In this article Phil Scraton recalls a defining month in the career of Boris Johnson that laid bare his deep-seated prejudices, disregard for factual accuracy and self-serving arrogance.
On 7 October 2004 Ken Bigley, a civil engineer, was beheaded in Iraq by Islamic extremists. Just two days later a respectful silence was held in his home city, Liverpool. It was a death that resonated throughout the city and across the region, resulting in many public expressions of sympathy. In an editorial on 16 October 2004 the editor of the Spectator, Boris Johnson, condemned the ‘mawkish sentimentality of a society that has become hooked on grief and likes to wallow in a sense of vicarious victimhood’. He derided ‘according [Mr Bigley] the same respect offered annually to the million and a half British servicemen who have died for their country since 1914’.
Accepting that Mr Bigley had witnessed the decapitation of two fellow hostages, a fate to which he knew he was consigned, Johnson opined that a ‘sense of proportion’ had been lost. He dismissed the public, collective mourning of this single death as an ‘extreme reaction fed by the fact that he was a Liverpudlian’. The city shared a ‘tribal sense of community’, its people possessed by ‘an excessive predilection for welfarism’, reflecting ‘a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche’.
Central to this generic pathological condition was, Johnson declared, the fact that ‘whenever possible’ Liverpudlians self-defined ‘as victims’. They ‘resent their victim status’, he opined, yet they ‘wallow in it’. A key element in their ‘flawed psychological state’ was a profound failure ‘to accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes’. Liverpudlians, he railed, consistently ‘blame someone else’, thus ‘deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society’. On what foundation did Johnson build his scurrilous attack on the collective integrity of a city’s people?
Repeating Hillsborough lies
Johnson’s calumnies came fifteen years after 96 men, women and children, many from Liverpool, were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough. The editorial continued that the ‘deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters’ had been ‘undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley’. Yet, ‘that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon’.
Not content deliberately resurrecting the myths of drunkenness, hooliganism and violence that had dogged successive inquiries and investigations, Johnson laid bare his ignorance and prejudice, the twin characteristics of his lazy journalism. In his narrow mind the South Yorkshire Police had become ‘a convenient scapegoat’ and the Sun ‘a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident’.
According to The Sun ticketless fans had rushed the stadium, stolen from the dying, beaten up and urinated on a police officer who was administering first aid and verbally sexually abused a dying woman. Such unfounded allegations were not ‘tasteless hints’ but were lies orchestrated in the immediate aftermath and given credibility by the South Yorkshire Police Federation, senior police officers and the Sheffield MP Irving Patnick.
Returning to Mr Bigley, Johnson questioned why he had sought ‘to make a living by undertaking work in one of the most dangerous areas on the planet’. It had been a decision taken ‘against the express advice of the Foreign Office’. He had lived ‘with a pair of Americans’, seemingly ‘unconcerned about his personal security’. Mr Bigley’s choice, Johnson opined, should ‘temper the outpouring of sentimentality’.
Such mawkishness reflected a ‘form of behaviour’ that had been ‘kick-started in this country’ following the death of Princess Diana, a woman he considered ‘an even more ambiguous figure’. Apparently ‘more ambiguous’ than Mr Bigley. Johnson disparaged public expressions of collective grief as a ‘manifestation of our apparently depleted intelligence and sense of rationality’ together boding ‘extremely badly for this country’.
According to Johnson, this creeping malaise was rooted in twin conditions of ‘peace and welfarism’. Together they had delivered ‘a society where the blame and compensation cultures go hand in hand’, where ‘modern-day buccaneers seem determined to go about their activities not merely unprepared for the likely consequences, but indignant about them’. What had to be excised was ‘the cancer of ignorant sentimentality’. Johnson’s editorial was crass and hurtful.
The public outrage that followed led the leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard, to insist that Johnson visit Liverpool to apologise. Johnson characterised his trip as a ‘penitential pilgrimage’. Having arrived in the city, his ‘heart in his boots’, he felt trapped in ‘a cold, damp three-star hotel’, afraid to venture out for fear of being ‘beaten up’. He could not bring himself to sign a book of condolence honouring Mr Bigley as it would be dismissed as ‘playing politics’. In Liverpool no-one was convinced of Johnson’s remorse.
His 23 October 2004 Spectator column was headed ‘What I should apologise for’. His dismissive tone, his casual ignorance – characteristically masked by occasional Latin asides that impress no-one other than contemporaries at the notorious Bullingdon Club – were evident in his crass representation of his reluctant trip as ‘Operation Scouse-grovel’. During the course of a ‘companionable and bibulous ceremony’, aka lunch, he had been castigated by the Spectator’s media editor for succumbing to political pressure to venture north. Johnson portrayed himself a ‘whipped cur’, granting his critic a ‘sizeable rise’.
Following the ‘firestorm of hate that had engulfed the Spectator’, Johnson mused that his Liverpool trip had given the impression of a ‘penitential pilgrimage at the behest of a party leader’. Demonstrating regret falling well short of remorse, he compounded his initial offensive behaviour. While, he mused, ‘welfare-addicted Liverpudlians’ might well exist, it had been ‘wounding and wrong to suggest that this stereotype’ was applicable across the city. Further, it had been ‘sloppy to repeat the old canard that the Hillsborough tragedy was caused by drunken fans’.
Yet Johnson steadfastly refused to accept that his editorial had been wholly inaccurate and offensive. Such a climb-down ‘would require me to perform a kind of auto-prefrontal lobotomy’. He defended the central premise that ‘bogus sentiment, self-pity, risk’ generated a shared ‘refusal to see that we may sometimes be the authors of our misfortunes’. The public expressions of grief at the deaths of Mr Bigley and the 96 at Hillsborough together reflected the ‘tendency to blame the state’.
The meaning of Johnson’s broadside now became clear. We live, he wrote, at a time when ‘means-tested benefits multiply, and where good human emotions and affections that might once have been directed towards neighbours and family are now diverted into outbursts of sentimentality’. Warming to his reactionary theme he reiterated the reactionary tropes that since have remained his stock-in-trade at Tory Party conferences.
Collectively ‘we’ eagerly ascribe to ourselves ‘victim’ status inducing an ‘increasingly hysterical health-and-safety compensation culture’. He condemned journalists as ‘scaremongers’, politicians ‘cowards’ and judges ‘muddled’. Johnson’s parting shot was to ‘heartily and sincerely apologise for offence caused’ and ‘for the tasteless inaccuracies with which the point was made’. Yet the ‘point’, he asserted, remained valid.
Behind a veneer of class privilege Boris Johnson is neither buffoon nor intellectual. Successive political gaffes and economic failures as London’s mayor or as the state’s foreign secretary, mega-lies proclaimed on Brexit hoardings and the ‘battle-bus’, profoundly offensive comments directed at victims and survivors alongside his numerous personal indiscretions, reveal a whited sepulchre. Weak on detail, careless with facts and consistently insincere, fifteen years on from his Liverpool sojourn his crass insensitivity and provocative outpourings continue undiminished.
Phil Scraton is Emeritus Professor, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, primary author of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report, author of Hillsborough: The Truth. He holds the Freedom of the City of Liverpool.