to society when the most vulnerable are deprived of care, safety and respect is deep indeed. At the same time, a vision of a better UK, based not on some kind of racial or cultural ‘purity’ but rather compassion and justice, may help to unite people of goodwill across barriers.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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