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Barnie Choudhury: Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Tanmanjeet Dhesi
Tanmanjeet Dhesi

THERE are political moments when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and don’t settle for some time. Lord (Geoffrey) Howe’s resignation speech in 1990 was one. It started the downfall of the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday (4), it happened again.

Not the exchanges between Boris Johnson, in his first PMQs, and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but the intervention of the Slough MP, turban-wearing (and this is relevant) Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi.

In a ninety-second impassioned tour de force, scattered with rare applause from seated parliamentarians, Dhesi challenged Johnson twice. First, asking the prime minister to apologise for his ‘racist’ comments, describing Muslim burka-wearing women as ‘letter boxes’ and ‘robbers’. Second, asking when he would open an investigation into his party into Islamophobia, as promised on national television.

Of course, the prime minister answered neither point. Instead, he urged Dhesi to read his offending column, and said it was a defence of ensuring people could wear what they wanted. Further, he brushed off the need for an apology because of his Muslim heritage, Sikh relations and his ‘diverse’ Cabinet.

So, job done. Nothing to see here. Let’s move on. Erm, not quite. You see, I took the prime minister at his word and went back and read that column. It was about Denmark’s decision to ban the burka, and his disagreement of that move. Johnson is such a fantastic wordsmith and verbal-gymnast that he can bamboozle anyone. Beneath the bumbling schoolboy act is a fierce intellect, but, unfortunately, a show-off.

It reminds me of George Orwell’s wonderful 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble,” he wrote. “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

Let us examine Johnson’s column. The headline sums up the prime minister’s position: ‘Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it’. That alone should have been enough to state his intent and position. It is opinion, and something with which many south Asian Muslims will agree. But context is everything in any form of writing, and it is important we read the words before and after the comments which offend so many.

“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.”

Johnson went on: “If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask her to remove it so that I could talk to her properly. If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct.”

He concluded: “But such restrictions are not quite the same as telling a free-born adult woman what she may or may not wear, in a public place, when she is simply minding her own business.”

Johnson has 800 words to get his opinion over and persuade others to read what he thinks. I defend his right to offend, but he does not have a right to incite racial and religious hatred.

My conclusion is that he was trying too hard to be clever, and in doing so he consciously crossed the line into incitement to racial hatred. Johnson’s language gives permission to others, who are not as nuanced, intelligent or influential, to attack others by racist name-calling or physical abuse.

If a bright, white, political leader can do this, why not me? No matter how much he protests that he did not intend to use racist imagery, Johnson is too clever not to know otherwise.

Further, it is shameful that his ‘diverse’ Cabinet, with three south Asian full-time members, have failed to call him out on it. Johnson needs to apologise and put things right.

Saying sorry doesn’t need to be the hardest word. With the current turmoil in his party, now is the best time to investigate and weed out the racists who damage it. Admitting you are wrong is a strength, and it will win the Tories new supporters.