Kneejerk Libertarian

London Mayor Boris Johnson is no friend of freedom


"She incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair's Britain. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and health'n'safety fascism."

So wrote Tory Member of Parliament (MP) and newspaper columnist Boris Johnson in 2006, in a stinging attack on Polly Toynbee, The Guardian columnist and outspoken supporter of Britain's New Labour government. His Polly-bashing rant encapsulated everything that Boris claimed to loathe about Britain under New Labour: it was fearful, dull, killjoy, illiberal, hectoring, and bossy.

If Polly, impeccably middle-class and more than a little snooty, personified New Labour, then Boris—all shaggy blonde hair, accidental wit, and bumbling persona—personified the reaction against it. Polly wants order and respect and believes you can change the world by taxing fat cats an extra 5 or 10 percent. Boris wants fun and freedom and for the government to withdraw its snout from our everyday lives.

Or so some people believed. How foolish they were. On May 1, Boris was elevated from trouble-making columnist and MP to mayor of the great city of London—and in his first two weeks he has enforced the sort of miserabilist, petty authoritarian measures that will have Polly and her allies nodding enthusiastically as they read their morning papers over bowls of muesli.

First, Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown coated Britain in CCTV cameras, dished out Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO) to misbehaving kids, brought in new laws to limit free speech, and basically turned Britain into an open prison—and Boris berated them for it. As a libertarian myself (though of the left-leaning rather than the right-wing variety), I wrote numerous articles for Boris when he was editor of the The Spectator, attacking Blair's zero-fun, zero-tolerance approach to life, love, and liberty.

And yet, Boris's first actions as mayor have reeked to the high heavens of Blairite bossiness. The very first thing he did was ban the consumption of alcohol anywhere on London's public transportation system. As of June 1, it will be against the law to sip from a bottle of ale or swig from a can of lager on London buses, trams, and the Tube. Boris says his new law of mini-prohibition is designed to tackle "aggressive behaviour by drunken yobs."

This is the same Boris who once opposed New Labour's ban on smoking in public places. Despite what he says, it isn't true that London's trains and buses are awash with fist-waving drunks. Last year there were a whopping 1.6 billion passenger trips on the London Underground, and only 1,806 reported assaults. That is one assault for every 449,690 commuters, which makes London's tube system safer than Perth railways in sunny Australia, where last year there was one assault for every 222,360 commuters (This is worth pointing out because Brits have a tendency to move to "happy, peaceful" Australia when they tire of the crime and grime here at home).

As John Stuart Mill knew only too well, regulating the consumption of booze is really about regulating the people themselves. Mill argued that attempts by temperance groups and governments to diminish "the occasions of temptation"—by making booze expensive or shutting down pubs—were suited "only to a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages."

So it's a relief to see that some "savages" in London are rising up against Boris's illiberalism by organising an "Anti-Boris Tube Crawl." On the day the ban comes into force, a Facebook-based group of young radicals plans to get on the London Underground or bus network and drink with abandon. In their own words, they will "do a Rosa Parks and slur 'No I won't get off the fucking bus you fatuous Etonian fuckhead.'"

In his previous life, Boris also bemoaned the way young people were not allowed to kick back, relax, and experiment, but instead were expected—under threat of receiving an ASBO from the courts—to be well-behaved bores.

In 2005, he commissioned me to write an article about Britain's boring, pro-Blairite pop music scene, which "preached safety, caution, respectability and good manners" and turned youngsters into "good little Blairites even before they reach adulthood."

Now, Boris has joined the Blairites in declaring war on youth. He announced that young people who commit even minor misdemeanours on public transport will have their travel passes confiscated, and they won't get them back until they carry out some form of community service. Like a Stalinoid, he'll deny internal freedom of movement within London to any youngster who fails to behave in a Boris-approved fashion.

He used to refer to the fanatical sections of the environmentalist movement as a "new religion," whose adherents like the "sweet moralistic feeling of telling someone to stop doing something." Now he has banned London officials from taking internal flights in the UK because flying farts out too much CO2 into the environment.

Most shockingly, Boris is installing so-called "knife arches"—metal detectors to check if commuters are carrying weapons—in train and bus stations, and he might put them on busy streets, too. He wants to get rid of the "scourge" of rising knife crime. Like all authoritarian rulers, he has twisted the stats: knife crime in Britain is not rising. The most recent crime survey by the Metropolitan Police showed that knife crime has dropped by 15.7 per cent over the past two years, from 12,122 to 10,220 incidents.

Boris's "knife arches" send an important message about the shifting relationship between the state and the individual. If we must pass under a "knife arch" when we hop on a bus or even pop to the shops, then we are no longer free citizens—we are objects of suspicion and potential criminals. These arches, like his booze ban and his threats against misbehaving youth, will radically alter life in London, making its inhabitants feel even more watched and distrusted than we were under his Labourite predecessor, Ken Livingstone.

Why did so many observers, including some American libertarians, get Boris so wrong? The truth is that he was always a kneejerk libertarian—that is, his libertarianism was only a party-political reaction against the New Labour elite. His views were never founded on a trust in the masses to make wise choices and to live as they saw fit. Now that he is in power, Boris has ditched the anti-authority posturing in favour of pushing through his own authoritarian agenda. Londoners, I hope, will react with anger against his illiberal, intolerant regime.

Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked.