This is not a defence of Boris Johnson. He is more than capable of defending himself, although it is curious that his “part-Kenyan” piece in the Sun which got him into such trouble seems to have been read by and infuriated so many people who normally say they do not read the Sun. It cannot be, surely, that they saw one or two quotes extracted on Twitter and on the basis of that “gotcha” moment decided to unleash years of pent up fury over Johnson’s popularity. No, they must have made an exception, bought the Sun, read it, got to the part-Kenyan line, and been appalled by what they read.
Incidentally, why is “part-Kenyan” (how Boris described Obama) thought to be an insult when it clearly isn’t? President Obama has hardly made a secret of it. On a trip to Kenya he described himself as a Kenyan-American president. His interest in and admirable pride in his heritage even formed the basis of a book, Dreams of my Father.
Ah, said critics, but Boris was using it to suggest Obama has a dislike of Britain that is ancestral in origin, and that is supposedly a racist dog whistle. Is it? No, of course not, in normal circumstances. Obama’s attitude to Britain is a perfectly legitimate area of interest to Britons. His attitude seemed eight years ago at best ambivalent, although as a global superstar and fame expert he seems to like us more now that he has got to know the Queen, who is an even bigger star than he is. In all manner of ways large and small – through his pivot to Asia, or his insulting gift of a bunch of DVDs to Gordon Brown – his actions suggested that he thought Britain was an ex-Empire that was kind of cute in parts but ultimately not up to much.
It is not bizarre to suggest that the terrible treatment meted out to Obama’s family in Kenya might have contributed to shaping his thinking about Britain, along with his reaction to Iraq and assessment of shifts in power towards China. It is legitimate to discuss this, because it effects us, just as one could speculate on why FDR – a very grand WASP not fond of British condescension and power – thought the British empire had to be ended and replaced with American influence.
Ah, but Obama’s mother was of English descent, so why isn’t that thought relevant? I don’t know, ask Obama why he didn’t write Dreams of my Mother and set the final third on an emotional return visit to Preston.
Regardless of the silliness of the row, Boris should not have written the piece at all in the middle of a referendum. He made the mistake of forgetting that these are not normal times and referendums drive people mad on both sides. Phrases have to be chosen with extreme care by leading participants rather than rattled off as part of just another 1000 words done with the subs screaming for copy. In that respect, the episode may have enduring consequences for Boris’s career. If leading politicians are often undone in the end by what began being their strength (Thatcher’s conviction that she was right for example) then this excess of hackery (at which Boris is the master) may have given his enemies the ammunition they need to stop him becoming Tory leader. We’ll see.
But the Kenyan row did obscure another referendum sub-plot that deserves some attention. In a speech last week Michael Gove cited Albania among a long list of countries that trade with the EU while not being in it (although Albania is in the queue to join). Albania is not in the European Economic Area either, but wants to join. Cue derision from the Remain campaign. An advert was produced which the Remainers have pushed out with glee on social media.
The Leave Campaign want us to leave Europe and be like Albania. There’s nothing British about Brexit. pic.twitter.com/gOp2wRuKi8
— Stronger In (@StrongerIn) April 24, 2016
It features the red Albanian flag flying above Buckingham Palace, with the sneering slogan declaring: “The Leave Campaign want us to quit the single market and be like Albania. Seriously.”
Why is it assumed to be acceptable to be rude about Albania? Here I am going to defend the honour of the Albanian people and explain why they deserve our friendship and understanding, rather than crude insults by smug, metropolitan Remain campaigners who are forever lecturing others about xenophobia.
To put it mildly, Albania has not had its historical troubles to seek. It is in a geographical position that made it ideal for being trampled over by major powers. As the Ottoman empire disintegrated it became independent, although this was not a happy experience either as it was economically under-developed and riven by factional politics. Then the Italians invaded in 1939. The Fascist occupation was followed by a period of occupation by Nazi Germany. As though matters could not get any worse, after the Second World War a bunch of particularly stupid, brutal, cruel Communists took over and set about turning the place into one of the most backward economies on earth, while banning religion and torturing people.
The path out of Communism since 1989 has hardly been smooth either. The new governing class bankrupted the country with a series of crazed financial schemes in the 1990s, during which time Albania’s greatest export was billed as organised crime. Actually, a lot of law-abiding Albanians had had enough. A third of the population (1.25m) left for a new start in Italy, Greece and other parts of Europe. Eventually after numerous changes of government, the place got in the the queue for the EU and tourism has boomed in the last decade. In short, the Albanians have had a pretty awful time of it in the last century, and it has usually not been of their own making. Yet the Remain campaign thinks they are fair game and worthy of mockery of a kind that if it came from Nigel Farage would be denounced by the Guardian.
Remain campaign, you owe Albania an apology.