Boris Johnson, pictured above, is just one of the many white, male politicians whose missteps we continuously forgive. gov.uk

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019, his premiership brought a breath of fresh air to Britain’s beleaguered Brexit negotiations. The British public fell for his unique mix of social liberalism, English nationalism and one-nation conservatism - seemingly forgetting the role he played in persuading Britain to leave the EU in the first place. His charisma set him apart from his predecessor Theresa May. Nine months later, after his unlawful prorogation of Parliament, the Conservative Party’s greatest victory ever in the 2019 general elections, a Brexit deal and the COVID19 pandemic, to describe his term as eventful would be an understatement.

The reality is that Johnson’s leadership throughout this tumultuous period in British history has been weak, blighted by controversies. He falsely claimed to a 2017 select committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman, was training journalists in Iran, which resulted in an Iranian court threatening to double her prison sentence. He made a comment about money being “spaffed up the wall” on investigations of historic child sex abuse allegations; suggested that Muslim women wearing niqabs resembled “letterboxes”; and let slip several other comments that have horrifying colonial overtones. In a time when Britain needs stability, Johnson’s personality politics have ushered in instability.

“[...] for all of Johnson’s blunders, he was never subjected to the same nationwide humiliation as May.”

Britain is not the first country to fall prey to a man with: blonde hair; a Daily Mirror worthy private life; a history of racism, sexism and homophobia; and a propensity for personality politics. After all, America elected Donald Trump as President in 2016. Johnson is rather like the grandfather who makes offensive comments that we all forgive because “he’s from another generation and doesn’t know any better”’. Johnson, however, has wielded immense influence in this country for a long time, as Mayor of London, Foreign Secretary and now Prime Minister. It is his duty to know better.

None of these blunders stopped him from being re-elected by British voters in December 2019, nor has his incompetent leadership since then deterred the public and the press from forming a veritable celebrity cult around him. After a bumper month where he almost died from COVID19, recovered, and welcomed a new baby, he is more popular than ever. If a female Prime Minister already had five children by three different fathers and had just welcomed her sixth child, would she receive the same congratulations on her new arrival? No - because we always forgive white male leaders for mistakes for which we would never forgive a female or BAME leader. Why do we let white men have it easier?

Our expectations of what makes a “good” leader are shaped by a history of exclusively white, male leadership in all Western societies. White male leaders have set the standard to which women and people of colour must now adhere . As they are already widely perceived as leaders, white men do not have to work as hard as women and people of colour to be viewed as a good leader. Despite the fact that Britain’s population is 51% female and 13.8% non-white (as of 2018), just 34% of MPs are female whilst just under 10% are non-white, of which a mere 5.4% are women of colour. This disparity does not exist because these groups are politically apathetic. It is because there is an omnipresent image problem in the British political establishment. By remaining a largely white, male domain, women and people of colour are more likely to remain discouraged from entering politics. By not holding white male leaders to as high of a standard as we do any other demographic, we not only generate a hostile environment for any woman or person of colour in power, but we also enable leaders like Johnson to bumble along on their path of incompetence.

“[...] had they been anything other than white men, in such a time of crisis, we would not be so forgiving.”

That is not to say that these men are never held accountable. Social media sites are fertile ground for the condemnation of men behaving badly- easily confirmed by a scroll through Twitter or Facebook. If you were to go off seething Tweets about Johnson’s handling of the COVID19 pandemic alone, you would probably form the impression that the British people were going to stage a coup. It is, however, only the mainstream media that can truly demand accountability. Unfortunately, this media is controlled by white men whose voices continue to resonate louder above those of others.

To those who may disagree with this argument: reflect upon Theresa May’s treatment during her tenure. Throughout her controversial term, she was persistently criticised by the press and public for everything from her personality, her private life and her clothes, to dancing to ABBA. Yet for all of Johnson’s blunders, he was never subjected to the same nationwide humiliation as May. The majority of criticisms of Johnson afford him a level of respect that was never shown to Theresa May: they focus on his policies, rather than his fashion sense. Society frequently rejoices in humiliating a female or BAME leader: remember the aggressive racist abuse received by Sadiq Khan or Diane Abbot? This only further proves our inability to extend our endless capacity to forgive and forget to women and people of colour in power.


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The cult of celebrity which now envelopes Johnson not only encapsulates his imported brand of personality politics already endemic in American political culture, but also, society’s systemic double standard. It is likely that Johnson and Trump will weather the storm of COVID19 relatively unscathed, and remain popular when it ends, just as they have done with all other controversies. But let us never forget that had they been anything other than white men, in such a time of crisis, we would not be so forgiving.

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